David Brooks (PBS)

Delusional David Brooks: His blind spot for Republican nihilism has become pathological

Brooks bemoans politics' regression and its "wretched effect" on democracy while dancing around the cause: The GOP


Sean Illing
February 26, 2016 11:50PM (UTC)

“Over the past generation we have seen the rise of a group of people who are against politics. These groups — best exemplified by the Tea Party but not exclusive to the right — want to elect people who have no political experience.” – David Brooks

Titled “The Governing Cancer of Our Time,” David Brooks’ latest New York Times column is a conspicuously incomplete lament on the state of American politics. Among other things, Brooks complains about the rise “antipolitics,” or a politics of nihilism and obstruction.

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Painful though it is, it’s necessary to quote Brooks at length:

“This antipolitics tendency has had a wretched effect on our democracy. It has led to a series of overlapping downward spirals: The antipolitics people elect legislators who have no political skills or experience. That incompetence leads to dysfunctional government…which leads to a demand for even more outsiders…The antipolitics people refuse compromise and so block the legislative process. The absence of accomplishment destroys public trust. The decline in trust makes deal-making harder. 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.”

Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Brooks has a habit of appearing sensible while failing to follow his own logic. But this piece is truly exceptional. It will survive eternally as a textbook example of dissonance reduction. When Brooks worries publicly about the state of conservatism, he often thinks himself to a precipice, but stops short of articulating the truth his analysis ought to have uncovered.

In this case, his entire column is about the Republican Party, and yet, thanks to a near-heroic effort, the word “Republican” never appears. He makes the rather obvious point that our politics is broken, and he describes in great detail why that is, but he can’t say what every reader is thinking: It’s the Republican Party!

He perfunctorily notes that the problem isn’t “exclusive to the right,” but that’s flatly untrue. This is an attempt to disperse blame, to talk about the problem abstractly, as though we don’t know how it happened. As a Republican, that’s convenient, but it’s an affront to truth. We know exactly what happened.

Indeed, Brooks comes so close to saying it himself:

“People say that Trump is an unconventional candidate and that he represents a break from politics as usual. That’s not true. 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.”

The questions stare Brooks in the face: What party is responsible for these trends? Which political actors have encouraged them? Who has benefited? In whose base have these attitudes been cultivated?

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Trump is doubtless a culmination, but of what exactly? He’s a Frankenstein of Republican politics – there is no analogue to Trump in the Democratic Party. Republicans have played to the populist Tea Party id for years – fomenting fear, demonizing immigrants, and exploiting cultural angst. What we’re seeing now is the fulfillment of this strategy, which has helped them win elections but has failed to produce meaningful legislative change – and that’s precisely the point.

The Republican Party no longer aspires to governance. The Tea Party, an offspring of Republican politics, is a nihilistic political movement. Everyone one they’ve sent to Congress they sent for one reason: negation. Under the guise of some nebulous goal to “take the country back,” they’ve done nothing but undermine Obama and destroy the possibility of compromise. And this delirium has spread throughout the party. Recall that Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said explicitly that the GOP’s “top political priority over the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term.”

Only one party insists America is in perpetual decline. Only one party puts the culture wars at the center of its agenda. Only one party cultivates anti-intellectualism in its ranks. Only one party sold its soul to religious fanatics. Only one party refuses to accept the legitimacy of a democratically elected president.

It was Republicans who abandoned conservatism as a serious governing philosophy. It was Republicans who repeatedly defied custom with radical non-filibuster filibusters. It was Republicans who used the nation’s credit rating to blackmail the opposing party. It was Republicans who threatened to shut down the government over Planned Parenthood funding. And yet Brooks says our problem isn’t “exclusive to the right”?

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The Democrats have their follies and their contradictions, but they’re not comparable to the GOP – not in this respect, at least. The brinksmanship of Republicans during the Obama administration has been unprecedented. A Trump-like candidate isn’t possible in the Democratic Party.

Bernie Sanders may be an outsider, but only in an ideological sense. The man has served in public office for more than three decades. Trump is a political arsonist with no ideas, no experience, no plan – and he’s the most popular candidate in the party. With a grenade in one hand and a half-articulated list of platitudes in the other, he’s brought the Republican Party to its knees. And that’s because he’s a perfect distillation of the Republican zeitgeist. The establishment doesn’t approve, but Trump didn’t emerge from a whirlwind – he’s an unintended consequence of their cynicism.

Brooks is right: There is a metastasizing cancer in our body politic, of which Trump is a symptom. But the disease flows from the compromises of the Republican Party, a party increasingly of ideological troglodytes with no interest in policy or compromise.

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The Republican fringe has become the Republican mainstream, and the country is the worse for it. Brooks is wise to lament that, but he discredits himself by pretending this is a bipartisan problem with bipartisan roots. This is a Republican problem – and he knows it.


Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at silling@salon.com.

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