David Brooks

Donald Trump and Political Realignment

The prosperity of Pittsburgh contrasts sharply with the poverty in Western Pennsylvania towns such as Hazleton, creating an economic schism that is driving a a right-left populist movement and political realignment throughout America. (Photo credit: Steve Klaver/AP)

The prosperity of Pittsburgh contrasts sharply with the poverty in Western Pennsylvania towns such as Hazleton, creating an economic schism that is driving a a right-left populist movement and political realignment throughout America. (Photo credit: Steve Klaver/AP)

The 2016 presidential election will set records for outrageous remarks and insulting tweets. It also may realign the American political structure.

New York Times columnist David Brooks credits the campaign of Donald Trump with teeing up political realignment, less to satisfy ideologues and more as a desperate attempt to win the White House.

In a traditional right versus left alignment, Brooks says odds are against Trump winning over Democrat Hillary Clinton. But in a realigned political landscape, where Trump embraces a mish-mash of right wing and populist causes, Brooks speculates the New York billionaire may have a narrow path to victory.

“His only hope,” Brooks writes, “is to cast his opponents as right-left establishment that supports open borders, free trade, cosmopolitan culture and global intervention” while “standing as a right-left populist who supports closed borders, trade barriers, local and nationalistic culture and an America-first foreign policy.”

The notion that this is fantasy was shattered when Britons voted to exit the European Union based on arguments not that different than the ones Trump intones at his American political rallies.

The chaos and economic certainty resulting from the prospective pullout from the EU may give people pause, but chances are that views have already hardened among those who feel left behind or betrayed by 21st Century America.

Brooks openly wonders whether Trump is the leader with the capability and discipline to achieve the political alignment his presidential campaign has lurched toward. “I personally doubt that Trump will be able to pull off a right-left populist coalition,” he says. “His views on women and minorities are unacceptable to nearly everybody on the left. There’s no evidence that he’s winning over many Sanders voters or down-scale progressives.”

“But where Trump fails, somebody else will succeed. And that’s where he is substantively revolutionary,” Brooks concludes. Trump has liberated Republicans from an obsequious reverence to smaller government and put them on a track to support a different kind of government that is more inward-looking. Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” could be translated as “Put America First.”

It is hard to know whether Trump is a political savant who conjured this political line on his own or borrowed it from Europe’s cast of right-wing nationalist parties. Maybe it just came to him as the equivalent of a business opportunity to be exploited.

Whatever the source, Trump’s emergence has confused political pundits and confounded political elites because it doesn’t color within the lines; it creates new lines with bolder, shocking colors.

Brooks predicts the rubber will hit the road on the issue of trade. People in the upper layers of the U.S. economy see trade as good, creating consumer benefits, market efficiencies and new-age jobs in fields such as logistics. People in lower layers of the economy blame trade and immigrants for job displacement, loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs and regional dislocation.

Brooks said this isn’t an abstract difference, but a tangible one, which can be seen by traveling from Pittsburgh, which is flourishing in the new economy, to Western Pennsylvania where small town storefronts are boarded up. This world reality isn’t newly exploded, but it now has been irrevocably stamped onto the political culture of America.

Clinton may win this fall because of her wider appeal and voter disgust over some of Trump’s egregious views and comments. But she and the Congress, whether still in control of Republicans or not, will face the challenge of governing outside the old political lines and within a realigned political structure.

The Unraveling of Politics

Belligerence and brute force are supplanting politics as the way America addresses issues and Americans address each other.

Belligerence and brute force are supplanting politics as the way America addresses issues and Americans address each other.

The “cancer of our time” is the unraveling of politics and the emergence of belligerence and brute force as political principles, says New York Times columnist David Brooks.

"We live in a big, diverse society,” Brooks writes. " There are essentially two ways to maintain order and get things done in such a society – politics or some form of dictatorship. Either through compromise or brute force. Our founding fathers chose politics.”

Brooks cited Bernard Crick’s line from his book In Defence of Politics, "Politics is a way of ruling divided societies without undue violence.”

Politics has become increasingly unpopular. Voters disdain “politics as usual.” “Establishment politicians” are derided. Anger has become a campaign rallying cry.

Those who preach anti-politics, Brooks says, have turned to political outsiders, delegitimized compromise and trampled customs. “They want total victories for themselves and their doctrine,” he says. 

Politics at its best is messy, Brooks explains. "Politics is a muddled activity in which people have to recognize restraints and settle for less than they want. Disappointment is normal.”

What anti-politicians serve up are "soaring promises" that "raise ridiculous expectations.” Inexperienced anti-politicians thwart the political process, making government appear even more dysfunctional and generating ever-deepening voter cynicism. That disgust, in turn, leads to stronger demands for outsiders who are even more unbendable and politically reckless.

That downward spiral of politics breeds a pandemic that infects officeholders open to deal-making and compromise. They fear looking open to a deal will be a sign they have become part of the political establishment.

"We’re now at a point where the Senate says it won’t even hold hearings on a presidential Supreme Court nominee, in clear defiance of custom and the Constitution,” Brooks observes. "We’re now at a point in which politicians live in fear if they try to compromise and legislate. We’re now at a point in which normal political conversation has broken down. People feel unheard, which makes them shout even louder, which further destroys conversation.”

"And in walks Donald Trump. People say that Trump is an unconventional candidate and that he represents a break from politics as usual. That’s not true. Trump is the culmination of the trends we have been seeing for the last 30 years: the desire for outsiders; the bashing style of rhetoric that makes conversation impossible; the decline of coherent political parties; the declining importance of policy; the tendency to fight cultural battles and identity wars through political means."

Brooks says, "Trump represents the path the founders rejected. There is a hint of violence undergirding his campaign. There is always a whiff, and sometimes more than a whiff, of 'I’d like to punch him in the face.’”

Politics is in retreat around the world and authoritarianism is on the rise, Brooks contends. For America, "The answer to Trump is politics. It’s acknowledging other people exist. It’s taking pleasure in that difference and hammering out workable arrangements.”

Politics works, he says, when people "recognize the simultaneous existence of different groups, interests and opinions. You try to find some way to balance or reconcile or compromise those interests, or at least a majority of them. You follow a set of rules, enshrined in a constitution or in custom, to help you reach these compromises in a way everybody considers legitimate.”

That’s the beauty of politics, Brooks argues. "It involves an endless conversation in which we learn about other people and see things from their vantage point and try to balance their needs against our own. Plus, it’s better than the alternative: rule by some authoritarian tyrant who tries to govern by clobbering everyone in his way.” 

Beheadings May Unite a Divided Nation

Maybe it took the beheading of American journalists to unify a national divided on almost everything to confront the newest danger to world security.Most pundits predicted it would take a miracle to unsnarl partisan gridlock in DC. Maybe it will take something very non-miraculous, like the beheadings of two American journalists by Islamic radicals.

As Congress wanders back to the nation's capital, pressure is building on President Obama to take action against what is viewed as the fast emerging threat posed by ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The threat is fresh enough, there is even disagreement over what to call it. Obama and others refer to the group as ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.