David Brooks frustrates me. Sometimes, I disagree strongly with his “take” on the American condition (usually offered from what seems a self-consciously “elevated” vantage point), but sometimes, he hits the nail squarely on the head. I continue to read his columns in the New York Times for those latter instances, of which last Friday’s was one.
Titled “The GOP is Getting Even Worse,” Brooks commented on the cultural hysteria that has clearly gripped the Republicans’ (declining) base.
There are increasing signs that the Trumpian base is radicalizing. My Republican friends report vicious divisions in their churches and families. Republican politicians who don’t toe the Trump line are speaking of death threats and menacing verbal attacks.
It’s as if the Trump base felt some security when their man was at the top, and that’s now gone. Maybe Trump was the restraining force.
What’s happening can only be called a venomous panic attack. Since the election, large swathes of the Trumpian right have decided America is facing a crisis like never before and they are the small army of warriors fighting with Alamo-level desperation to ensure the survival of the country as they conceive it.
Survey research provides support for that observation. Brooks points to a poll taken in late January, in which respondents were asked whether politics is more about “enacting good public policy” or more about “ensuring the survival of the country as we know it. ” Fifty-one percent of Trump Republicans said survival; a mere 19 percent chose policy.
Another poll asked Americans which of two statements came closest to their view: “It’s a big, beautiful world, mostly full of good people, and we must find a way to embrace each other and not allow ourselves to become isolated” or “Our lives are threatened by terrorists, criminals and illegal immigrants, and our priority should be to protect ourselves.”
Those who read this blog can guess what’s coming: More than 75 percent of Biden voters chose “a big, beautiful world.” Two-thirds of Trump voters chose “our lives are threatened.”
Brooks is absolutely right when he writes that
Liberal democracy is based on a level of optimism, faith and a sense of security. It’s based on confidence in the humanistic project: that through conversation and encounter, we can deeply know each other across differences; that most people are seeking the good with different opinions about how to get there; that society is not a zero-sum war, but a conversation and a negotiation.
He is also right when he observes that the Republican response to Biden and his agenda has largely been anemic “because the base doesn’t care about mere legislation, just their own cultural standing.”
For years, the refrain from what Americans call “the Left” (and what is globally considered pretty middle-of-the-road) has been “why do so many people vote against their own best interests?” That question, however, rests on a faulty premise. Moderate and leftwing folks define “best interests” in largely economic terms. Voters would be “better off” financially or more likely to find employment if they voted differently. But today’s Republicans see their “best interests” in cultural and racial terms, not economic promises.
The overwhelmingly White Christian supporters of today’s GOP see a demographic shift that will eventually rob them of what is clearly most important to them–far more important than a good job or a fairer tax system or the rate of inflation. Their “interest” is in continued cultural and racial dominance–and as the research shows, many of them are willing to engage in violence, a la January 6th, to protect that dominance.