Portrait of David Brooks from ”The Living and the Dead.” / Andrew Russeth

Whitewash

David Brooks rewrites the history of racism on the right

Portrait of David Brooks from ”The Living and the Dead.” / Andrew Russeth
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Like a recumbent sloth jolted into a panicked flight response, David Brooks has belatedly noticed the rancid politics of right-wing racial confrontation. The New York Times’ most venerable voice of conservative moderation is here to inform you, gentle reader, that the deranged incursion of Trumpinistas into the corridors of conservative power has transformed his beloved GOP into “more of a white party in recent years.” He seeks to nail down the flagrantly bogus argument that the Republicans had, over much of their modern career, been within the bounds of “basic decency on matters of race” via a single cherry-picked statistic: “A greater percentage of congressional Republicans voted for the Civil Rights Act than Democrats.”

Well, sure—except that a “higher percentage” of Republicans meant very little, in absolute numerical terms, at the apogee of Great Society liberalism. Yes, Democrats predominated in the Jim Crow South, but once you controlled for that outsize regional influence, the apparent institutional commitment to civil rights within the GOP promptly vanishes. The significant difference wasn’t partisan—it was geographic. In states that were part of the Union cause, a higher percent of Democrats than Republicans voted for civil rights. And the same was true in states that were part of the Confederacy. Adjusting for this regional variance, “it becomes clear that Democrats in the north and the south were more likely to vote for the bill than Republicans from the north and south, respectively,” writes data journalist Harry J. Enten. “It just so happened southerners made up a larger percentage of the Democratic than Republican caucus, which created the initial impression than Republicans were more in favor of the act.”

This point bears close parsing for the simple reason that Brooks’s cavalier reliance upon it permits him to overlook nearly all relevant conservative postwar history on questions of racial equality. The same year the Civil Rights Act passed, after all, this same racially tolerant GOP nominated Barry Goldwater as its presidential standard-bearer—one of the only non-southern senators from either party to vote against the Civil Rights Act. While Lyndon Johnson dispatched Goldwater in one of the great campaign blowouts in modern presidential history, the rock-ribbed Arizona conservative managed to carry six (heavily Democratic) southern states by exploiting white racial ressentiment masquerading as outraged libertarian principle. Thus was born the “Southern Strategy,” which catapulted backlash maestro Richard Nixon into office in 1968, and set up the GOP as the dominant party in the South unto this day. So at least a few of those GOP congressional roll calls revered by Brooks involved cynical GOP party leaders already apprehending what Johnson himself candidly averred after the ratification of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts: that the Democrats had lost the South for a generation.

In any sane universe of political discourse, a party that connived in the nomination of a birther to the presidency would refrain from pious lectures about racial comity.

And Goldwater was just the electoral face of postwar GOP reaction. William F. Buckley’s National Review—a journal now revered out of all reasonable proportion by self-styled moderate Trump critics on the right like Brooks—was a fiery pulpit of white racial hatred from the moment of its founding. While Buckley partially recanted his revolting track record at the far-too-late date of 2004, the damage had long been done, and inscribed into the demagogic playbook of the white American right. From Ronald Reagan’s assaults on mythical “welfare queens” to George H.W. Bush’s vile Willie Horton ads to Donald Trump’s hateful birther crusade, the story of modern Republican politics on the national stage is a study in unrelieved and bottomlessly cynical baiting of white racial hatreds. Indeed, in any sane universe of political discourse, a party that connived in the nomination of a birther to the presidency would refrain from pious lectures about racial comity until it had sat alone in its room and thought long and hard about what it had done.

But what am I talking about? This is a David Brooks column! Cue the unconfirmable personal anecdotage:

Between 1984 and 2003 I worked at National Review, The Washington Times, the Wall Street Journal editorial page and The Weekly Standard. Most of my friends were Republicans.

In that time, I never heard blatantly racist comments at dinner parties, and there were probably fewer than a dozen times I heard some veiled comment that could have suggested racism. To be honest, I heard more racial condescension in progressive circles than in conservative ones.

This is the very sort of bullshit social observation that launched Brooks’s career as a self-styled comic sociologist and it’s no more valid in this context than in that one. To confine myself to my own anecdotal world, I have moved in much the same D.C. journalistic circles that Brooks has over the lamentable past decade and a half. Most of my friends are of the left, and I have heard exactly zero displays of “racial condescension” in social circles I know better than Brooks does. Absolutely none, anywhere. So I put it to you, Mr. Comic Sociologist, that you are indulging in a lazy unproveable lie to make your disgraceful seat-of-the-pants argument appear marginally more credible to your elite liberal-leaning New York Times readership.

But such opportunistic mendacity is nothing compared to the fairy tale Brooks peddles over the remainder of his column. In this alternate-universe account of racial pathology on the right, there are two warring factions: reasonable and distressed “white universalists” like Brooks and his dinner-party companions, who endorse some vague Enlightenment model of racial fair play; and “conservative white identitarians,” who peddle fables of aggrieved white oppression at the hands of an out-of-control PC power elite.

But wait! The real twist here, Brooks writes, taking a page from the demented rhetorical playbook of fellow conservative-moderate culture scold Mark Lilla, is that the identitarians of the white right are actually the curdled hatemongering cousins of the PC left:

These white identitarians have taken the multicultural worldview taught in schools, universities and the culture and, rightly or wrongly, have applied it to themselves. As Marxism saw history through the lens of class conflict, multiculturalism sees history through the lens of racial conflict and group oppression.

According to a survey from the Public Religion Research Institute, for example, about 48 percent of Republicans believe there is “a lot of discrimination” against Christians in America and about 43 percent believe there is a lot of discrimination against whites.

The mythos of a university-administered theology of “group oppressions” as a runaway pathogen infecting the American body politic is so widely asserted and brazenly undocumented that it suggests the real failure of American higher-ed pedagogy resides in the instruction of right-wing pundits and political theorists. Just for starters, the actually existing history of academic multiculturalism involved the explicit repudiation of class-based Marxist dialectics, so Brooks is committing a first-order category error right out of the gate. It’s a bit like asserting, again without a shred of evidence, that the trouble with the Talmud is that it fails to reckon with the theology of the virgin birth.

It’s a bit like asserting that the trouble with the Talmud is that it fails to reckon with the theology of the virgin birth.

Beyond that, though, to insist that the sense of white grievance now deranging the sanctums of GOP power was somehow incubated on the cultural left and smuggled into the staid, fair-minded house of American conservatism is to ignore social reality as it actually exists in these United States. The meme of Christian “oppression” has of course been a mainstay of the demagogic right-wing media for the better part of a generation. See, just for starters, the Fox-branded “War on Christmas,” the career of Rush Limbaugh’s monomaniacal little brother David, every other demented word out of Ann Coulter’s mouth, etc., ad nauseam.

As for the folk-belief on the right that there is now runaway “discrimination against whites,” apart from the political history Brooks inexcusably distorts and ignores, there’s a little thing called the Tea Party, which was funded and theorized into being by moneyed forces of right-wing white ressentiment. Its greatest spiritual leader, meanwhile, was Sarah Palin, a national political force conjured cynically into being on a cruise hosted by Brooks’s old-boy guardians of polite discourse at the Weekly Standard. To look up on the right-wing political landscape of 2017 and to marvel at the sinister cunning of the academic left in inspiring the white “identitarian” rebellion on the right is to perpetrate a Big Lie squarely in the rhetorical wheelhouse of the racist demagogue Trump himself. Which, come to think of it, is only fitting, since David Brooks and his beloved GOP establishment continue to sit ineffectually on their fretful hands as the Republican playbook of white reactionary privilege descends into its long-predicted, entirely foreseeable endgame. Breeding speaks to breeding, after all—and dishonesty to dishonesty.

Chris Lehmann is editor in chief of The Baffler and author of Rich People Things. His latest book, The Money Cult, is out now from Melville House.

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