David Brooks is looking for a happy warrior to stop Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.The New York Times columnist, a moderate conservative, warns each man's rivals that they "can't beat passion with pragmatism," Whether it's Hillary Clinton or Marco Rubio, Brooks urges the rest of the field to campaign with more emotion, warning them that " You can’t beat angry passion with bloodless calculation." Instead, he thinks that the demons of the left and right can be beaten with "warmth, confidence and optimism." He offers Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower as models for candidates and Presidents who inspired a feeling of "neighborliness" among Americans. I don't know as much about Eisenhower, but I think Brooks misreads Roosevelt to an extent. He's thinking of the FDR of the radio "fireside chats" and the guy who said the only thing we had to fear was fear itself. But FDR chastising the "economic royalists" of his time, and declaring that "I welcome their hatred" doesn't sound that different from Sanders railing against the "1%" Scholarship aside, Brooks badly misreads the electorate and the candidates of 2016. He thinks of Sanders and Trump as pessimists because they warn of national decline and worsening conditions for working-class Americans, but I doubt whether their supporters see them that way, since each group believes their man can solve all the problems. From their perspective, the real pessimists are the self-styled realists who think that neither man actually could enact his agenda because of vested interests and entrenched opposition.
A more profound misreading is Brook's belief that Sanders and Trump, not to mention their supporters, are mainly "put[ting] the blame for this disaster on discrete groups of people — Wall Street or immigrants." This is a superficial interpretation of so-called "populist" candidates, when it should be obvious to anyone with ears on the ground that Sanders people hold more than "Wall Street" to blame, and Trump people hold far more than immigrants to blame. Brooks can only propose the alternative approach he does because he doesn't understand the national mood. What good can it do to appeal to neighborliness when so many people think their neighbors are to blame for our national plight? Sanders supporters are indifferent to Clinton's warnings about Republican intransigence because they despise Republicans. How does Brooks suggest any Democrat get them not to do so? Trump supporters are at the point, or near it, where they despise anyone who isn't on their team. Anyone who isn't with Trump is part of the problem, not just because of their beliefs or policies but because of their overall attitude; they are "disgusting" and stupid losers who need and deserve the chastisement Trump is giving them, as a bare minimum. How does Brooks suggest any Republican persuade them to tone down the contempt? If these people are populists, as so many observers insist, then we can more certainly define populism as a belief that people, not systems, are the problem. Brooks, who blames conditions on "structural forces — globalization, technological change, the dissolution of the family, racism," may be right about all that, but that doesn't help him understand how other people think or how to refute their beliefs. He might be able to reach Sanders's younger supporters, who I suspect still think more systemically and thus are more receptive to sweepingly radical proposals, but his older fans are unlikely to reconcile themselves to Republicans after generations of mutual hate. Brooks has less chance yet with Trump's followers, whose analysis of American society is more completely ad hominem than the Sanders camp's. Brooks may yet get lucky and see both Sanders and Trump self-destruct due to flawed campaign strategies and tactics, but if he thinks anyone can beat either man with Brooks's own Pollyana patriotism, then he must be as much a believer in a hidden majority as the Tea Party is -- only his majority, those Americans who still think well of and trust all their neighbors and all of civil society to be part of the same team, is even more well hidden than the TP chimera.