It’s been a while since David Brooks wrote something stupid enough that I felt the need to address it here, so I’m on a high right now. With the recent publication of Michael Wolff’s explosive book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, Brooks fears that the anti-Trump movement has gotten a little too dumb (“The Decline of Anti-Trumpism,” New York Times, 1/9/2018):
[T]he anti-Trump movement, of which I’m a proud member, seems to be getting dumber. It seems to be settling into a smug, fairy tale version of reality that filters out discordant information. More anti-Trumpers seem to be telling themselves a “Madness of King George” narrative: Trump is a semiliterate madman surrounded by sycophants who are morally, intellectually and psychologically inferior to people like us.
Not for nothing, David, and I’m really not joking or exaggerating when I say this, but this seems pretty much 100% spot on, and I’m going to need some evidence to the contrary before I start saying it isn’t true.
Okay, okay. I get it. There is, of course, an element of anti-Trumpism that is incredibly stupid. Anyone who follows Louise Mensch, Eric Garland, or Seth Abramson on Twitter can see the depths to which the anti-Trump movement can sink. But these aren’t extraordinarily popular figures on the left. They’re not on the same level as someone like Sean Hannity. So what is Brooks on about?
The anti-Trump movement suffers from insularity. Most of the people who detest Trump don’t know anybody who works with him or supports him. And if they do have friends and family members who admire Trump, they’ve learned not to talk about this subject. So they get most of their information about Trumpism from others who also detest Trumpism, which is always a recipe for epistemic closure.
Sorry, the anti-Trump movement suffers from insularity? Not the Trump supporters who believe literally everything that isn’t Fox News is a fabrication? Or how about Trump himself, who receives reports from aids multiple times a day full of positive media stories about himself? But no, we’re the ones who are insular.
The movement also suffers from lowbrowism. Fox News pioneered modern lowbrowism. The modern lowbrow (think Sean Hannity or Dinesh D’Souza) ignores normal journalistic or intellectual standards. He creates a style of communication that doesn’t make you think more; it makes you think and notice less. He offers a steady diet of affirmation, focuses on simple topics that require little background information, and gets viewers addicted to daily doses of righteous contempt and delicious vindication.
We anti-Trumpers have our lowbrowism, too, mostly on late-night TV. But anti-Trump lowbrowism burst into full bloom with the Wolff book.
For one, it seems like the consensus on the Wolff book is that everything should be taken with a grain of salt, particularly long, uninterrupted quotes. But the consensus in the media—you know, among the journalists who spend all day talking to the exact same people as Wolff did—is that some details are probably inaccurate, but the main thrust of the book is completely accurate. We already know Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called Trump a “moron.” We know Chief of Staff H.R. McMaster mocked Trump’s intelligence. Trump hired Steve Bannon, who referred to Paul Ryan as a “limp-dicked motherfucker.” He hired Anthony Scaramucci, who said Bannon tries to suck his own cock. (It should also be noted that those Scaramucci quotes came to light because he’s so stupid he doesn’t know whether what he says is on or off the record.) In the early months of the administration, White House staff were leaking so much to the press that then-spokesperson Sean Spicer had to perform phone checks. It’s really not so hard to believe that a lot of the people surrounding Trump think he’s an idiot who is incapable of doing the job. Brooks, however, seems to think Trump is improving:
First, people who go into the White House to have a meeting with President Trump usually leave pleasantly surprised. They find that Trump is not the raving madman they expected from his tweetstorms or the media coverage. They generally say that he is affable, if repetitive. He runs a normal, good meeting and seems well-informed enough to get by.
So Trump repeats himself enough that most of the people who go to work for him compelled to comment on it. And sorry, but “well-informed enough to get by” is not exactly a ringing endorsement, nor is it comforting.
Second, people who work in the Trump administration have wildly divergent views about their boss. Some think he is a deranged child, as Michael Wolff reported. But some think he is merely a distraction they can work around. Some think he is strange, but not impossible. Some genuinely admire Trump. Many filter out his crazy stuff and pretend it doesn’t exist.
If I understood that correctly, Brooks places the people who work under Trump into four categories according to their reaction to him: 1) Trump is a “deranged child,” 2) he’s someone to be worked around, 3) he’s strange, or 4) he’s admirable but admittedly crazy. I wonder how Brooks would feel if the editorial assistants and copy editors who work beneath him had the same reactions to him.
Third, the White House is getting more professional. Imagine if Trump didn’t tweet.
But he does tweet, so what’s the point of imagining him not doing it? The tweets merely add to all the horrible things he and his administration do or try to do, like the Muslim ban, the purge of 200,000 Salvadorians, the most regressive tax overhaul in recent history, packing the courts with unqualified right-wing kooks, attempting to sabotage the health care industry… shall I go on?
That Brooks is so concerned that a single book will tank the movement he believes he’s a part of is stupid. It’s one book. Excuse us if the insanity of the last year is nicely summarized in a book on palace intrigue and we get to giggle at it. And for someone who is so desperate to make the office of the president something to be taken seriously again, he has an odd choice of delineating who he thinks we ought to take seriously:
There’s a hierarchy of excellence in every sphere. There’s a huge difference between William F. Buckley and Sean Hannity, between the reporters at this newspaper and a rumor-spreader.