David Brooks Vows to Study America’s Suffering Masses

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The New Yorker Festival 2014 - Income Inequality With David Brooks, Jacob Hacker, And Nelini Stamp Moderated By George Packer
David Brooks vows to go seek out "pain" in order to understand Donald Trump. Photo: Bryan Bedder/2014 Getty Images

One of the small dramas that has accompanied the improbable rise of Donald Trump to the brink of the GOP presidential nomination has been a very public meltdown afflicting New York Times columnist David Brooks. 

Brooks has hurled lightning bolts at Trump for many months. He’s called for a “conspiracy” to prevent his nomination. He cheered the #NeverTrump movement to the rafters.

But now it’s looking like all may be lost. And instead of endorsing some third-party candidacy or admitting Hillary Clinton might not be all that bad an option, Brooks is undertaking a strange sort of internal self-exile from politics in order to come to grips with phenomena that baffle him:

The better course for all of us — Republican, Democrat and independent — is to step back and take the long view, and to begin building for that. This election — not only the Trump phenomenon but the rise of Bernie Sanders, also — has reminded us how much pain there is in this country….

Trump’s success grew out of that pain, but he is not the right response to it. The job for the rest of us is to figure out the right response.

And Brooks is honest enough to admit he doesn’t have a clue of where to start other than turning his own habits inside out.

That means first it’s necessary to go out into the pain. 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. 

This is a rather interesting admission from the author of Bobos in Paradise, the chronicler of life along the D.C. Metro’s Red Line, the bard of the “utopian conservatism” of Patio Men living the good life in the sprawling suburbs. What do you suppose it means? Is Brooks going to relocate to some high-unemployment coal-mining town in West Virginia? A meth-ravaged exurb in the Inland Empire? Hard to say. 

Unfortunately, Brooks seems to miss that at least part of the Trump phenomenon isn’t about “pain” and failure but about vindictiveness, self-righteousness, privilege, and, yes, plain old-fashioned hate. During the last two weeks, Trump has won a majority of the primary vote of the rich person’s party in states with the following national rank in median household income: Pennsylvania (#22), Rhode Island (#19), New York (#16), Delaware (#14), Connecticut (#4), and Maryland (#1). He swept the New York and Connecticut suburbs where presumably a lot of David Brooks’s readers live. If Brooks wants to understand how and why Trump is in the process of conquering the GOP, he could start by looking around a bit closer to home than the tormented precincts of the Rust Belt.