Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to supporters

Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a political rally on July 29, 2023 in Erie, Pennsylvania.

(Photo: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

David Brooks' Defense of Trump Defenders Disguises Where Real Power Is

Brooks and The New York Times are playing the tired role of using petty cultural politics to ignore economic reality and portray the Republicans as the voice of working America.

In an era of Donald Trump and a Republican Party dedicated to eradicating liberal democratic order to solidify its political hegemony, New York Times columnist David Brooks—like fellow Times columnist David French and the Atlantic‘s David Frum—appears to be a sane voice of the old-school conservative movement. In short, a Never Trumper.

It might initially come as a surprise, then, to see his response to the latest Trump indictment (New York Times, 8/2/23) drawing praise from the right-wing press for seeing the political elite from Trump supporters’ point of view. Fox News (8/3/23) said that Brooks’ column exposed the anti-Trump class as “self-dealing jerks.” Seth Mandel (Twitter, 8/2/23), executive editor of the Washington Examiner, said the piece achieved a “quality reached a few times a year by a few writers,” and with dizzying circular reasoning declared it would “be criticized angrily because it shows empathy and elite introspection, which will prove it correct.”

Brooks’ column encouraged anti-Trumpers (among whom he includes himself) to think of themselves as “the bad guys,” because while they diagnose the Republican base’s unflagging support for its leader as rooted in bigotry and resentment, it actually derives from “the class war between the professionals and the workers.” Brooks, enlightened member of the professional class that he is, understands “why people in less-educated classes would conclude that they are under economic, political, cultural and moral assault.” He asserted, “They’ve rallied around Trump as their best warrior against the educated class.”

But Brooks engaged in a trick he’s used his entire career. He presents himself as an expert on salt-of-the-earth residents of the Heartland whom elites have ignored and wronged, so our critical gaze should be cast on supposedly progressive elite institutions, not bigotry and authoritarianism—or on the real causes of the economic inequality he bemoans.

‘Walking on eggshells’

The reason it comes across as plausible is that Brooks does get part of the story right. He writes that elites “marry each other and pass their exclusive class privileges down from generation to generation,” and that “members of our class are always publicly speaking out for the marginalized, but somehow we always end up building systems that serve ourselves.”

It’s true that the US ranks lower on inequality and social mobility than most other wealthy nations. But Brooks would have readers believe these problems come primarily from cultural norms, not economic policy. He offers one sentence each on “free trade” and “open immigration”—defying the evidence that immigrants don’t erode the wages of native-born workers—followed by three paragraphs on liberal cultural factors. The first deftly flips the script, making the oppressed the oppressor:

Like all elites, we use language and mores as tools to recognize one another and exclude others. Using words like “problematic,” “cisgender,” “Latinx” and “intersectional” is a sure sign that you’ve got cultural capital coming out of your ears. Meanwhile, members of the less-educated classes have to walk on eggshells because they never know when we’ve changed the usage rules so that something that was sayable five years ago now gets you fired.

In reality, it’s people who identify as Latinx, think intersectionally or who aren’t cisgender who have to “walk on eggshells”—not because of a social stigma, but because of punitive laws passed by authoritarian legislatures:

  • Arkansas has banned “most state agencies from using the gender-neutral term Latinx” (AP, 1/22/23).
  • “Florida has ‘effectively’ banned the Advanced Placement Psychology course from being taught in classrooms over lessons on gender identity and sexual orientation” (Daily Beast, 8/3/23).
  • Sixteen states have passed laws against the use in schools of Critical Race Theory—which embraces intersectionality—with the state of North Dakota banning the idea that “that racism is systemically embedded in American society and the American legal system to facilitate racial inequality.”
  • State-level laws against trans rights are rising at such a frightening pace, trans people are seeking refuge in some of the places Brooks frowns on as bastions of elite-driven intolerance (Teen Vogue, 8/3/23).

Who monopolizes cultural power?

Brooks might have missed that it is, in fact, the anti-trans movement that nearly monopolizes American cultural power. A conservative backlash to Bud Light’s sending a novelty beer can to a trans actress has led to a devastating loss for the beer’s parent company (CNN, 8/3/23). Yet while liberals talk about boycotting fast-food chain Chick-fil-a over its anti-gay positions (LA Times, 7/23/12; Yahoo, 7/15/21), the company is clucking along undeterred (Franchise Times, 4/6/23; USA Today, 7/27/23).

While Brooks decried that being unhip when it comes to trans terminology gets you fired, the reality is that, according to research by McKinsey, “nearly 30% of transgender people in the United States are not in the workforce and are twice as likely as the cisgender population to be unemployed.”

This led Brooks into a discussion of how, because “we” (meaning the professional class) “eroded norms that seemed judgmental or that might inhibit individual freedom,” having children out of wedlock has become more normal:

After this social norm was eroded, a funny thing happened. Members of our class still overwhelmingly married and had children within wedlock. People without our resources, unsupported by social norms, were less able to do that. As Adrian Wooldridge points out in his magisterial 2021 book, The Aristocracy of Talent, “60% of births to women with only a high school certificate occur out of wedlock, compared with only 10% to women with a university degree.” That matters, he continues, because “the rate of single parenting is the most significant predictor of social immobility in the country.”

That’s a neat trick how the college-educated persuaded high school graduates to have children without getting married, by continuing to have children while married. (That Murphy Brown storyline must have been very persuasive!) One might more plausibly attribute changes in unwed birthrates to new reproductive technologies than to cultural messages created (but not heeded) by the professional class.

It is not social norms, though, that make single parenthood a roadblock to climbing the ladder; it is the lack of economic support and protection for people with children. If Brooks wanted parenthood to be seen as a way to thrive rather than an enormous burden, he’d be advocating for free reproductive care, subsidized daycare, more parental leave and other economic supports that exist elsewhere in the wealthy industrialized world.

‘It’s not the entrepreneurs’

Throughout the piece, Brooks conflates the college-educated with the wealthy, writing that anti-Trumpers are those with “high-paying professional jobs” who have won the “competition for income and status.” This helps him perform the sleight of hand that replaces an economic identity with a cultural one. While it’s true that voters with a college education tended to favor Biden and those without favored Trump, that difference disappears (and even slightly reverses) for non-white voters—an important point when you’re making sweeping generalizations about social class, and trying to argue this has nothing to do with bigotry.

But it’s also true that in the 2020 election, Trump lost among voters making less than $50,000 by 11 percentage points, while winning with those making more than $100,000 by 13 points. Even among white voters alone, the over-$100,000 crowd tilted toward Trump more heavily than the under-$50,000 crowd. Contrary to Brooks’ entire thesis, Trump’s base is the economically better-off, while the worse-off went for Biden—demolishing the columnists’ claim that we should sympathize with those who rally around the indicted Trump as the desperately downtrodden.

One could almost miss it, but Brooks gave away the ruse entirely when he said that Trump “understood that it’s not the entrepreneurs who seem most threatening to workers; it’s the professional class.” While posing as an anti-Trump conservative, Brooks supports the fiction that Trump, a billionaire, is right that the real threat to workers aren’t the bosses who move jobs overseas, bust unions or advocate against workplace safety standards, but rather some annoying grad school brat on the West Coast reading Judith Butler.

It’s easy to write this off as David Brooks being David Brooks. But this is coming out when vitriol coming from the former president and his political movement—an often violent and fascistic movement—has reached a fever pitch. Brooks and the Times are playing the tired role of using petty cultural politics to ignore economic reality and portray the Republicans as the voice of working America (, 10/9/15, 3/30/18, 11/13/18).

The column is yet another example of the Times, a mouthpiece for the ruling economic order, stoking a fiction about cultural divides to distract from brutal class inequality driven by politicians from both parties.

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