David Brooks wants your pity. As a New York Times columnist and best-selling author, Brooks has all the worldly success anyone could want, and yet he feels increasingly alienated from American politics, a self-described moderate rendered homeless by the polarization of the Trump era. The Republican Party has been captured by a belligerent oaf, while the Democrats, thanks to the leadership of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, are moving to the left.
“I could never in a million years vote for Donald Trump,” Brooks wrote in a recent New York Times column. “So my question to Democrats is: Will there be a candidate I can vote for?” Alas for Brooks, he’s not sure that the Democrats will give him the moderate candidate he wants, since so many of the contenders are aping Sanders and Warren by talking about the need for universal health care and making a broader critique of the power of big business.
“Democrats have caught the catastrophizing virus that inflicts the Trumpian right,” Brooks complains. “They take a good point—that capitalism needs to be reformed to reduce inequality—and they radicalize it so one gets the impression they want to undermine capitalism altogether.”
Instead of capitalism, Brooks believes Democrats should be talking about civility. “Trump is a disrupter,” Brooks states. “He rips to shreds the codes of politeness, decency, honesty and fidelity, and so renders society a savage world of dog eat dog. Democrats spend very little time making this case because defending tradition, manners and civility sometimes cuts against the modern progressive temper.”
One could object that Brooks is overdrawing the lesson. After all, there is only one Democratic candidate, Sanders, who calls himself a socialist; even Warren insists she’s a capitalist, albeit one that feels the system needs a serious overhaul.
The best thing about Brooks’s column is his frank use of the first person singular. Although he makes gestures to other hypothetical moderate voters, he is candid that the question is whether the Democrats will nominate someone “I can vote for.” This “I” is honest, since Brooks is speaking for a tiny faction, Never Trump conservatives, who twice demonstrated in 2016 that they were a powerless rump minority in the real world of politics. Never Trump conservatives failed to stop Donald Trump from getting the Republican nomination. They then failed to mobilize a sufficient number of voters to support Hillary Clinton and keep Trump from his Electoral College victory. Yet the humiliation of these defeats has done nothing to hamper their self-confidence in offering political advice.
Although minuscule in numbers Never Trump conservatives have an enormously outsize voice in the American mainstream media. They are beloved by mainstream outlets that want to present a balanced editorial voice but are also horror stricken by Trump’s vulgarity and corruption. Besides Brooks, the New York Times op-ed page has two other conservatives who are mortified by Trump, if not always Trumpism: Bret Stephens and Ross Douthat.
Stephens himself wrote a very similar column, although unlike Brooks he pretended to be the voice of a hypothetical average voter who was turned off by the alleged extreme leftism of the Democrats.
The Democrats, Stephens claimed, are “a party that makes too many Americans feel like strangers in their own country. A party that puts more of its faith, and invests most of its efforts, in them instead of us.” He added, “They speak Spanish. We don’t.” This was an allusion to the admittedly faltering efforts of Beto O’Rourke and Cory Booker to say a few words en español (and the marginally better fluency of Julian Castro).
As often with faux populism, there’s an element of playacting in these pronouncements. Stephens himself was born in Mexico and speaks Spanish fluently. Moreover, he didn’t object in 2015 when Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio spoke Spanish during the Republican debates. Would the hypothetical nativist Republican who is so offended by the Spanish of Democratic candidates ever switch parties?
The Never Trump theory that they are the crucial swing voters who will decide presidential elections was already tried and tested in 2016. It failed miserably.
During that election, Hillary Clinton made an ardent effort to win Republican voters, especially foreign policy hawks worried about Trump’s alleged isolationism. She praised her friend Henry Kissinger; she used neoconservative dog whistles like “American exceptionalism”; and she even attacked Trump on occasion from the right, indicating he was a little too evenhanded on Israel-Palestine and not tough enough to confront Russian and Chinese leaders. Moreover, just as Brooks recommends in his column, Clinton highlighted Trump’s assault on civility, his personal crudeness.
Clinton’s pursuit of moderate suburban Republicans, what we might call the Brooks vote, paid some small dividends. She actually did better than Barack Obama with this class. But this victory came at an enormous price: It demobilized many traditional Democrats, especially working-class voters of all sorts (both white and African American).
As Princeton University history professor Matt Karp noted in a compelling post-mortem written right after the election, “In pursuit of professional-class Republicans, the Clinton campaign made a conscious decision to elevate questions of tone, temperament, and decorum at the expense of bread-and-butter issues like health care or the minimum wage. This wasn’t just a tactical move away from some culturally distinct group of ‘white working-class’ voters. It was a strategic retreat from the working class as a whole.”
Karp cites Clinton’s final ad: “Clinton’s final TV commercial exemplified the spirit of her campaign. Planted sedately behind a desk in a comfortable, well-furnished room, the Democrat condemned ‘darkness’ and ‘division’ as the camera slowly zoomed inward. Her gold necklace and bracelet twinkling in the softened light, she spoke for two full minutes about work ethic and core values without ever uttering the words ‘jobs,’ ‘wages,’ or ‘health care.’”
Clinton ran a David Brooks campaign in 2016 and tore apart the Obama coalition. She suffered the worst Democratic Electoral College results since 1988. Fortunately for the Democrats, Trump has governed as a far-right Republican, sidelining most of the economic populism he ran on, which allowed him to shave off some Obama voters. As a result, Democrats were able in 2018 to regain many of those lost voters (doing much better than Clinton in rural areas) while also holding on to the suburban voters Clinton had brought to the party. The 2018 victory was also fueled by the party’s decision to focus on a genuine economic issue, health care, rather than bemoan Trump’s personal grossness.
Never Trump conservatives like David Brooks are an interesting intellectual curiosity and often worth reading for their critiques of the Republican Party. But as political advisers they’ve had their day. Democrats don’t need their votes—and should work on motivating and energizing the base they already have.