If you have the stomach to read another piece about Trump, make it Jan-Werner Müller’s analysis of populism in the London Review of Books, which (among other virtues) contains a timely warning about “those who draw a lazy equivalence between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.” If you receive the warning in time and keep it in mind, you will not mistakenly venture (as I did) beyond the sixth paragraph of David Brooks’s latest call for a new centrist movement, which rests its hopes on finding ideological room “between the alt-right and the alt-left, between Trumpian authoritarianism and Sanders socialism.”
In general, you shouldn’t trust a doctor who fumbles the diagnosis to nail the prescription. American politics has arrived at a crisis moment because the Republican Party nominated a dangerous authoritarian who managed to eke out an Electoral College victory. He is already setting up an Administration whose corruption, ideological extremism, disregard for the Constitution, and contempt for basic norms is unparalleled in living memory—and the Republicans who control the rest of the federal government have raised nary a word in objection. For Brooks, this sequence of events is proof of symmetrical polarization. The only cure for this disease: a dynamic new movement featuring exciting leaders such as…Bill Kristol.
No, really. Brooks opens his prediction of ideological and partisan realignment: “As Bill Kristol told me…” Kristol is Brooks’s source both for a prediction of the future and (just as unbelievably) a principled moral vision for it. Brooks sympathetically links to a document Kristol co-authored to prepare for the age of Trump, a “defense of the basic institutions and practices of our constitutional order, which now seem under assault.” Left out is any mention of Kristol’s central role in two of the worst political disasters of this century, at least up to now. The word “Iraq” doesn’t appear in Brooks’s column, and neither does the word “Palin.” A brief mention of either would have reminded readers of Kristol’s fathomless cynicism and the responsibility he bears for clearing the way for Trumpism. In retrospect, the ascendancy of Sarah Palin, which Kristol was crucial in orchestrating, seems like the test run for a strategy Trump would execute more successfully a few years later. More disturbingly, her legitimation by mainstream elites was an early warning that the system was neither able nor willing to mobilize against a talented demagogue.
The No Labels & Co. approach to punditry has always existed at a certain remove from policy. Sometimes their calls for a “far center” blend of liberal and conservative ideas amount, in practice, to the claim that Republicans are too far right and Democrats aren’t left-wing enough; at other times, they complain that nobody is listening to their ideas even as politicians pursue exactly the agenda they advocate. But what never wavers in this genre (besides deficit and debt hysteria) is the self-congratulating moralizing of its practitioners. They are, perpetually, the only adults in the room, the only ones who care about the future, the only sober voices willing to rise above petty partisan squabbles. Now, along with the rest of us, they are confronting an extraordinary danger to liberal democracy—and their response amounts to rhetorical feints directed at the “alt-left” and the rehabilitation of Bill Kristol. Hard to imagine why they can’t and don’t get a more respectful hearing.