Sorry, David Brooks, but we can't blame Trump's ascendance on "anti-politics" -- it's class politics

It's class politics -- led by the 1 percent -- that has brought us 40 years of government-bashing and deregulation

Published February 29, 2016 11:59PM (EST)

David Brooks  (PBS)
David Brooks (PBS)

In his latest column, "The Governing Cancer of Our Time," New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks tries to explain Donald Trump's rise as a presidential candidate.

The cancer Brooks refers to is not Trump himself but what he calls "anti-politics." Brooks didn't invent this term but he uses it to advance ideas he's been pushing for many years, and some of those ideas have merit. Brooks observes that in a diverse society, "[t]here are essentially two ways to maintain order and get things done in such a society -- politics or some form of dictatorship. Either through compromise or brute force." Politics, he correctly points out, involves compromise among interests that respect each other's right to exist and agree to play by the same rules. It involves debate and dialogue.

Brooks laments that in American politics, we no longer seem to be able to engage in rational debate, engage in compromise, and agree to disagree by following the same rules. In frustration, Brooks notes:

We're now at a point where the Senate says it won't even hold hearings on a presidential Supreme Court nominee, in clear defiance of custom and the Constitution. We're now at a point in which politicians live in fear if they try to compromise and legislate. We're now at a point in which normal political conversation has broken down. People feel unheard, which makes them shout even louder, which further destroys conversation.

How did we get to this point? Here is Brooks' explanation:

Trump is the culmination of the trends we have been seeing for the last 30 years: the desire for outsiders; the bashing style of rhetoric that makes conversation impossible; the decline of coherent political parties; the declining importance of policy; the tendency to fight cultural battles and identity wars through political means.

Brooks is correct that Trumpism is a symptom of long-term trends, but he's identified the wrong trends.

He fails to mention that Trump's rise was preceded by decades of government-bashing by big business and the extreme right, seeking to weaken the ability of government to promote the common good and protect Americans from abusive corporations. Their key goal, as famously expressed in 2001 by corporate lobbyist and conservative ideologue Grover Norquist, was to reduce government "to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub."

Brooks claims that a symptom of "anti-politics" is the rise of "outsider" politicians like Trump. But Trump has hardly been an "outsider" in American politics. He's a total insider, playing the game by using his money and the mainstream media to take advantage of the political system that has been rigged by decades of corporate lobbying and crony capitalism.

Brooks has nothing to say about the obscene amount of money contributed to candidates by the super-rich and corporate lobby groups as our campaign finance laws have been tilted -- by business-friendly politicians and, in Citizens United and other rulings, by the Supreme Court -- to favor the wealthy. He doesn't discuss how a majority of the Supreme Court, appointed by Republican presidents, has become an arm of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, with ruling after ruling that favors big business over the concerns of consumers and workers. He ignores the rise of the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, the Tea Party and the rest of the right-wing echo chamber who have used their influence to shift our political conversation to the right and often drowned out more moderate forces within the Republican Party and among the media.

These forces laid the foundation for Trump's emergence by moving the GOP to the extreme right, scapegoating immigrants, attacking Planned Parenthood and the gains of the women's movement, supporting mass incarceration of African-Americans, and adopting laws to suppress the votes of American Americans and Latinos in order to help elect conservative, pro-business, Republican politicians.

This is not "anti" politics. This is class politics.

It was this form of class politics -- led by the class at the very top, the .01 percent -- that has led to 40 years of government-bashing and deregulation, including weakening protections for consumers, the environment and workers.

Starting in the 1970s, America's biggest corporations reorganized their political operations -- coordinating their campaign donations, lobbying, creating new think tanks, policy organizations and front groups -- to be more effective at influencing government policy at all levels. All this is well-documented in Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson's 2009 book, "Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer -- and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class."

It was the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, and other corporate groups that led this battle. It was all done through the regular avenues of mainstream politics -- campaign contributions, lobbying, expensive litigation (leading to decisions like Citizens United), and other means. It is their political activities and the policies that resulted -- in particular their deregulation of Wall Street -- that crashed the economy in 2008 and caused so much misery and suffering. And it has been their political activities and lobbying that thwarted much of what President Obama sought to do (admittedly, often too little, too late) to address the suffering -- for example, by raising the minimum wage, extending unemployment benefits to the long-term jobless, and providing relief to homeowners facing foreclosure.

Since the 1970s, ordinary Americans have increasingly been burdened by private debt -- mortgages, student loans, consumer borrowing -- because of stagnant wages and incomes. But the mainstream media, including Brooks' regular columns, have failed to point out the hypocrisy of allowing big corporations and the super-rich (including Donald Trump) to use bankruptcy laws to walk away from their debts, while homeowners, consumers and college students don't get similar treatment.

Key to the success of these right-wing politics -- brought to us by the corporate establishment, not the Tea Party -- has been four decades of outrageous union-busting, that begin in the 1970s, was given credibility by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, and has accelerated ever since. More than any other factor -- as reports by the Economic Policy Institute and others have documented -- this has led to three decades of declining wages and living standards for the majority of Americans.

It is this growing economic insecurity, persistent poverty, and downward mobility that has triggered much of the anger among Americans that we see expressed at Trump rallies and in his GOP primary victories so far. Much of his rhetoric involves scapegoating and racism. It is not, as Brooks argues, an increase in the number of people with "authoritarian" personalities that explains Trump's appeal. It is simply everyday people rightly angry that they are losing their homes, can't send their kids to college, don't know if their jobs will be there in a few years, can't afford to take a vacation, aren't sure that their health insurance will cover their costs if an emergency comes along, and don't know if they'll be able to retire without falling into dire poverty.

Trump's genius is to exploit these fears and frustrations rather than point the finger at the real cause, which would require him to point at himself and his fellow billionaires. If he were being honest (not one of his strongest traits), he'd acknowledge, like another billionaire plutocrat, Nick Hanauer, that Trump and his class have made out like bandits and that the best way to fix the economy and reduce all that anger is to reduce inequality and increase the pay of the majority of American workers.

It is hardly surprising that Brooks doesn't even mention unions. But it was the labor movement that created the post-World War II middle class. It was the union movement -- which at its height in the 1960s represented about one-third of all American workers -- that pushed for government policies that improved living standards for a majority of Americans, pushed for expansion of higher education, strengthened laws protecting Americans from unsafe workplaces, and lobbied for laws to ban employer discrimination against women and minorities in hiring, pay and promotion. And it has been the four-decade-long war on unions that has decimated the middle class. All public opinion polls show that the majority of Americans are pro-union, but our labor laws are so skewed toward business that it has become extremely difficult for workers to organize unions at work without the fear of reprisal, including firing, while extremely easy for business to break the law without significant financial penalties. Brooks mentions none of this.

According to Brooks, the blame for our political dysfunction is a bipartisan affair. But as Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein point out in their 2012 book, "It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism," our current political stalemate in Washington isn't the result of some generic problem with Congress or the lack of civility in our political culture. It is mostly due, very specifically, to the GOP's dramatic rightward shift. In their book, these two middle-of-the-road political analysts document that the GOP has moved much further to the right than the Democrats have moved to the left.

Donald Trump's ascent as a business person, a media personality, and now a political candidate can be traced to these trends, particularly the growing influence of big money in American politics. He is a good example of how the super-rich and corporate America have used their political influence to create the new Gilded Age of enormous wealth and income disparities that we're now experiencing, and which has led to the anger, frustration and cynicism of many American voters, reflected in the debased dialogue coming from the candidates in the Republican primaries. where even right-wingers like Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich are now described as "moderates."

Few Americans can identify the names of the CEOs of America's largest corporations because they rarely get the media attention that sports figures, TV and movie stars, and other celebrities get, even though their influence on American life is much greater. Until recently, the Koch brothers have hidden in the shadows. Although a vast majority of Americans think that Wall Street banks have too much political and economic influence, most can't name the head of Goldman Sachs or JPMorgan Chase. But Trump is an exception. Like Henry Ford and Walt Disney before him, he's not only turned his business, but also his personality, into a brand.

Donald Trump inherited his fortune from his father, a racist real estate developer in New York whose business practices involved discrimination against minority tenants -- practices that his son continued. Trump also fanned the flames of racism beyond his business activities. For example, in 1989, after New York police had arrested five minority teenagers for raping a middle-class white woman who was jogging in Central Park, Trump took out a full-page ad in four New York newspapers calling to "bring back the death penalty," which in that political climate was clearly an appeal to racism. Trump was using his fortune to draw attention to himself and pollute the political environment.

The five teens didn't get the death penalty, as Trump would have preferred. Instead, they were convicted and spent years in jail. But had Trump got his way, justice would hardly have been served. Eventually, someone else confessed to the crime. The so-called Central Park Five sued the city for their wrongful prosecution and got a $40 million settlement in 2014 -- $1 million for every year they wrongfully spent behind bars. How did Trump respond to this miscarriage of justice against five low-income minority men for whom the money could hardly compensate for their shattered lives? Trump published an Op-Ed in the New York Daily News calling the settlement "a disgrace."

Trump expanded his father's real estate empire in part -- as he readily admits -- by contributing big bucks to both Democrats and Republicans (at all levels of government) to win favors to help his business. These not only included things like building permits and casino licenses but also credibility. Trump had proudly explained: "Hillary Clinton, I said be at my wedding, and she came to my wedding. She had no choice because I gave to a foundation," referring to the Clinton Foundation. While she was in the U.S. Senate representing New York, Hillary Clinton attended Trump's 2005 wedding to model Melania Knauss. She and Bill Clinton attended the reception together. All this media attention not only made Trump an increasingly visible celebrity but also helped his business dealings.

Trump took full advantage of the nation's pro-business tax and bankruptcy laws to accumulate billions. To do so, he frequently shafted his business partners and his employees, and broke the law, but paid minimal fines for his law-breaking business practices. He used his money and aggressive style to first become a business "brand" (his casinos, hotels, apartment buildings, and line of clothing), then a media celebrity (whose sex life, marriages and other activities were routinely reported as though they were "news"), and then a TV host of his own, gaining even greater fame by humiliating and firing people on his televised "reality" show.

David Brooks doesn't mention any of this. Like a good conservative, Brooks puts more emphasis on the importance of "order" -- on civil discourse and compromise -- than on social justice. But in a wonderful irony, he ends his column with a quote by late British political scientist Harold Laski: "We shall make the basis of our state consent to disagreement." Brooks also doesn't mention that Laski was a democratic socialist.

Peter Dreier is E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is "The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame." Follow Peter Dreier on Twitter:

By Peter Dreier

Peter Dreier is professor of politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is "The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame" (Nation Books).

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2016 Elections 2016 Presidential Election David Brooks Donald Trump New York Times