David Brooks can drive me nuts. He often comes across–at least to me–as a pompous moralizer, convinced of his own superior wisdom. But then he’ll share a perceptive analysis of…people who believe in their own superior wisdom.
A recent column begins with a description that admittedly fits yours truly, beginning with our answer to the question “why do people still support Trump?”
We anti-Trumpers often tell a story to explain that. It was encapsulated in a quote the University of North Carolina political scientist Marc Hetherington gave to my colleague Thomas B. Edsall recently: “Republicans see a world changing around them uncomfortably fast, and they want it to slow down, maybe even take a step backward. But if you are a person of color, a woman who values gender equality or an L.G.B.T. person, would you want to go back to 1963? I doubt it.”
In this story, we anti-Trumpers are the good guys, the forces of progress and enlightenment. The Trumpers are reactionary bigots and authoritarians. Many Republicans support Trump no matter what, according to this story, because at the end of the day, he’s still the bigot in chief, the embodiment of their resentments and that’s what matters to them most.
Brooks admits that he “partly” agrees with this explanation (I certainly do)–but he also recognizes that it’s a monument to “elite self-satisfaction,” and asks readers to “try on a vantage point in which we anti-Trumpers are not the eternal good guys. In fact, we’re the bad guys.”
Brooks says this story began in the 60s, when boys who had graduated from high school found themselves in Viet Nam, while others got college deferments. It continued in the 1970s, when students were bused from working-class areas, but not from upscale communities where privileged folks lived.
Over time, Brooks says, we’ve replaced the idea that we’re all in this together with a system in which the educated class inhabits a world “up here,” and everybody else is “down there.” Members of the educated class may advocate for the marginalized, but as he observes, “somehow we always end up building systems that serve ourselves.”
The most important of those systems is the modern meritocracy. We built an entire social order that sorts and excludes people on the basis of the quality that we possess most: academic achievement. Highly educated parents go to elite schools, marry each other, work at high-paying professional jobs and pour enormous resources into our children, who get into the same elite schools, marry each other and pass their exclusive class privileges down from generation to generation.
Daniel Markovits summarized years of research in his book “The Meritocracy Trap”: “Today, middle-class children lose out to the rich children at school, and middle-class adults lose out to elite graduates at work. Meritocracy blocks the middle class from opportunity. Then it blames those who lose a competition for income and status that, even when everyone plays by the rules, only the rich can win.”
Brooks cites the journalism profession as an example, pointing to changes from when there were “crusty old working-class guys” in the newsroom, to today’s news staffs, dominated by graduates of elite colleges. (He ignores the dramatic shrinkage of journalism jobs thanks to America’s loss of newspapers, but his point is still valid.)
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.
Brooks offers a number of other examples, and says it should be easy to understand why people in less-educated classes would feel “that they are under economic, political, cultural and moral assault — and why they’ve rallied around Trump as their best warrior against the educated class.”
Those who see themselves under assault see the Trump indictments as part of that class war.
Are Trump supporters right that the indictments are just a political witch hunt? Of course not. As a card-carrying member of my class, I still basically trust the legal system and the neutral arbiters of justice. Trump is a monster in the way we’ve all been saying for years and deserves to go to prison….
We can condemn the Trumpian populists until the cows come home, but the real question is: When will we stop behaving in ways that make Trumpism inevitable?
It’s not that simple. There’s a great deal more to the story than Brooks’ analysis suggests.
But he isn’t wrong.