National Security

What David Brooks Gets Wrong About Trump and Other Conservatives

Times columnist coined a cute phrase — the 'resentniks' — but he's forgotten some key facts about conservative populism

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David Brooks doesn’t get it.

Considering his status as a High Tory and a columnist for The New York Times, it’s understandable. Establishmentarians like Brooks live by a certain status quo. His peers, including neocon Max Boot and others, seem entirely incapable of seeing the deeper meaning of President Donald Trump and Trumpism.

Boot, in his new book, “The Corrosion of Conservatism,” also misunderstands American conservatism. Much of his work seems to suggest that the American conservative should be a defender of the bureaucracy rather than a fierce opponent of it.

Brooks, a respected columnist, recently wrote a piece lamenting “The Rise of the “Resentniks.”

Cute phrase — but what does it mean?

It means Brooks and his fellow Establishment Republicans and neocons are successful winners and Trump and his disciples are all simpletons, unable to compete with the glitteringly glorious success that Brooks and his kind have achieved in life. They’re so resentful and jealous of Brooks’ success that they elected Trump so they could cheat Brooks out of the winner’s circle.

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He ends by pleading with conservatives to return to a system that rewards “excellence.” A system, by pure coincidence, that would see Brooks, establishmentarians and Tories remaking the world in their image — while we lowly, non-intellectual conservative failures silently consent.

I’m sure the Amtrak Acela corridor crowd will be quick to embrace his new term, just as they recently embraced the incendiary but also meaningless term “tribalism.”

However, if by coining such a phrase, he opposes the challenges to the ruling order posed by Trump and his followers, then Brooks needs to study history more closely. The American Revolution — from which American conservatives draw their inspiration — was against the status quo of British rule. From Jefferson to Lincoln to Goldwater to Buckley and Reagan, all expressed profound opposition to all concentrations of power, as they posed a threat to individual rights, privacy and the dignity of the individual.

Indeed, the proper state of American conservatism is to exist in a state of perpetual revolution. As Bill Buckley, the original intellectual leader of American conservatism, said, “I will not cede more power to the state. I will not willingly cede more power to anyone, not to the state, not to General Motors, not to the CIO. I will hoard my power like a miser, resisting every effort to drain it away from me. I will then use my power as I see fit. I mean to live my life an obedient man, but obedient to God, subservient to the wisdom of my ancestors; never to the authority of political truths arrived at yesterday at the voting booth … [A] democracy can itself be as tyrannical as a dictatorship, since it is the extent, not the source, of government power that impinges on freedom. The government can’t do anything for you, except in proportion as it can do something to you.”

Or as Margaret Thatcher, herself more of an American conservative than a British conservative, said, “Beware the Nanny State. The state that takes too much from you in order to do too much for you.”

“I mean to live my life an obedient man, but obedient to God, subservient to the wisdom of my ancestors; never to the authority of political truths arrived at yesterday at the voting booth.”

Brooks deems himself an intellectual and, as such, all intellectuals should rule because they look down on the hoi polloi. They deem themselves intellectual because they associate with the intellectual classes — and deem everyone who is not a part of their class as unintellectual.

But a true intellectual conservative, Russell Kirk, nailed it when he said that populism was “a revolt against the smart guys.”

Never in his lifetime would Brooks or his ilk be comfortable uttering such apostasy to a neocon or a High Tory, which are very much the same and similar to Marxism.

The British Empire wished to spread its influence over the world (lest we forget the old phrase, “The sun never sets on the British Empire”). Similarly, neo-conservatism through nation building wishes to extend a Pax Americana aggressive, foreign policy throughout the world, much like the Wilsonian view of “making the world safe for democracy.”

Marx wished to make the world safe for communism by making us all communists. Neocons wish to make the world safe for … neoconservatism.

Buckley, like Goldwater, Reagan, and all true American conservatives, cringed at all concentrations of power, knowing that inevitably led to corruption and the diminution of personal freedom. Buckley, Goldwater and Reagan were deeply opposed to all forms of “bigness.” So is Trump. Or he should be. This is the nexus between American populism and American conservatism.

Reagan, in announcing his 1976 presidential challenge to Gerald Ford, inveighed against “big business,” “big labor,” and “big government,” sounding a populist message. Of course, Reagan was extremely well read, a true intellectual as he is now recognized.

Related: Does Trump Measure Up to Reagan? What You Must Know

Trump is not the intellectual that Buckley, Goldwater and Reagan were, but what he does not see by reason he feels by emotion. He ran against the swamp, a term that needed no explanation. Trump has now fashioned a GOP of “resentniks” — who resent the abuses of power and the corruption of the ruling classes.

So did his predecessors, including Thomas Jefferson, who said, “The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to always be kept alive.”

Resistance and resentment to the taking away of personal freedoms and the widespread corruption of the elites is the legacy and the hallmark of American conservatism and American populism.

Craig Shirley is a New York Times best-selling author and presidential historian. He has written four books on President Ronald Reagan, along with his latest book, “Citizen Newt: The Making of a Reagan Conservative,” about the early career of former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. He lectures frequently at the Reagan Library and is the Visiting Reagan Scholar at Eureka College in Illinois, the 40th president’s alma mater. He also wrote the critically acclaimed “December 1941.” 

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