The book can be purchased here.
- What Is This ‘America’?
What is this “America” David Brooks was talking about when he wrote the following?:
When America is growing and happy, the country is sort of like a sprinter’s track…. In times of scarcity and alienation, it’s more like bumper cars. Different groups feel their lanes are blocked, so they start crashing into one another. The cultural elites start feuding with the financial elites. The lower middle class starts feuding with the poor.
That’s from his column “Donald Trump’s Allure: Ego as Ideology” that appeared in the New York Times of August 4, 2015. Apparently, it conjures up an imaginary land of equal opportunity and a fairly run race when it works, “a capitalist meritocracy,” as Brooks recently claimed in another column, “The Structure of Gratitude,” on July 15, 2015. Each individual, or each group, races without interference toward the finish line, that fantastical place where one joins the “elite” in living the American Dream.
Yet, when things go wrong in American culture, “it’s more like bumper cars,” as Brooks claims. We no longer simply race, but get in each other’s way.
Which is it? There is never a time where every American is ‘growing and happy.’ The 1950s, perhaps Trump’s time of American ‘greatness,’ was no time to be African-American in the United States, nor Mexican.
We know the history of the Civil Rights struggle that grew during that decade, but we often forget that black Americans weren’t the only ones mistreated.
Just before the start of the 1950s, Woody Guthrie wrote the lyrics to “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” about an incident in January of 1948 that left 28 unnamed ‘deportees’ to Mexico dead. He wrote of these people more generally than just the few:
We died in your hills, we died in your deserts,
We died in your valleys and died on your plains.
We died ‘neath your trees and we died in your bushes,
Both sides of the river, we died just the same.
The postwar boom was not theirs. They, like the African-Americans, were being bumped off the track though, all the while, white Americans were imagining the race fair and clean.
Mixing his metaphors (and writing before the primaries had begun), Brooks had Jeb Bush “swimming upstream,” though Hillary Clinton was likely to win her race “through sheer determination” even though “she’s not a natural fit for this moment,” whatever that means (though, as subsequent events have shown, he was right: she certainly wasn’t a good fit for winning Electoral College votes). These two, Bush and Clinton, and Joe Biden, are people who, by Brooks’ implication, are the best sort of Americans, those who run the race fairly, keeping inside their lanes, starting when the gun goes off.
They, in Brooks’ view (I guess), are America.
Not like Bernie Sanders who, in his own bumper-car, was “swimming with the tide” through the primaries. Or Donald Trump, “a narcissist who thinks he can solve every problem.”
Or the voters themselves—which we will get to later.
What’s strange about the first of these Brooks columns, but which would become a theme in his columns through the next year (and not only concerning Brooks and Trump) is that Brooks’ criticism of Trump could have been criticism of himself. He wrote, “In the Trump mind the world is not divided into right and left. Instead there are winners and losers.” This reflects Brooks’ own tendency to see the world in terms of meritocracy, of an elite and the rest. He ended the column, however, with an unintentional statement of what, at the time, looked like affinity for Trump, who he then saw as “deeply rooted in the currents of our time.”
He was right there, too.
Though he clearly wished to see a Very Serious Person such as Bush or Clinton as president, at that time in the election cycle, Brooks couldn’t help himself: Whether he admitted it or not, he toyed with the idea of throwing his lot with Trump. In “The Structure of Gratitude,” his column on meritocracy, he said that it “encourages people to be self-sufficient—masters of their own fate…. The basic logic of the capitalist meritocracy is that you get what you pay for, that you earn what you deserve.” This, again, is also the logic of Donald Trump and the genesis of his own narcissism, his willingness to lie without concern, and his lack of concern for the people he manipulates. Trump is, in other words, the perfect exemplar of the type of society Brooks yearned for before he woke to the dangers of Trump a few months later.
Since the election, Brooks has become a careful critic of Trump, much to his credit. In his January 3, 2016 New York Times column “The Snapchat Presidency of Donald Trump,” he writes:
Normal leaders serve an office. They understand that the president isn’t a lone monarch. He is the temporary occupant of a powerful public post. He’s the top piece of a big system, and his ability to create change depends on his ability to leverage and mobilize the system. His statements are carefully parsed around the world because presidential shifts in verbal emphasis are not personal shifts; they are national shifts that signal changes in a superpower’s actual behavior.
Donald Trump doesn’t think in that way.
Though I have often disagreed with Brooks, and will probably continue to do so, we do see the new president in similar ways. Brooks continues, stating that Trump:
is a creature of the parts of TV and media where display is an end in itself. He is not really interested in power; his entire life has been about winning attention and status to build the Trump image for low-class prestige. The posture is the product.
He then asks, “Who will fill the void left by a leader who is all facade?” A good question, and one I ask, too. Brooks sees three possibilities, the senior administration staff, the congressional Republicans, and the governmental bureaucracy. I see a fourth, the informal advisors who I call the technocrats and kleptocrats, the people who will benefit most from changes in government policy. In this, I am more cynical than Brooks.
Like all of those Very Serious People who had been calling wrong the arc of the Trump campaign in the summer of 2015, Brooks wrote that Trump “won’t be president.” I was not so sure. There was a huge well of potential support for Trump out there. This, I knew as a certainty. On election afternoon, when I heard that voting was heavy in rural Pennsylvania, I knew that Clinton had lost (though I would not admit it until around eight that night).
At the start of his campaign, however, I could not take Trump seriously either, other than as a threat to American democracy. I understood his appeal but hoped most people could see through the charlatan. Though he scared me, I hoped voters would recognize that it takes more than chutzpah to govern.
That they did not is the fault, in large part, of the Republican Party and the other candidates who put themselves forward during the primaries. They were a weak bunch and put forward no vision of a future the public could embrace and showed little expertise in governing. It’s also the fault of the pundits and operatives who ‘normalized’ Trump through their own activities, ones generally geared toward self-promotion and protection of careers.
It certainly did not surprise me to see Trump wrest the Republican nomination from the supposedly “deep” field of Republican candidates. To go back to Brooks’ “rows of racers” metaphor, Trump showed up on a motorcycle while all of the others were on foot. He was not in a bumper car, for he didn’t care to meander around the track. He kicked others out of the way, certainly, but his eye was on the goal line. The race, to him, was a straight dash.
As a result, he was able to make all of the other candidates look childish, foolish, and incompetent.
Which, in fact, they were.
The supposedly ‘deep field’ of candidates was only deep in numbers. Not a one of them, not even the ‘experienced’ Jeb Bush, had ever shown effective leadership in a time of crisis or had shepherded effective change in the interest of all of their constituents. Each saw governing as politicking. They did what would satisfy the bare minimum needed to ensure the continuation of their own careers. Not one of them is a leader who has ever put himself (or herself) on the line. Lead the charge? Not on your life.
They are all, also, creatures of the establishment. Even those, like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, who claim to be firebrands out for real change, really only meant it within the very narrow confines of particular issues. They, too, are beholden to ‘the system.’
What the Very Serious People didn’t understand (though Brooks should have… he even wrote about it) was that Trump was in the game to win and that he didn’t give a damn about the system or about the rules of decorum during the race. He was simply willing to win at any cost.
Not that he has changed, now that it is over.
Trump must have laughed every time he read that he couldn’t win. He proved that he could, even though there are signs that his campaign was more prepared for loss than victory. Winning propels him even more so, as a result.
What he was not prepared for was to govern—unless governing is seen as simply the continuation of political warfare. Given his cabinet picks, that seems to be the case.
When Trump won the nomination, many of the Very Serious People in the Republican Party fell in line behind him, just as I thought they would back when the two Brooks columns first mentioned appeared. Among those who I thought would do so was Brooks himself. He impressed me with his resistance but, now that the election is over, I still think he probably will finally feel forced to do so—though he hasn’t yet, and might be setting himself up as ‘loyal opposition.’ I predicted that, after the convention, he would probably breathe a sigh of relief, finally able to let his own “inner Trump” out and join in the fun. He proved me wrong, as has a large group of Republicans, much larger than I expected. Not enough, though, to provide a brake on Trump.
For, now that the reality of Trump’s victory is settling in, however, most of them are banging at the door—including Mitt Romney, who seemed the most adamant anti-Trump figure in the Republican Party. Trump, though, isn’t interested in opening his arms unless his erstwhile opponents come crawling. Romney, wanting to be treated as something of an equal, didn’t do that, and never apologized for his earlier damning comments about Trump.
Romney never had a chance of being invited in, even if he groveled. For some reason, he couldn’t see that. Trump, by toying with him, by dangling the Secretary of State position before him and watching him reach for it, effectively neutralized him as a leader of the Republican opposition. Rather than inviting in an opponent whose skills could assist him in governing (as Barack Obama did with Hillary Clinton), Trump continued on the same destructive path he’d followed during the campaign.
We’re facing an extremely dangerous situation as the Trump administration organizes itself. If the anti-Trump Republicans couldn’t stop him (and, frankly, I didn’t think many of them really wanted to: they’re the ones really in the bumper cars), the Democrats, without dissident Republican support, will not be able to, either.
Over the past generation, the Republicans have so stacked the electoral deck in the United States in their favor that it’s extremely hard for anyone to beat them. As Hillary Clinton’s nearly 3,000,000-vote lead over Trump indicates, this is even true on the national level. The addition of Trump demagoguery to the mix makes his position particularly potent, much more so than anything even Tea Partiers could offer. They will all have to fall in behind him or fall away—and there’s no other place, for even those (like Brooks) who really can’t stand Trump, to go. What was Mitt Romney to do, once Trump had won, join the Democrats? Not likely.
At one point, American politicians saw a distinction between politicking and governing. During the Obama administration, the Republicans abandoned that, finding that stagnation in Washington was too good a political tool to be abandoned in favor of doing what is necessary to keep the country running. The Democrats, stunned, continued to reach out to them, to create the deals and compromises that have kept the nation functioning since its start.
Trump, we’re seeing, is showing no inclination to reach out to anyone. He doesn’t want to govern but to battle (is it any wonder his cabinet picks include so many generals?). Perhaps actually believing that he achieved a tremendous electoral mandate, he many not even realize that there’s very little public support behind his victory.
The Democrats may be divided and in disarray, but they will take the Republican strategies of the past eight years and turn them to their own benefits. Add to them the vast number of Republicans who will resist any particular part of Trump’s agenda, and it’s quite likely that political battle will once more lead to governing stalemate. Though that may be a best-case scenario.
The likelihood is that our infrastructure will continue to deteriorate, poverty will grow, waters will rise without planning for compensatory action, violence will increase and people will continue to factionalize.
The likelihood is that everything around us will continue to get worse under a Trump administration, for nothing will get done that addresses any problem in a positive fashion.
Trump based his campaign on making America great again. I don’t know what that means now that he has won.
But this new America, we may soon find, is not the nation we once thought it was.
Expanded and revised from One Flew East,
August 4, 2015