I was chatting with a politically mature friend today who, in the course of some delighted words about Attorney General Merrick Garland, reminded me that in his famous “evil empire” speech of 1983, Ronald Reagan quoted a few choice lines from the preface of C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters. “The greatest evil,” Lewis wrote, is not now done in any Dickensian “dens of iniquity” or even in “concentration camps and labor camps.” Such brutish moral cesspools, Lewis says, are rather “the final result” of the encompassing evil evoked in his awesome (in the old sense) satire.
On the contrary, the evil he has in mind is “conceived and ordered . . . in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice.” Men, that is to say, like Merrick Garland, a lugubrious embodiment of the “Managerial Age,” the “world of ‘Admin’” that Lewis so abhorred. Here, he suggested, is the home office of Hell, “something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern.”
The reason, by the way, my friend’s words about Merrick Garland were “delighted” was because of the huge, if inadvertent, boost the attorney general has just given to Donald Trump’s political prospects.
Monday’s FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Palm Beach residence, was probably the single biggest boon to his stature among voters since he left office in January 2021, bigger even than the partisan witch hunt over which future CNN hostess, Liz Cheney, has been presiding with such ostentatious zeal.
This is obviously a concern among the beautiful, well-pressed people with white collars and clean fingernails who hate Trump. Employing a ju-ju they recognize but do not understand, Trump has time and again demonstrated an uncanny ability to goad his would-be attackers into contortions of self-immolation.
Is that happening now? Maybe. My friend thinks so, hence his buoyant mood and affectionate feelings about the attorney general.
A lot of other people think so, too, though for many the apparently rising fortunes of Donald Trump are not something to celebrate but something to abominate. A good example of the latter was just provided by David Brooks, successfully housebroken faux-conservative columnist for our former paper of record, the New York Times.
In an extraordinary column called “Did the FBI just reelect Donald Trump?,” Brooks eloquently dramatizes the anxiety of those “quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails” C. S. Lewis wrote about.
There are two currents of sentiment running through Brooks’ column. One is a certain obtuse contempt. The other is an imperfectly concealed fear.
He leads off with the contempt part. “Why is Donald Trump so powerful?” he asks. “How did he come to dominate one of the two major parties and get himself elected president?” It’s not his looks. Brooks speaks sarcastically of his “hair” and “waistline”—wink, wink— little synecdoches for the “Bad Orange Man” meme we’re supposed to recognize and nod knowingly about. No, says Brooks, the secret to Trump’s power are the stories he tells, above all the story that “America is being ruined by corrupt coastal elites.” Somehow, tens of millions think that Trump is right. How can this be? “According to this narrative,” Brooks continues,
there is an interlocking network of highly educated Americans who make up what the Trumpians have come to call the Regime: Washington power players, liberal media, big foundations, elite universities, woke corporations. These people are corrupt, condescending and immoral and are looking out only for themselves. They are out to get Trump because Trump is the person who stands up to them. They are not only out to get Trump; they are out to get you.
I know that story. I tell it often myself. And I appreciate its formulation by David Brooks. I wouldn’t change a syllable. It was at the center of what Trump campaigned on in 2016 and 2020. (It will also be at the center of his campaign, should he choose to run in 2024.) The great power of these sentences is that they not only express what Trump believes: they also express a truth that is recognized by those “tens of millions of Americans” Brooks nervously evokes.
It’s because he is nervous that Brooks wants us to close our eyes before he moves on to the next bit of his column. OK, maybe there is “a core of truth” to Trump’s narrative. But really—close your eyes now, and hum loudly—that narrative “simply assumes, against a lot of evidence, that the leading institutions of society are inherently corrupt, malevolent and partisan and are acting in bad faith.”
Let’s leave out “inherent,” since it’s just an unearned intensifier like “absolute” in the phrase “absolute truth,” deployed by people who want to criticize someone for believing that there is a difference between truth and falsehood. Either X is true or it is not; trying to undercut it by perpending the adjective “absolute” is akin to adding the word “social” to “justice” and then thinking you have improved on the concept of “justice.” Is “social justice” more just than plain old, unmodified justice?
But I digress. Let’s look around at American institutions, the media, say, or the educational establishment, or Congress, or big business, or the churches, the entertainment industry, or the profession of law. I’d say that “corrupt,” “malevolent,” “partisan,” and “acting in bad faith” sums them up pretty well.
And here comes a leap. Eyes still closed? Trump’s narrative, Brooks says, “simply assumes that the proof of people’s virtue is that they’re getting attacked by the Regime. Trump’s political career has been kept afloat by elite scorn. The more elites scorn him, the more Republicans love him. The key criterion for leadership in the Republican Party today is having the right enemies.”
And here I thought that the chief criterion for conservative leadership of a Trumpian stamp—let’s leave the Republican Party out if it, shall we?—was “making America great again.” You know, things like nominating hundreds of judges who, like Antonin Scalia, believe that their role is to interpret the law in light of the Constitution, not make the law on the basis of their personal policy preferences.
It’s things like pursuing policies that make America energy-independent, enforcing immigration laws so successfully that illegal immigration is slowed to a trickle. It’s pursuing economic policies—slashing taxes, sharply reducing regulations that are merely burdensome—that lead to the lowest unemployment rates in decades or in history for minority workers, who also saw real wages rise at their quickest rate ever. It’s defanging “corrupt,” “malevolent,” “partisan” diktats like Title IX rules in colleges and “woke” ideology in the military. It’s insisting that our NATO allies act like allies and pay their agreed-upon fees to support the organization. It’s also making symbolic gestures like moving our Israeli embassy to Jerusalem where it belongs, and formulating the Abraham Accords, a world-historical foreign policy achievement in the Middle East.
I could go on. But I don’t want to stand in the way of David Brooks’ main point, which is to lament that Trump’s narrative, such as it is, has suddenly been goosed by the FBI, which, acting on a wide-ranging warrant that Merrick Garland personally approved, raided Mar-a-Lago, rummaged through Melania’s personal wardrobe, and carted off some 11 boxes of documents that have been variously described as classified presidential documents (just think of Hillary Clinton’s 30,000 emails, some of Barack Obama’s papers, etc.) and “nuclear secrets.” (One wag wondered whether there was a video of Trump peeing on nuclear codes with Russian prostitutes, but that probably came from Christopher Steele.)
The entire episode has put David Brooks in a bind. On the one hand, he would love to see Donald Trump taken away in handcuffs and indicted. On the other, the FBI’s actions have galvanized conservative, and even Republican, support for Trump. It has also got people thinking that America’s premier law enforcement agency is, well, “corrupt,” “malevolent,” “partisan,” and “acting in bad faith.”
Overnight, support for Trump, already strong, surged. Brooks quoted a reporter for Politico: The FBI’s action “completely handed him a lifeline,” he said. “It put everybody in the wagon for Trump again. It’s just taken the wind out of everybody’s sails.” Imagine that. Organize a “corrupt,” “malevolent,” “partisan,” and “acting in bad faith” raid by the secret police against a political opponent and people don’t like it! What is the world coming to?
And this is what saddens Brooks. He wants the FBI to pursue Trump. “America absolutely needs to punish those who commit crimes.” Wait while I look for his columns about Hunter Biden, Paul Pelosi, Kevin Clinesmith, Andrew McCabe, Lois Lerner, John Brennan, James Clapper, and other criminals.
Rats, I can’t find those columns. But it doesn’t matter. Late in this column, Brooks comes to the thing he is really scared about. “America absolutely needs to make sure that Trump does not get another term as president,” he wails.
But what about those “tens of millions of Americans” who support Trump? Like future CNN hostess Liz Cheney, Brooks seems to believe that he gets to decide who can and who cannot be president. I’ve scoured Article II of the Constitution, and I cannot find a single mention of either David Brooks or Liz Cheney. An oversight, perhaps. I did, however, find myself thinking about those “quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails” C. S. Lewis talked about. In a “Managerial Age” dominated by a “world of Admin,” you can get a lot done without raising your voice, especially if you have gruesome, smooth-shaven mannikins like Merrick Garland directing the shock troops.