Donald Trump’s popularity in the primary marathon has upended several campaign truisms. Whereas media-enforced rules of political behavior require candidates to avoid mocking their opponent’s low energy or proposing outrageous solutions, Trump has done both—without apology. His shoot-from-the-hip edicts have catapulted him to the top of the Republican polls. Straight talk from straight shooters wins supporters. Middle class Americans overlook Trump’s privileged birth, content in their knowledge that instead of squandering his youth in anticipation of his inheritance, Trump worked. And worked. And worked. After reading Arthur C. Brooks’ The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America, one might even conclude that Trump moonlighted as a ghostwriter between episodes of The Apprentice. Brooks’ thesis—“Conservatives have the right stuff to lift up the poor and vulnerable—but have been generally terrible at winning people’s hearts” (179)—looks like a conundrum whose solution The Donald may ride right into the White House.
Unfortunately, what’s good for the billionaire New York goose is not necessarily good for the think tank president gander, whose latest manifesto aims to, borrowing from Trump one more time, “Make America Great Again!” As head of the American Enterprise Institute, Brooks spends his workdays as an evangelist for “expanding liberty, increasing individual opportunity and strengthening free enterprise.” Here, in seven enthusiastic chapters, Brooks explains how capitalism and free markets have produced “the greatest antipoverty achievement in world history.” (2) As he aptly notes, “Globalization, free trade, property rights, the rule of law, and entrepreneurship” have increased wealth worldwide and eradicated much of the suffering that had been mankind’s abject historical lot. And all this occurred, remarkably, despite the misdeeds of Pecksniffian central bankers, the sheer villainy of third world kleptocrats, the predations of Latin American caudillos, and the venality of Republican politicians more concerned with reelection than the solvency of the United States.
In a tone more reminiscent of a tent revival preacher than a thoughtful academic, Brooks urges his disciples to “concentrate each day on the happiness portfolio…resist the worldly formula of misery…[and] celebrate the free enterprise system.” His “Three Lessons for America” remind us that “Human dignity is not a function of wealth,” “All honest work is a sanctified pursuit,” and, pace Trump, “It’s not where you start out that defines you, it’s where you are going.” By the time I had finished his chapter on the “Seven Habits of Highly Effective Conservatives” and another one that included the four steps for conservatives to transition “From Protest Movement to Social Movement,” I was wondering if I had been redirected to listicles.com where I was reading a fusion of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People and the latest GOP talking points. Rhetoric that succeeds when shouted from a podium in Council Bluffs, Iowa, often doesn’t transfer well to the printed page.
But while Republican readers may applaud Brooks’ style, the conservatives addressed in his title will recoil from his substance. He warns again and again that the great American “core safety net” will break unless society makes some hard financial decisions. (142) Brooks cites a 45% increase in food stamp use since 2009 and other alarming poverty statistics as forces soon to rip a giant hole in the safety net. His solution? Exclude from entitlement spending those “people who aren’t really poor.” You mean like millionaire retirees whose monthly Social Security checks fund their fine dining and country club dues? No, not them. Those needy folks donate to the American Enterprise Institute and have been taught by AARP to shriek “We earned those benefits!” should a means test or other reasonable effort be made to stop the transfer of wealth from their struggling, working grandchildren. Brook’s safety net, ideally designed to help those in times of need, has morphed into another opportunity for rent-seekers (the bane of true, limited government conservatives) to manipulate their way to undeserved riches.
Nowhere does Brooks consider conservative objections to that same core safety net as destructive of higher conservative principles, such as, for example, the primacy of the family. The conservative safety net starts with the family, extends out to friends and neighbors, and then looks to civic and religious institutions before ever asking for help from any government agency. New York’s visionary senator Daniel Moynihan warned fifty years ago about the social and individual pathologies destroying the American Negro family. By comparison, Brooks says little about rampant divorce or profligate out-of-wedlock births in rebuilding the conservative heart. This is especially odd coming from an author who reminds us throughout the text of his deeply held Roman Catholic faith.
True conservatives may finally see the merit in trigger warnings as they read on. Europe’s childless, aging population only worries Brooks from a fiscal perspective. Although he bemoans the Continent’s empty churches, he fails to address the tectonic cultural shift now that its “mosques are full on Fridays.” He takes umbrage at Joe Biden’s 2014 pandering question on The View, “How many of you are single women with children, in a dead-job?” for all the wrong reasons. Brooks blanched, not because Moynihan’s nightmare vision relegating unlucky fatherless children to lifelong poverty has come true, but rather because “elite society” frowns on McJobs.
Instead of proposing conservative solutions as implied by the book’s title, Brooks’ prescriptions come straight from the textbook of nineteenth century Classical Liberalism where a few technocratic tweaks can set us on the path to soulless abundance. Christianity and Islam appear as just two peas in the same cozy religious pod in Brooks’ view, while each child born into poverty and its attendant social pathologies is nothing more than a rational, self-interested, profit-maximizing homo economicus larva. Classical liberals who have read their Smith, Bentham, List, and now Brooks, know their supply and demand curves; small “c” conservatives like Moynihan and Trump know their history and culture. More importantly, orthodox conservatives will dismiss the economic remedies promoted in The Conservative Heart, aside from having little relation to a conservative disposition, for amounting to nothing outside their proper historical and cultural context.