David Brooks finally gets it: He nails the roots of Trump's toxic sexism — but avoids addressing its consequences

Brooks catches up on Trump's misogyny, but somehow misses that in practice, it's more than just rude words

Published March 29, 2016 8:56PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Rick Wilking/AP/Nam Y. Huh/Photo montage by Salon)
(Reuters/Rick Wilking/AP/Nam Y. Huh/Photo montage by Salon)

People on the left love to hate David Brooks. They say he’s pompous, pseudo-intellectual, glib, and evasive. Wonkette, for instance, has led a constant stream of attacks on him, with a recent column titled “Please Enjoy The Slow But Steady Unraveling Of David Brooks.” Here at Salon, writers go after Brooks regularly, with great gusto, and will continue to.

It’s certainly true that Brooks simplifies complex issues, avoids talking about race unless he’s forced to, and has worshipped not just Ronald Reagan, but George W. Bush as well. He’s also often late on breaking the news on important issues. He engages in pop sociology that doesn’t always stand up. But today’s column shows that sometimes, he’s actually a valuable part of the conversation.

His column today is about sex and gender, and the way a nasty kind of hatred generates support for Donald Trump. Brooks is hardly the first to point out that Trump appeals to a toxic streak of masculinity, and that he degrades women: This has been clear for a while now and Trump is hardly difficult to interpret. But Brooks gets at the root of the matter – looking at the evolution of traditional moralistic sexism and what he calls “midcentury sexism” – and boils it down succinctly as being about ego competition in a world from which any whiff of chivalry has evaporated. As Brooks writes:

In this way, Trump represents the spread of something brutal. He takes economic anxiety and turns it into sexual hostility. He effectively tells men: You may be struggling, but at least you’re better than women, Mexicans and Muslims.

Liberals and people on the left have been writing things like this for months now. But do we really want to beat up on Brooks for being late to the party? Think of Brooks like your smart, sometimes eloquent, but often behind-the-times uncle or father or grandfather. If they eventually come around to a moderate or enlightened position, do you really want to jeer them? Charles Blow or Paul Krugman are more likely to teach me something I don’t know, but don’t we want conservatives to face up to brutal sexism? Would we rather have Bill O'Reilly on that page?

Despite Brooks’ appearance on the New York Times op-ed page, he’s read by conservatives as well as the page’s main centrist, liberal and lefty audience. To many conservative men – including Times readers who work for corporations or on Wall Street -- a taxonomy of various kinds of sexism is not as obvious as it is to a feminist or lefty who marinates in these ideas all the time. And Brooks’ column appears in papers all over the country: Urban liberals need to realize that these arguments are not obvious everywhere in America.

There have already been attacks on Brooks “Sexual Politics” column, for all the usual reasons, and they’ll surely continue. But he's also won some critics over with his latest column — Katha Pollitt of The Nation tweeted this:

Where Brooks remains frustrating is why he sees the issues as about a swirl of ideas. Ideas do matter, and columnists, on the left and right alike, often favor them over breaking news. But sometimes, brutality and sexism aren’t just ideas, but have flesh and blood consequences. You don’t get much sense of that from Brooks in “Sexual Politics.” Brooks is so interested in abstractions morality and “character” that he often misses the concrete.

With Trump henchman Corey Lewandowski just arrested for attacking Michelle Fields, a former Breitbart reporter -- which has been talked about for weeks now -- it’s hard not to wish that Brooks had let the daily, physical world into his column a little more.

So if you want to knock David Brooks, fine. He deserves it much of the time. But when he speaks out against Donald Trump and against sexism, and takes the threat of both seriously, I’d rather hope there’s more of this from the conservative punditocracy. Better, maybe, and more timely, maybe. But let’s not shout down one of the prominent conservative pundits who isn’t shouting.

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

MORE FROM Scott Timberg

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2016 Elections David Brooks Donald Trump Media Criticism Republicans Sex