New York Times columnist David Brooks recently got himself into a kerfuffle over a poorly drafted paragraph about a snobby sandwich shop. Brooks was on the verge of recognizing the structural economic barriers that create inequality in America when he decided the real problem is elite exclusion of non-college educated people through esoteric food choices.
Others have pointed out the flaws of his sandwich snootiness, but the more important lesson is not that Brooks is stupid (he isn’t) or elite (he is), but rather that his high-brow thinking is precisely what causes him to be so egregiously wrong. We need to understand Brooksism to keep from making the same mistake ourselves.
Brooks was dead wrong in supporting the invasion of Iraq. There was no logical reason for the war, but there were plenty of emotional ones. George W. Bush wanted revenge on the man who tried to kill his father. Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were stuck in a reptilian fear of strong-men and believe with religious fervor that projecting “strength” through macho invasions will magically keep us safe. Brooks buys that argument, but pretends this is rational and not just testosterone gone wild. Further, a reasonable person would conclude that another reasonable person like Colin Powell couldn’t possibly be duped into supporting a war based on false intelligence reports. Except that he was -- and so was Brooks.
Brooks emphatically predicted Trump would never win the Republican nomination or the election. “When campaigns enter that final month, voters tend to gravitate toward the person who seems most orderly,” he pontificated. Except that they didn’t.
Brooks is both smart and honest enough to admit his mistakes. The trouble is, he finds the wrong reasons for why he was wrong -- rational explanations that absolve him of blame and do not prevent him from making the same mistakes again.
He pretended to learn from his Iraq mistake, but didn’t. Brooks still kids himself that a military invasion is akin to a non-violent, homegrown movement like that which toppled the apartheid regime in South Africa or Poland’s communist regime.
Last month, Brooks said the Whitewater scandal had more substance that Trump’s connections to Russia and that both were overblown hysteria by the media. A reasonable person might conclude there is simply no way Trump associates would be dumb enough to collude with Russian agents to rig a US election. But as we’ve seen, not all Trump associates are reasonable.
To understand the world, we should view events not only through a lens of reasonableness, but also through other viewfinders that include anger, fear, courage, greed, and patriotism. These are not things David Brooks, or any of us, learned in college or in fancy restaurants. Without these emotional frames, Brooks and many others will keep missing things that seem obvious to those willing to look with our hearts as well as our minds.
My point is not to chastise Mr. Brooks or change his thinking. He’s entitled to walk through dark alleys with his reasonability blinders on if he wants to. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us should. The hyper-reasonability of beltway pundits has caused many sane Americans to conclude that the “establishment” is indeed full of baloney. That disdain helped fuel Trump’s election, but the pundits want to turn the tables and blame Trumpism on mindless populists. We might do better if we tried to understand people through the lens of real life than to condescend to them through a veil of presumptuous rationality.