David Brooks on politics, character, and Trump

June 12, 2016

I like reading and listening to David Brooks. I  don’t agree with everything he says, but at least he has common sense and integrity and he writes well. His arguments are also interesting when analyzed from a Luhmannian perspective. In his June 10 New York Times column titled “The Unity Illusion,” Brooks criticizes Paul Ryan, who is supporting a man (Trump) he acknowledges to be a racist.  Ryan apparently believes that anyone would be a better president than a Democrat. Just take any random person off the street and, as long they are call themselves a Republican, then they would be better than a Democratic president. Brooks demonstrates the absurdity of this kind of thinking.

Brooks’s thinking is grounded in the assumption that Enlightenment ethics should ground modern society. He argues that Ryan’s line of thinking is

deeply anticonservative. Conservatives believe that politics is a limited activity. Culture, psychology and morality come first. What happens in the family, neighborhood, house of worship and the heart is more fundamental and important than what happens in a legislature.

Yes, politics is a limited activity; it is only one function system among several. However, the claim about cultural, psychology and morality coming first is more problematic.

According to Brooks,

Ryan’s argument inverts [classical conservatism]. It puts political positions first and character and morality second. Sure Trump’s a scoundrel, but he might agree with our tax proposal. Sure, he is a racist, but he might like our position on the defense budget. Policy agreement can paper over a moral chasm. Nobody calling themselves a conservative can agree to this hierarchy of values.

In other words, Brooks argues that the political system is not as important as religion, the family system, or consensus cultural values. But the truth is that politics is as important or unimportant as any other system. There is no central function system that conditions the rest of society in a unidirectional sense. There is no social core, such as family, religion, consensus values, or human character, that radiates outward. Politics is not central, but it’s not peripheral either. For better or worse, we are living in a society without a center–and we have been since the 18th century.

Brooks goes on to write,

The classic conservative belief . . . is that character is destiny. Temperament is foundational. Each candidate has to cross some basic threshold of dependability as a human being before it’s even relevant to judge his or her policy agenda. Trump doesn’t cross that threshold.

Brooks makes a strong case that Trump is a pathological narcissist who would never cooperate with congressional Republicans. This much is clear. But what’s more interesting to me is the way Brooks puts normative ethics first, as in these words quoted previously:

Culture, psychology and morality come first. What happens in the family, neighborhood, house of worship and the heart is more fundamental and important than what happens in a legislature.

From a systems theory perspective, ethics and morality and character are contingent; you cannot abstract stable, non-contingent, or transcendental values from the complex interplay of the economy, politics, law, and mass media, or even extrasocial systems such as the climate.  There is no given, a priori human nature or psychology. Human nature or character does not come first, and politics (“what happens in a legislature”) second or third. Everything happens at the same time.

As for Trump, he is more of mass media phenomenon than a political phenomenon. He is tailor-made for the mass media because he says something scandalous or ridiculous every day. Other candidates are less newsworthy because they are more or less normal human beings; they don’t openly violate social norms (like common decency) every day like Trump does. And what mass media needs is daily violations of norms. If elected president, Trump would have no interest in day-to-day governing or negotiating, and the mass media would have no interest in covering Trump’s day-to-day presidential work; it would be too boring for all concerned.

When people try to account for Trump’s popularity by referring to wage stagnation or the declining fortunes of working class or non-college-educated white men, they are giving too much credit to the economic system. Or when they point to xenophobia, anti-immigration sentiment, terrorism anxiety, racism, or misogyny, the explainers are still oversimplifying. They are avoiding complexity. Trump’s rise has a lot to do with mass media, but it’s more complex than that, too.

The contemporary mass media seems to love narcissists. In describing the textbook-case narcissist, Brooks writes,

Incapable of understanding themselves, they are also incapable of having empathy for others. They simply don’t know what it feels like to put themselves in another’s shoes. Other people are simply to be put to use as suppliers of admiration or as victims to be crushed as part of some dominance display.

This is interesting to follow as a mass media spectacle, but currently a majority of Americans do not want this kind of person sitting in the Oval Office.

Of course, a large percentage (maybe 35%) of American voters do want to see Trump as the next president, and this reveals something about the declining relevance of the classical idea of character in a functionally differentiated society. For instance, the continued popularity of Bill Clinton after his moral failings became obvious shows that most people had come to believe that the only thing that really matters is for a president to keep the country running smoothly–don’t wreck the economy, balance the budget, etc. Clinton just had to keep doing “his job” well; he didn’t need to have the exemplary character of an Abe Lincoln or George Washington. The president no longer had to be a role model for the country. This is probably how most Trump supporters feel when they look at his near total lack of character or morals in the traditional sense. They just say that he can do the job; he can do what needs to be done in Washington.

But, as Brooks notes, if no one else in Washington trusts the guy, he can’t get anything done. In other words, Trump would not actually be able to do his job as president because the president can’t be a dictator. Bill Clinton, on the other hand, was able to do his job.


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