David Brooks is fed up with today's Republican Party.
In a blistering New York Times column, Brooks accuses today's Republican Party of betraying the actual tenets of conservatism. "By traditional definitions," he writes, "conservatism stands for intellectual humility, a belief in steady, incremental change, a preference for reform rather than revolution, a respect for hierarchy, precedence, balance and order, and a tone of voice that is prudent, measured and responsible."
Today's Republicans, he continues, have abandoned all that. The GOP is increasingly driven by a faction that "regards the messy business of politics as soiled and impure. Compromise is corruption. Inconvenient facts are ignored. Countrymen with different views are regarded as aliens. Political identity became a sort of ethnic identity, and any compromise was regarded as a blood betrayal."
It's perhaps not a surprise that Brooks, a Burkean conservative, finds the party of Donald Trump and Ben Carson a bit objectionable. What's interesting is the precise nature of his diagnosis. Republicans, he says, have become prisoners of their own rhetoric:
Over the past 30 years, or at least since Rush Limbaugh came on the scene, the Republican rhetorical tone has grown ever more bombastic, hyperbolic and imbalanced. Public figures are prisoners of their own prose styles, and Republicans from Newt Gingrich through Ben Carson have become addicted to a crisis mentality. Civilization was always on the brink of collapse. Every setback, like the passage of Obamacare, became the ruination of the republic. Comparisons to Nazi Germany became a staple.
This produced a radical mind-set.
The result is a party that has convinced its voters that America needs a political revolution and is now surprised to find its voters turning to revolutionaries. "These insurgents are incompetent at governing and unwilling to be governed," Brooks says. "But they are not a spontaneous growth. It took a thousand small betrayals of conservatism to get to the dysfunction we see all around."
There is an oddity to Brooks's nostalgia, though. The Republican Party has not been a vehicle for Burkean conservatism for a long time. The Iraq War, which Brooks supported, was not exactly governed by a fear of disrupting existing institutions, even if President Bush had a personality that Brooks preferred. And the hard question isn't whether a moderate Republican like Brooks can lash out against the drift toward Trump and Carson, but whether he will remember this analysis when the revolutionary words are coming from more establishment mouths.
Another way of putting this is that Brooks's point is that you can't say, as Mitt Romney did, that "with Obamacare fully installed, government will come to control half the economy, and we will have effectively ceased to be a free enterprise society," and then turn around and tell your supporters that you've lost the election and it's time to accept that Obamacare is the law of the land. Either America is in an existential struggle to preserve its character, and radical means are merited, or … it's not. If you campaign based on an existential threat you can't govern as if it's just politics as usual.
But while Brooks sees today that Romney's comments paved the path toward Trump, at the time Brooks and others like him saw Romney as their best hope of taking back the White House. That's the core dynamic here: Establishment Republican candidates feel they have to use revolutionary rhetoric to win over the Tea Party, and since they face no sanction from the desperate moderates in their party when they pander to the right, it's an easy choice. Until that changes — until players like Brooks are angrier at the center of their party for indulging these tendencies than they are at the fringe for taking advantage of the result — the Republican Party is going to continue to get pulled far to the right.