David Brooks and the illusions of Conservatism

I’ve thought it for decades, and conservative columnist David Brooks has finally admitted it – sort of: most of the people referred to in America as “conservatives” just aren’t: they are, rather, an especially ugly type of fundamentalist revolutionary.

But Brooks’ recent Op-Ed in the NYT – getting this right about the current direction of the GOP, and arguing that these days you can’t claim to be both a Republican and a conservative – is full of tendentious reasoning about what even the true (as opposed to the GOP-phoney) brand of conservatism is.

Beware the idea that we are free-floating rational individuals. Think first in terms of loyalties, communities, and traditions. Put order and culture before individual choice. Respect tradition enough to examine it carefully before abandoning it. Don’t repeat the mistake of Robespierre and the Bolsheviks: you can’t re-invent society form the ground up, or create it de novo out of a social contract. We are not just Homo oeconomicus … Defend the eternal verities from “the soulless pragmatism of the machine age.”

The problem being, the moral foundation of every “conservative” apercu that Brooks lists was being viciously attacked by market-fundamentalist “conservatives” back in the distant era of Iron Maggie and St. Ronald of Laissez-Faire. (“There is no such thing as society.”) And those virtues were in many cases being protected by liberals and progressives who wanted to hang onto old-fashioned notions like the living wage, the family farm, the union job, decent public education, a social safety net, and the the idea both that gross wealth inequality “suits not a commonwealth” (Cromwell) and that anyway even the most talented rich people are profoundly lucky, and owe a great deal back to their less lucky fellow-citizens.

(Speaking of unions, Alito’s opinion in Janus … never mind. Case in point.

As Marx famously observed in 1848, capitalism is a state of permanent revolution, and no force in history is more destructive of the pieties Brooks thinks conservatives are defending:

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors,” and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment.” It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation.

Republicans are not conservatives. But Mr. Brooks, they have not been so for 40 years – and the big change recently is not from “true conservatism” to market fundamentalism, but from an already long-established market fundamentalism to something only very doubtfully consistent with it: Trumpism, otherwise known as Fascism for Beginners.

Soi-disant conservatives have always enjoyed Lenin’s line about liberals being useful idiots. Who are the useful idiots now?