Reading David Brooks in Altoona

I grew up in a working-class family in a working-class part of the country—central Pennsylvania, just outside Altoona. It's the kind of place you might have in mind if you talk about vanishing manufacturing jobs and economic decline. The railroad yards, which once employed so many, aren't what they used to be. The factories that offered blue-collar, breadwinner jobs have closed down or cut back. It could be bleaker—the proximity of Penn State University certainly helps—but people are struggling.

It’s also the kind of place Donald Trump finds enthusiastic support. Blair County, where I was raised and where my parents still live, overwhelmingly went for Trump in the recent Pennsylvania primary, giving him 61 percent of the vote. A few neighboring counties delivered even larger margins of victory.

And as it happens, I was traveling back to this part of Pennsylvania on Friday to visit my parents when I read David Brooks’s latest column, in which he confesses he was woefully unprepared to understand the rise of Trump. Or rather, he simply doesn’t know the kind of people Trump appeals to:

I was surprised by Trump’s success because I’ve slipped into a bad pattern, spending large chunks of my life in the bourgeois strata — in professional circles with people with similar status and demographics to my own. It takes an act of will to rip yourself out of that and go where you feel least comfortable. But this column is going to try to do that over the next months and years. We all have some responsibility to do one activity that leaps across the chasms of segmentation that afflict this country.

At first I thought Brooks deserved some credit for this, and maybe he does: there seems to be a measure of regret expressed in this passage—and shouldn’t he be admired for his intellectual curiosity, for wanting to learn about the “other”? Perhaps. But as I sat in my uncomfortable bus seat and we rumbled along on Interstate 80, the column grated on me more and more. By the time I reached home, it seemed to me not just a typical, mildly annoying Brooks column, but an emblem of why those searching for what to do about Trump—especially on the right—have proven so disastrously ineffective.

It’s rather disturbing that it took a vulgar, authoritarian demagogue being on the brink of the Republican nomination for Brooks to realize that he might have intellectual and political blindspots when it comes to working-class people and others straining under the post-recession economy. Could he really be serious? The column was written in the faux-innocent style Brooks has perfected, treating a banal observation as a breakthrough. It baffles me that someone paid to observe the American political and cultural scene didn't realize before the last few months just how many Americans were struggling, or that the fallout from the 2008 recession might generate a populist-tinged backlash.

 

What Brooks describes wanting to do—from what I can tell, arranging to meet people from outside the “bourgeois strata”—feels like a kind of class- and culture-based tourism. It might give him a few anecdotes for his columns, or add a bit of texture to his understanding of the obvious discontent and anger rising across America. As one friend quipped to me, "It's like the setup for Sullivan's Travels!" But he admits that he knows—and cites in his column—the devastating statistics about rising mortality rates among middle-aged, working class whites and that suicide rates have surged to a thirty-year high. So why did it take Trump (and, Brooks adds, Bernie Sanders) to remind us “how much pain there is in this country”? The paragraph I cited above makes it seem like working-class people are from an alien planet, so foreign and strange that it requires "an act of will" to interact with them. But the needs and wants of those outside Brooks's bobo paradise shouldn't be that hard to understand. 

Most of all, though, what's so striking about Brooks's column is that he never reflects on the policies that have led us to this place. There is no reconsideration of "free trade," no pondering our Forever War in the Middle East, no questioning what kind of healthcare system might reduce the risk of financial catastrophe for downscale Americans. Brooks talks about needing a "new national story," but that will do precisely nothing to help those who are hurting and whose prospects have been most damaged by the economic trends of the last few decades. Brooks also claims we "need to rebuild the sense that we’re all in this together." But why just the "sense" that this is the case? Why not have public policy reflect that we actually are all in this together?

In this, Brooks is like so many other #NeverTrump conservatives. They have joked about the size of Trump's hands, laughed at his spray tan, and indulged a series of fantasies about how he might be stopped ("Rubio's third place finish actually was a smashing victory!" "Trump has a ceiling of 28 percent!"). What Brooks and his fellow conservatives have not done is reconsider how their ideology and policy agenda have helped deliver us to this moment, or ask themselves how they might improve the material circumstances of those who have now turned to Trump. All the understanding Brooks can muster will prove meaningless if these deeper questions of policy are ignored.

Brooks can pay a visit to my family and friends in central Pennsylvania if he'd like—the people are friendly, and the mountains beautiful—but what they need is a political and economic system not arrayed against their interests. Until he and the elites he serves are willing to consider that possibility, the anger and frustration of so many will remain. 

Matthew Sitman is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Twitter.

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