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February 25, 2017

At the Altar of American Greatness:  Angst in the Church of America the
David Brooks on Making America Great Again

  By Andrew J. Bacevich


  Apart from being a police officer, firefighter, or soldier engaged in one of this nation’
s endless wars, writing a column for a major American newspaper has got to be one of
the toughest and most unforgiving jobs there is.  The pay may be decent (at least if
your gig is with one of the major papers in New York or Washington), but the
pressures to perform on cue are undoubtedly relentless.

  Anyone who has ever tried cramming a coherent and ostensibly insightful argument
into a mere 750 words knows what I’m talking about.  Writing op-eds does not perhaps
qualify as high art.  Yet, like tying flies or knitting sweaters, it requires no small amount
of skill.  Performing the trick week in and week out without too obviously recycling the
same ideas over and over again -- or at least while disguising repetitions and
concealing inconsistencies -- requires notable gifts.

  David Brooks of the New York Times is a gifted columnist.  Among contemporary
journalists, he is our Walter Lippmann, the closest thing we have to an establishment-
approved public intellectual.  As was the case with Lippmann, Brooks works hard to
suppress the temptation to rant.  He shuns raw partisanship.  In his frequent radio and
television appearances, he speaks in measured tones.  Dry humor and ironic
references abound.  And like Lippmann, when circumstances change, he makes at
least a show of adjusting his views accordingly.

For all that, Brooks remains an ideologue.  In his columns, and even more so in his
weekly appearances on NPR and PBS, he plays the role of the thoughtful, non-
screaming conservative, his very presence affirming the ideological balance that, until
November 8th of last year, was a prized hallmark of “respectable” journalism.  Just as
that balance always involved considerable posturing, so, too, with the ostensible
conservatism of David Brooks: it’s an act.

Praying at the Altar of American Greatness

In terms of confessional fealty, his true allegiance is not to conservatism as such, but
to the Church of America the Redeemer.  This is a virtual congregation, albeit one
possessing many of the attributes of a more traditional religion.  The Church has its
own Holy Scripture, authenticated on July 4, 1776, at a gathering of 56 prophets.  And
it has its own saints, prominent among them the Good Thomas Jefferson, chief author
of the sacred text (not the Bad Thomas Jefferson who owned and impregnated
slaves); Abraham Lincoln, who freed said slaves and thereby suffered martyrdom (on
Good Friday no less); and, of course, the duly canonized figures most credited with
saving the world itself from evil: Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, their status
akin to that of saints Peter and Paul in Christianity.  The Church of America the
Redeemer even has its own Jerusalem, located on the banks of the Potomac, and its
own hierarchy, its members situated nearby in High Temples of varying architectural

This ecumenical enterprise does not prize theological rigor. When it comes to shalts
and shalt nots, it tends to be flexible, if not altogether squishy. It demands of the
faithful just one thing: a fervent belief in America’s mission to remake the world in its
own image. Although in times of crisis Brooks has occasionally gone a bit wobbly, he
remains at heart a true believer.

In a March 1997 piece for The Weekly Standard, his then-employer, he summarized
his credo.  Entitled “A Return to National Greatness,” the essay opened with a glowing
tribute to the Library of Congress and, in particular, to the building completed
precisely a century earlier to house its many books and artifacts.  According to
Brooks, the structure itself embodied the aspirations defining America’s enduring
purpose.  He called particular attention to the dome above the main reading room
decorated with a dozen “monumental figures” representing the advance of civilization
and culminating in a figure representing America itself.  Contemplating the imagery,
Brooks rhapsodized:

“The theory of history depicted in this mural gave America impressive historical roots,
a spiritual connection to the centuries. And it assigned a specific historic role to
America as the latest successor to Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome. In the procession of
civilization, certain nations rise up to make extraordinary contributions... At the dawn
of the 20th century, America was to take its turn at global supremacy.  It was
America's task to take the grandeur of past civilizations, modernize it, and democratize
it.  This common destiny would unify diverse Americans and give them a great
national purpose.”

This February, 20 years later, in a column with an identical title, but this time
appearing in the pages of his present employer, the New York Times, Brooks revisited
this theme.  Again, he began with a paean to the Library of Congress and its
spectacular dome with its series of “monumental figures” that placed America “at the
vanguard of the great human march of progress.”  For Brooks, those 12 allegorical
figures convey a profound truth.

“America is the grateful inheritor of other people’s gifts.  It has a spiritual connection
to all people in all places, but also an exceptional role.  America culminates history.  It
advances a way of life and a democratic model that will provide people everywhere
with dignity.  The things Americans do are not for themselves only, but for all

In 1997, in the midst of the Clinton presidency, Brooks had written that “America’s
mission was to advance civilization itself.”  In 2017, as Donald Trump gained entry into
the Oval Office, he embellished and expanded that mission, describing a nation
“assigned by providence to spread democracy and prosperity; to welcome the
stranger; to be brother and sister to the whole human race.”

Back in 1997, “a moment of world supremacy unlike any other,” Brooks had worried
that his countrymen might not seize the opportunity that was presenting itself.  On the
cusp of the twenty-first century, he worried that Americans had “discarded their
pursuit of national greatness in just about every particular.”  The times called for a
leader like Theodore Roosevelt, who wielded that classic “big stick” and undertook
monster projects like the Panama Canal.  Yet Americans were stuck instead with Bill
Clinton, a small-bore triangulator.  “We no longer look at history as a succession of
golden ages,” Brooks lamented.  “And, save in the speeches of politicians who usually
have no clue what they are talking about,” America was no longer fulfilling its “special
role as the vanguard of civilization.”

By early 2017, with Donald Trump in the White House and Steve Bannon whispering
in his ear, matters had become worse still.  Americans had seemingly abandoned their
calling outright.  “The Trump and Bannon anschluss has exposed the hollowness of
our patriotism,” wrote Brooks, inserting the now-obligatory reference to Nazi
Germany.  The November 2016 presidential election had “exposed how attenuated
our vision of national greatness has become and how easy it was for Trump and
Bannon to replace a youthful vision of American greatness with a reactionary, alien
one.”  That vision now threatens to leave America as “just another nation, hunkered
down in a fearful world.”

What exactly happened between 1997 and 2017, you might ask?  What occurred
during that “moment of world supremacy” to reduce the United States from a nation
summoned to redeem humankind to one hunkered down in fear?

Trust Brooks to have at hand a brow-furrowing explanation.  The fault, he explains,
lies with an “educational system that doesn’t teach civilizational history or real
American history but instead a shapeless multiculturalism,” as well as with “an
intellectual culture that can’t imagine providence.”  Brooks blames “people on the left
who are uncomfortable with patriotism and people on the right who are uncomfortable
with the federal government that is necessary to lead our project.”

An America that no longer believes in itself -- that’s the problem. In effect, Brooks
revises Norma Desmond’s famous complaint about the movies, now repurposed to
diagnose an ailing nation: it’s the politics that got small.

Nowhere does he consider the possibility that his formula for “national greatness” just
might be so much hooey. Between 1997 and 2017, after all, egged on by people like
David Brooks, Americans took a stab at “greatness,” with the execrable Donald Trump
now numbering among the eventual results.

Invading Greatness

Say what you will about the shortcomings of the American educational system and the
country’s intellectual culture, they had far less to do with creating Trump than did
popular revulsion prompted by specific policies that Brooks, among others,
enthusiastically promoted. Not that he is inclined to tally up the consequences. Only
as a sort of postscript to his litany of contemporary American ailments does he refer
even in passing to what he calls the “humiliations of Iraq.”

A great phrase, that. Yet much like, say, the “tragedy of Vietnam” or the “crisis of
Watergate,” it conceals more than it reveals.  Here, in short, is a succinct historical
reference that cries out for further explanation. It bursts at the seams with implications
demanding to be unpacked, weighed, and scrutinized.  Brooks shrugs off Iraq as a
minor embarrassment, the equivalent of having shown up at a dinner party wearing
the wrong clothes.

Under the circumstances, it’s easy to forget that, back in 2003, he and other members
of the Church of America the Redeemer devoutly supported the invasion of Iraq.  
They welcomed war.  They urged it. They did so not because Saddam Hussein was
uniquely evil -- although he was evil enough -- but because they saw in such a war
the means for the United States to accomplish its salvific mission.  Toppling Saddam
and transforming Iraq would provide the mechanism for affirming and renewing
America’s “national greatness.”

Anyone daring to disagree with that proposition they denounced as craven or
cowardly.  Writing at the time, Brooks disparaged those opposing the war as mere
“marchers.” They were effete, pretentious, ineffective, and absurd.  “These people
are always in the streets with their banners and puppets.  They march against the IMF
and World Bank one day, and against whatever war happens to be going on the
next... They just march against.”

Perhaps space constraints did not permit Brooks in his recent column to spell out the
“humiliations” that resulted and that even today continue to accumulate.  Here in any
event is a brief inventory of what that euphemism conceals: thousands of Americans
needlessly killed; tens of thousands grievously wounded in body or spirit; trillions of
dollars wasted; millions of Iraqis dead, injured, or displaced; this nation’s moral
standing compromised by its resort to torture, kidnapping, assassination, and other
perversions; a region thrown into chaos and threatened by radical terrorist entities
like the Islamic State that U.S. military actions helped foster.  And now, if only as an
oblique second-order bonus, we have Donald Trump’s elevation to the presidency to

In refusing to reckon with the results of the war he once so ardently endorsed, Brooks
is hardly alone.  Members of the Church of America the Redeemer, Democrats and
Republicans alike, are demonstrably incapable of rendering an honest accounting of
what their missionary efforts have yielded.

Brooks belongs, or once did, to the Church’s neoconservative branch. But liberals
such as Bill Clinton, along with his secretary of state Madeleine Albright, were
congregants in good standing, as were Barack Obama and his secretary of state
Hillary Clinton.  So, too, are putative conservatives like Senators John McCain, Ted
Cruz, and Marco Rubio, all of them subscribing to the belief in the singularity and
indispensability of the United States as the chief engine of history, now and forever.

Back in April 2003, confident that the fall of Baghdad had ended the Iraq War, Brooks
predicted that “no day will come when the enemies of this endeavor turn around and
say, ‘We were wrong. Bush was right.’" Rather than admitting error, he continued, the
war’s opponents “will just extend their forebodings into a more distant future.”

Yet it is the war’s proponents who, in the intervening years, have choked on admitting
that they were wrong. Or when making such an admission, as did both John Kerry and
Hillary Clinton while running for president, they write it off as an aberration, a
momentary lapse in judgment of no particular significance, like having guessed wrong
on a TV quiz show.

Rather than requiring acts of contrition, the Church of America the Redeemer has
long promulgated a doctrine of self-forgiveness, freely available to all adherents all
the time. “You think our country’s so innocent?” the nation’s 45th president recently
barked at a TV host who had the temerity to ask how he could have kind words for the
likes of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Observers professed shock that a sitting
president would openly question American innocence.

In fact, Trump’s response and the kerfuffle that ensued both missed the point. No
serious person believes that the United States is “innocent.” Worshipers in the Church
of America the Redeemer do firmly believe, however, that America’s transgressions,
unlike those of other countries, don’t count against it. Once committed, such sins are
simply to be set aside and then expunged, a process that allows American politicians
and pundits to condemn a “killer” like Putin with a perfectly clear conscience while
demanding that Donald Trump do the same.

What the Russian president has done in Crimea, Ukraine, and Syria qualifies as
criminal. What American presidents have done in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya
qualifies as incidental and, above all, beside the point.

Rather than confronting the havoc and bloodshed to which the United States has
contributed, those who worship in the Church of America the Redeemer keep their
eyes fixed on the far horizon and the work still to be done in aligning the world with
American expectations. At least they would, were it not for the arrival at center stage
of a manifestly false prophet who, in promising to “make America great again,” inverts
all that “national greatness” is meant to signify.

For Brooks and his fellow believers, the call to “greatness” emanates from faraway
precincts -- in the Middle East, East Asia, and Eastern Europe.  For Trump, the key to
“greatness” lies in keeping faraway places and the people who live there as faraway
as possible. Brooks et al. see a world that needs saving and believe that it’s America’s
calling to do just that.  In Trump’s view, saving others is not a peculiarly American
responsibility. Events beyond our borders matter only to the extent that they affect
America’s well-being. Trump worships in the Church of America First, or at least
pretends to do so in order to impress his followers.

That Donald Trump inhabits a universe of his own devising, constructed of carefully
arranged alt-facts, is no doubt the case. Yet, in truth, much the same can be said of
David Brooks and others sharing his view of a country providentially charged to serve
as the “successor to Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome.” In fact, this conception of
America’s purpose expresses not the intent of providence, which is inherently
ambiguous, but their own arrogance and conceit. Out of that conceit comes much
mischief. And in the wake of mischief come charlatans like Donald Trump.

Andrew J. Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of America’s War for the
Greater Middle East: A Military History, now out in paperback.