New York Times columnist David Brooks just wrote one of the most remarkable articles this remarkable campaign season has seen yet on the Donald Trump phenomenon, and on how (incompetently) the nation’s chattering classes have handled it. In about 1,000 words, Brooks made clear not only how thoroughly he and most of the punditocracy has misunderstood an enormous swathe of the nation’s population, but how little it knows even about the elite policy communities that supposedly comprise its home turf. Along the way, Brooks also provided a valuable (if unwitting) reminder that the chattering classes have become so hidebound and cocooned that they’re no longer subject to the kind of accountability that governs most of the rest of American life.
Brooks’ April 29 offering was highlighted by what looks like an admirable confession. Although continuing to portray Trump as a “gruesome,” Joe McCarthy-class demagogue, Brooks also wrote that the success of his unparalleled maverick candidacy (along with the strength of Senator Bernie Sanders’ run for the Democratic crown) “has reminded us of how much pain there is in this country.” But then Brooks went significantly, and revealingly, beyond this increasingly standard punditocracy position.
“I was surprised by Trump’s success,” he wrote, “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.” And he promised to “rip [himself] out of that and go where [he feels] least comfortable.”
Obviously, the more first-hand contact media (and other) elite mouthpieces have with Main Street America (in all its variants), the better, though there’s no guarantee that these experiences will enlighten. Brooks also has some legitimate credentials as a reporter and social observer – though the work that made his reputation in the latter category perhaps characteristically focused on “the new upper class and how they got there.”
But his “bad pattern” mea culpa amounted to admitting a sin that is all-but-unforgivable in journalism – or should be. Brooks just basically told us that he’s spent much and perhaps most of his time in the punditocracy – and certainly this presidential cycle – pontificating about issues like income inequality and middle class stagnation and how they’ve been affected by Trump’s signature issues of trade and immigration from entirely inside one of the most brightly gilded cages imaginable.
As is all too typical of the chattering class’ members, even if they come from working or middle class backgrounds, they’re become so far removed from them that they live utterly different lives, face none of the economic and social pressure experienced by their less fortunate compatriots, and in all likelihood have spent no meaningful time recently in Main Street neighborhoods or even states (excepting of course quick swing-throughs during campaign seasons).
Yet even granting that Brooks is a purveyor of “opinion journalism” (accent, it seems on “opinion”), he’s just acknowledged that his opinions have resulted mainly from whatever prejudices and groupthink commonplaces he’s absorbed from the Acela Corridor bubble he inhabits. In other words, his sources for the sweeping observations he has confidently made about the nation’s politics, society, culture, and economy comprise a flyspeck-scale, entirely unrepresentative sample. His essays and verbal commentaries don’t result from literal fabrication – the ultimate journalistic crime. But even if not disseminating deliberate falsehoods, Brooks is nonetheless trafficking in exercises in wild extrapolation whose results are comparably inaccurate, or at least misleading.
Moreover, especially on the economic issues I follow most closely, Brooks doesn’t even consult with a representative range of policy community sources! True, scholars, other policy specialists, and think tanks that consistently criticize current trade and immigration policies take decidedly minority positions. But they exist, and they’re not that difficult to find, especially since they manage to attract media coverage on a quasi-regular basis. If you read and listen to nothing but Brooks, however (and so many others like him), you’d never know this. Either Brooks is unfamiliar with them, or chooses to ignore them. Neither conclusion is flattering.
Finally, although he’s not alone in this failing, Brooks’ column not only shows unmistakably that he’s gotten the biggest political story by far of recent decades flat wrong – Trump’s rise – but admits this blunder. In other walks of life, incompetence of this magnitude is called a firing offense. And confessing this ineptitude makes this task a slam dunk for an employer. Yet Brooks keeps bloviating on – no doubt because his views closely mirror those of the family that still runs The Times – in yet another display of the gulf between the chattering classes and the country they feel entitled to lead.