Saturday, August 08, 2020

Post-Trump Conservatism: A Marxist Approach. By David F. Brooks


Pablo Picasso, Girl With Mandolin (1910), via

Today's Brooks ("Where Do Republicans Go From Here?") is fooling everybody like that, because it starts out looking like a column he's written 15 or 16 times in the last couple of years and you think you know how it ends, but you're wrong. Actually he ends up with the Bernie Sanders theory of how to fix the post-Trump Republican Party—"deracialize", and move on to class struggle!

working-class emphasis is the only way out of the demographic doom loop. If the party sticks with its old white high school-educated base, it will die. They just aren’t making enough old white men. To have any shot of surviving as a major party, the G.O.P. has to build a cross-racial alliance among working-class whites [non-old high school–educated?], working-class Hispanics and some working-class Blacks.

None of this works unless Republicans can deracialize their appeal — by which I mean they must stop pandering to the racists in the party and stop presenting themselves and seeing themselves as the party of white people — and wage a class struggle between diverse workers in their coalition and the highly educated coastal manager and professional class in the Democratic coalition.

Pile those coastals into the tumbrils! It's the political revolution! All you need is "some working-class Blacks!"—not all of them, just some as-yet-undefined critical mass—and that sniveling manager and professional class won't know what hit it.

That is, I mean, there may be a flaw in this plan, but you can't say it lacks boldness.

The rest of the column gets a little more interesting when you try to reconstruct how his usual point of departure, the History of Conservative Thought, led him through a Hegelian dialectical model of thesis/antithesis/synthesis to this radical conclusion.

Dialectical (and fairly materialist) in the strict sense: there's a thesis, the Thatcher-Reagan consensus, holding that government can't really do anything at all, other than "cultivating people with the vigorous virtues" presumably through its refusal to give them a hand, which is the way politicians can bring about splendid growth and prosperity for all; and an antithesis, for which Brooks takes credit himself, along with Dr. William Kristol, the neoconservative view that government can actually do a lot, as by solving problems:

On Sept. 15, 1997, William Kristol and I wrote a piece for The Wall Street Journal on what we called National Greatness Conservatism. We argued that the G.O.P. had become too anti-government. “How can Americans love their nation if they hate its government?” we asked. Only a return to the robust American nationalism of Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay and Theodore Roosevelt would do: ambitious national projects, infrastructure, federal programs to increase social mobility.

Followed by the synthesis of George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism", in which it's acknowledged that government can do things, but could limit itself to nice things, presumably like making Iraq safe for democracy; Brooks doesn't offer any examples, but does explaing that "compassionate conservatism" is "an attempt to meld Catholic social teaching to conservatism", which might surprise the born-again evangelical Bush and the born-again evangelical who sold him the program, Doug Wead, in a series of telephone conversations that Wead taped and later released, leading to some
hostility from members of Bush's inner circle: Bush's wife, Laura Bush, said in an interview, "I don't know if I'd use the word 'betrayed,' but I think it's a little bit awkward for sure"; while Bush evangelical ally James Dobson said he was "shocked by [Wead's] breach of trust". Bush himself did not comment.[19] The tapes' release also provoked negative reaction from some commentators, such as Bill Press, who called Wead "scum", and Bill O'Reilly, who called Wead "the lowest form of debris in the country."[20]
And then the next thesis was apparently from Reihan Salam and Monsignor Ross Douthat, post-Harvard roommates, who decided to "link the G.O.P. to working class concerns"  attached to Sam's Club rather than the country club:
the GOP is now a working-class party (with class defined by education and culture more than income, just to be clear; there are plenty of skilled craftsmen who make more money than teachers and journalists and academics), and that it needs to start acting like one if it's going to rebuild its shattered majority.
wrote Douthat, but adding warningly that they'd better have some of that upper class aboard too—
the GOP can't only be a working-class party; just as the famous Judis-Texeira emerging Democratic majority is built around the mass upper class and the poor but depends on winning some working-class votes to put it over the top, so any future "Party of Sam's Club" Republican majority is going to need to win back at least some of the mass-upper-class votes that the party has hemorrhaged during the Bush years.
With an antithesis arriving on a very slow timetable, Brooks goes on to say, eight years later, in the form of Stephen Bannon arguing that the "mass upper class" should be less in control and a "low-rent" faction more:

Steve Bannon’s leap finally did what none of us could do. Donald Trump and Bannon took a low-rent strand of conservatism — class-based ethnic nationalism — that had always been locked away in the basement of the American right, and overturned the Reagan paradigm.

And the synthesis to that, lastly, is the intellectual contribution of four young fogey senators, Rubio, Hawley, Sasse, and Cotton, challenging traditional conservative belief with the idea that old assumptions are voided because China exists; the free market isn't working well, economic libertarianism is not the answer, the working class is the "heart of the Republican party",  and the "managerial class" is guilty of treason, all of which might sound reminiscent of Bannon, but Rubio bases his view in "Catholic social teaching" like George W. Bush, Hawley believes that

middle-class Americans have been betrayed by their elites on every level — political elites, cultural elites, financial elites. The modern leadership class has one set of values — globalization, cosmopolitanism — and the Middle Americans have another set — family, home, rootedness, nation. Corporate elites have concentrated so much power that they now crush the yeomen masses.

Cotton is hawkish,

Whether its [sic, there are no copy editors any more] China, the left, immigration or Big Tech

and Sasse is a "Tocquevillian localist" who believes that "politicians are arsonists".

And I guess these elements add up to Brooks's idea of a revolutionary class struggle: in the elevation of a working class that is pitiable, betrayed, and belligerent, with a government that is (inevitably) out for itself.

Only it's a little odd that it's got so little place for economics, by design, as asserted by the policy wonk Yuval Levin;

Levin’s [sic again] thinks the prevailing post-Trump viewpoints define the problem too much in economic terms. The crucial problem, he argues, is not economic; it’s social: alienation. Millions of American [sic some more] don’t feel part of anything they can trust.

The flaw being, I guess, that this deconstructed or cubist picture of economic life hides the fact that classes and alienation in the Marxian sense really exist in our society. It ignores the owners of capital, whose share keeps increasing, the real engine of the poison resentment we all feel. Instead it sets up a phony battle between members of different status groups—uneducated mostly white men troubled by the lack of factory work fetishized as "The Working Class" against the people who do all the actual work in the services industries, in a very wide range of ethnic identities and education levels, with women of color at the dynamic (and actually revolutionary) center, to whom the Republicans still have nothing to offer, since they continue to reject the idea of government doing anything to make people's lives easier in favor of agreeing to provide, I don't know, some kind of abstract meaningfulness (more factory jobs because that's what dudes like, not because they'll be better off, as unions continue to be suppressed, or more able to enjoy family and community).

It sentimentalizes the "values" of workers (family, home, rootedness, nation) without asking what forces have deprived them of these necessaries (the rapacity of capital demanding long hours and day care for the kids, rented residence, transplantation to where the work is, tearing people apart) and left them alienated in the sense of having no control over the product of their labor. It's a bogus class struggle, misdirecting the resentment of "The Working Class" away from the actual causes of their alienation. It's a trick! And it's actually the same trick they've been pulling since 1968!

And in all the crazy collision of contradictory "conservative" ideas banging like bump cars in the dialectic of Brooks's history, we see once more that there's only one conservative principle, the one Frank Wilhoit posted at Crooked Timber in March 2018 (which I've been misattributing to the 1970s and the political scientist Francis Wilhoit):

Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit:

There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.

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