Veteran conservatives decry 'authoritarian' GOP’s 'bad path to the bottom'
Although the New York Times’ opinion section is famous for its liberal columnists — including Michelle Goldberg, Jamelle Bouie and economic Paul Krugman — it has had some well-known conservative columnists as well. Two of them are Bret Stephens and David Brooks, neither of whom are happy with the direction that the Trumpified Republican Party has taken in recent years.
In an opinion piece published in the Q&A format on January 11, Stephens and Brooks discuss the GOP’s dysfunction and “path to authoritarianism.” The GOP, they lament, has abandoned traditional Reagan conservatism and taken a radical, anti-intellectual turn. And the conservative columnists cite some of the precursors to Trumpism.
Brooks told Stephens, “My thinking about the GOP goes back to a brunch I had with Laura Ingraham and Dinesh D’Souza in the ’80s that helps me see, in retrospect, that people in my circle were pro-conservative, while Ingraham and D’Souza and people in their circle were anti-left. We wanted to champion Edmund Burke and Adam Smith and a Reaganite foreign policy. They wanted to rock the establishment. That turned out to be a consequential difference because almost all the people in my circle back then — like David Frum and Robert Kagan — ended up, decades later, Never Trumpers, and almost all the people in their circle became Trumpers or went bonkers.”
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Brooks went on to describe President Ronald Reagan, Jack Kemp and Sen. John McCain as Republican “internationalists” of the 1980s and 1990s who were “cosmopolitan” and “believers in the value of immigration” — all the things that “populist” MAGA Republicans are not.
“Then the establishment got discredited: Iraq War, financial crisis, the ossifying of the meritocracy, the widening values gap between metro elites and everybody else,” Brooks told Stephens. “And suddenly, all the people I regarded as fringe and wackadoodle — Pat Buchanan, Donald Trump, anybody who ran CPAC — rose up on the wave of populist fury. Everybody likes a story in which the little guy rises up to take on the establishment, but in this case, the little guys rode in on a wave of know-nothingism, mendacity, an apocalyptic mindset, and authoritarianism.”
Brooks went on to say that while he had been a big admirer of McCain and voted for him in 2000’s GOP presidential primary, he ended up voting for Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election after McCain decided to make then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin his running mate.
Stephens told Brooks, “There have been previous Republican presidents who rode to office on waves of populist discontent, particularly Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. But as presidents, they channeled the discontent into serious programs and also turned their backs on the ugly fringes of the right. Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency and expanded the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Reagan established a working relationship with Democratic House leaders to pass tax reform and gave amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants.”
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Brooks asked Stephens where the “old core of the conservative movement” can “go” when the GOP has become “Matt Gaetz’s clown show.” And Stephens responded, “When people get on a bad path, whether it’s drinking or gambling or political or religious fanaticism, they tend to follow it all the way to the bottom — at which point, they either die or have that proverbial moment of clarity.”
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