David Brooks came up in conversation at beer night last night. One of the participants knew him slightly from his political work in DC. Brooks has a recent essay that has set the chattering classes abuzz, but I would like to focus on a subsequent essay, about Trump’s grandfather, father, and son Moral Vacuum in the House of Trump. It is not half-hearted in its declarations of the moral weakness of the family as a whole. It does not mention possible bordellos in passing, but as central to the narrative.
Just for review, because regular readers will likely have already noticed the obvious, but it is still supposed to be my job to point it out. The facts laid out by Brooks, including the speculation, are probably true, or close enough. What he concludes from those biographies is one-sided, but perhaps not unreasonable. However, I don’t recall similar examinations and indictments that Bill Clinton’s or Barack Obama’s forebears resulted in stunted character development. Both had bigamist fathers and mothers who left them with grandparents at tender ages. Just for openers. Does that matter? One can say yes or no, but I think one has to give the same answer for all presidents - or even all candidates for office. If it matters enough about Trump that David Brooks should make a big deal about it in the NT Times, then we should be able to find similar warnings about moral weakness from Brooks in the Times on, er, others.
I return to a longstanding claim of mine, that liberals are very concerned with being the right sort. This is a tendency, not an absolute. There are certainly conservatives who take this attitude, and liberals who do not. Yet the trend is unmistakable. Liberals consistently argue that conservatives are bad people to the core, or ridiculous people who just don’t Get It. To read Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd is to return to highschool, where eye-rolling is argument, and lack of style is a sin. Late night comedy is much the same (except it has progressed as far as college fashionableness. Still eye-rolling, though. ) The cool kids, defined narrowly.
Barack Obama “overcame” his background and learned how to signal being the right sort of person, right down to the crease of his pants. He not only went to Columbia and Harvard Law, he be became them. Arkansas Bill Clinton figured out how to no longer be the stepson of a used-car salesman, by going to Oxford and Yale Law (or more probably, he had figured a lot of that out beforehand but improved his game at those places). They embraced those fashions. You will notice that in neither of those cases does character enter into it. That only becomes important if you are unfashionable, like Trump. Or like George Bush cutting brush on his ranch, betraying his breeding.
The scene in Hillbilly Elegy in which Vance is quite overtly being interviewed to see if he can become one of the elite impressed me deeply. He makes fun of himself enjoyably, informing us that he ordered chardonnay because it was easier pronounce than the other wine they offered. Yet nothing about this dinner with the powerful measures his abilities or his character in any way. It is all about whether he has the makings of being the right sort.
I have known conservatives I predicted would eventually become liberals because of this personality type, this being influenced by admiring the fashionable. Not the popularly fashionable, the hoi polloi, but the deeply fashionable, the Inner Ring, as CS Lewis called them. I also predicted the same thing in reverse, of people who seemed to be natural conservatives in temperament despite their liberalism, but this has not turned out the same. I don’t know why.