Can't we all get along? Actually, no — not when the other side behaves like that

Liberal "elites" are too mean to their MAGA fellow citizens, argues David Brooks. Jeepers, not that argument again

By Kirk Swearingen

Contributing Writer

Published September 3, 2023 10:03AM (EDT)

Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

New York Times columnist David Brooks has been writing of late about how we should all just get along. In two August opinion pieces, he places the onus on the "highly educated elite" to take more responsibility in forming Abraham Lincoln's more perfect union.

This sort of appeal has been made for a number of years now. As many on the right turned away from public health measures in a pandemic and then determined to take down our democracy, those on the left were asked why they couldn't fall in line and be … nicer.

The gist of Brooks' argument seems to be that educated liberals need to take responsibility for annoying conservatives. In Brooks' view, the highly educated are also to blame for the fact that America's political culture has gotten so rancorous. Or at least we need to seriously consider that, he suggests. 

Brooks probably didn't write the headline for "What if We're the Bad Guys Here?", published on Aug. 2. But his editor captured the tenor pretty well. Brooks is not entirely wrong in reminding the highly educated "elite" (of which he — author, New York Times columnist and decades-long commentator on "PBS Newshour" — counts himself a member) to consider how its exclusionary ways may have made people in more modest quarters of working America mistrust the system in general. This paragraph captures the main thrust:

The ideal that we're all in this together was replaced with the reality that the educated class lives in a world up here and everybody else is forced into a world down there. Members of our class are always publicly speaking out for the marginalized, but somehow we always end up building systems that serve ourselves.

If you swap out "educated class" and replace it with "the rich," you might start sounding like a left-winger. But I suppose the point is that liberals from wealthy backgrounds have, over many decades, ignored the working class or turned up their noses at them. Which is honestly fair enough.

Brooks attempts to bolster this point by noting that in the 2020 election, Joe Biden won 500 U.S. counties to Donald Trump's 2,500. Most of us have seen that MAGA-friendly map, but those deep-red counties tend to have small populations (as do a number of red states, which nevertheless each get two U.S. senators). The idea being conveyed here is that an overwhelming geographical chunk of America voted for Trumpism out of frustration with being left behind and locked out of educational and economic opportunities.

Geographical areas don't vote; people do. The counties Joe Biden won had 67 million more residents, account for 71% of U.S. economic activity and represent 54.5% of the American landmass.

But geographical areas don't vote; people do. That map, which has circulated endlessly, is interesting because if you display it by population, it looks utterly different. As a January 2021 article from the Brookings Institution notes, the counties Biden won had 67 million more residents than the counties won by Trump. And, as Brooks himself points out, the Biden counties account for about 71% of U.S. economic activity of the country. They also represent 54.5% of the U.S. landmass, putting the lie to the MAGA-counties map. Trump didn't actually win most of America; Biden did.

Brooks followed that one up with "Hey, America, Grow Up!" on Aug. 10. (Admittedly, that's a sentiment much of the civilized world would agree with.) Mixed in with a lot of well-intentioned bromides about character and community are suggestions for the well-educated — meaning people who believe in facts and reality and democratic governance — on how to be friendlier fellow citizens to their QAnon, "stolen-election" brethren.

Brooks writes about the downside of our "therapeutic culture" — our need to feel better about ourselves as individuals — and how he thinks we can move past that:

In a nontherapeutic ethos, people don't build secure identities on their own. They weave their stable selves out of their commitments to and attachments with others. Their identities are forged as they fulfill their responsibilities as friends, family members, employees, neighbors and citizens. The process is social and other-absorbed; not therapeutic. 

My lifelong best friend was swayed by Brooks' message and suggested I read the essay. And yes, Brooks is good at the business political and cultural writers are in: crafting a persuasive argument. Yes, educated people can indeed be annoying — by, say, using words like indeed, as I just did, or other highfalutin words Brooks mentions, or by pretending to understand things they really don't.  

I'm reminded of the bar scene in "Good Will Hunting," where Matt Damon's character pulls apart the scholarly B.S. of a Harvard student and then, when the Ivy man persists in insisting on his ultimate superiority, leans in and quietly offers, "But, hey, if you've got a problem like that, we can just step outside and figure it out." Even educated people enjoyed that, I promise.

But here's the thing: In discussing our so-called therapeutic culture, where we're too "coddled" to face the "real world" and own up to our obligations and responsibilities — a go-to psychological projection of the right  — Brooks never mentions Trump voters, who remain in their own therapeutic bubble of right-wing media, which teaches them very little about the real world.

In discussing "therapeutic" culture, where we're too "coddled" to face the "real world," Brooks never mentions Trump voters, in their own therapeutic bubble of lies, obfuscations and conspiracy theory.

Many conservatives are coddled in a comfy blankie of lies, obfuscations and conspiracy theory. Fox News essentially acts as free day care for aging white right-wingers. Its viewers are constantly assured that harboring their darkest impulses about women, people of color and people with different sexual and gender identities is completely understandable, even proper. After years of this steady diet of malign disinformation, they trust their authoritarian cult leader more than their religious leaders or even family and friends.

This leads us to the Big Lie — and, well, to lies in general. Ask anyone in a bad relationship: When one partner cannot take responsibility for their actions, a healthy relationship is not possible.

In her superb book "Orwell's Roses," author Rebecca Solnit addresses the damage done by lies and why they are used by authoritarians:

Lies gradually erode the capacity to know and to connect. In withholding or distorting knowledge or imparting falsehood, a liar deprives others of the information they need to participate in public and political life, to avoid dangers, to understand the world around them, to act on principle, to know themselves and others and the situation, to make good choices, and ultimately to be free. The liar drives a wedge between what he or she knows and what the victim of the lie knows, though the lied-to person or people may be entirely convinced, confused, or suspicious. Or they may be aware they are being deceived, in which case they may or may not know the nature of the deception or what it endeavors to conceal. Authoritarians often coerce people to go along with what they know are lies, making them reluctant coconspirators who may be deceiving yet other parties. Knowledge is power, and the equitable distribution of knowledge is inseparable from other forms of equality. Without equal access to the facts, equal capacity in decision-making is impossible. 

Beyond the lies, there's no functional relationship between the right and the left in this country because the right purposefully destroyed that relationship. Aping right-wing broadcaster Rush Limbaugh, Republicans turned from making policy to "owning the libs." At the invitation of then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, Limbaugh came to the Capitol in 1995 and encouraged the incoming Republican House majority to vilify Democrats, training them to use a lexicon of hatred and dehumanization — "sick," "evil," "twisted" — and practice the politics of racism, misogyny and general resentment. The modern Republican cult was in many ways launched by Limbaugh, who trained his followers to be "ditto-heads." 

As Salon's Heather Digby Parton put it in a column published shortly after Limbaugh's death in February 2021, "the cult Limbaugh created was simply appropriated by Donald Trump":

There were plenty of racists, xenophobes, sexists, religious hypocrites and violent extremists long before he came along. But he found a way to synthesize their point of view into one overarching worldview: Coastal elites, Black people, immigrants, gays, feminazis and environmentalists are your enemy and they want to destroy America.

Limbaugh's dark spirit lives on in his most devoted acolyte. Abraham Lincoln begged Americans not to think of each other as enemies and to look to the "better angels of our nature." Rush figured there was no money in that sort of thing. He made selling hatred into the entertainment juggernaut on which Trump continues to capitalize.

Then came the more overt white grievance and the red-white-and-blue garb of the Tea Party years, which led to the Trumpian-authoritarian push for "alternative facts" as a tool for destroying people's ability to discern reality itself. As a result, friendships have ended and many parents and children, brothers and sisters cannot speak to each other

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It's largely more educated Americans who mourn the loss of their Fox News–addled parents, siblings and friends, not the other way around. (I essentially lost one of my best friends.) In their gleeful desire to own the libs, and their lazy desire not to do the hard work demanded by democratic politics, it was the latter who turned their backs on the responsibilities of governing. How, by embracing the Big Lie and all the smaller ones, do they "fulfill their responsibilities as friends, family members, employees, neighbors and citizens"?

Ron DeSantis understands precisely what Solnit is saying about the powerful effect of lies. She writes, "Authoritarians see truth and fact and history as a rival system they must defeat." Orwell's greatest novel, she observes, reflects a deep understanding of authoritarian tactics and the need to drive people apart, even parents from children. In "1984," a child turns in her father for thoughtcrime, and the father, Solnit writes, "is so well indoctrinated that he ruefully commends the child from his prison cell." What could be more heartbreaking than that? Well, the history of the slave trade in America, where family members were sold off from each other, never to see one another again in this life. But that's a history not to be taught in Florida — and perhaps in your state soon, if Republicans can manage it.

It's largely more educated Americans who mourn the loss of their Fox News–addled parents, siblings and friends, not the other way around.

Trump once blurted that he loved "the poorly educated," who had overwhelmingly supported him. With Republicans' ceaseless attacks on public education and higher education, they seemingly want to ensure there are many more of the poorly educated in future. For David Brooks to blame the educated — using the code word "elite"— is disingenuous and only serves to further the long history of anti-intellectual prejudice in America. 

A few years back, I wrote an article on "The Bully Hero," asking when Americans had turned away from cheering for legitimate heroes (or even antiheroes) to boorish, know-nothing louts, who were formerly comic fodder for the actual hero. I concluded that if you tell a certain segment of Americans that you will do all their thinking for them, and encourage them to express their most bigoted and misogynistic impulses, they will elevate you to the heavens. They'll even cheer you on as you deride people who have served their country in the military, in law enforcement, in the diplomatic service. At your behest, they will threaten violence against public servants, poll workers, prosecutors and judges.

And we are supposed to pal up with such people? 

I admire David Brooks' prose style, his erudition and his evolution from reflexive support for all Republican policies to writing about character. I appreciate that he now admits that Donald Trump deserves to be in prison. If I had the opportunity to buy him a drink — say, at Bemelmans Bar in the Carlyle Hotel, a suitably conservative locale — I imagine we could have a friendly conversation, because it would not be undone by lies. Or at least I hope not; what he did not say in his recent columns makes me wonder. We all know how dangerous lies of omission can be.

Yes, the highly educated elite is something of an exclusionary tribe unto itself, but many of its members vote for candidates who take public service seriously and who support policies that will help all Americans. And let's be real: Beyond the good-ol'-boy beards and put-on country drawls, the Republican (and Trumpist) leadership is largely part of that elite. Right-wingers of that class almost never work for the true needs of the middle- or working-class people who vote for them; instead, they offer the bread and circuses of the culture wars. Like Trump, they also grift on their government jobs and view their working-class supporters the same way Trump does. While thoroughly enjoying the news coverage of the Jan. 6 violent insurrection he worked so hard to achieve, he was reportedly dismayed that his followers looked "low class."

The highly educated elites on the left may annoy David Brooks. They sometimes annoy me. But Republican political grifters consistently attack women's rights, voting rights, civil rights and the right of LGBTQ people to be treated as full citizens, They fight every measure that might help those left behind: supporting public education, raising the minimum wage, bolstering union rights, forgiving student debt, rebuilding our infrastructure. They implacably work against the interests of the working class and younger people. I wonder if Brooks has considered how those attacks on the basic needs of human beings, along with the Trumpist attacks on democracy and decency in general, have affected our national mental health crisis.

There are many reasons we have broken relationships in this country. The blame must fall on those who have consciously lied to the public, dehumanized their political opponents and turned their back on democracy. How could we not have a mental health crisis when so much of the public has been instructed by their political leaders not to acknowledge the crises of gun culture and climate change that face us all? As Orwell writes, "The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command."

By Kirk Swearingen

Kirk Swearingen is a poet and independent journalist. He is a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, and his work has appeared in Delmar, MARGIE, Bloom, the American Journal of Poetry, Riverfront Times, Medium and Salon.

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Commentary David Brooks Donald Trump Joe Biden Maga Mental Health New York Times Republicans Trump Supporters