David Brooks has a theory as to why Donald Trump is doing poorly in the general election: the Republican nominee doesn’t know how to listen. As Brooks explained in his New York Times column on Tuesday, “Donald Trump’s Sad, Lonely Life,” politicians have to be gregarious but Trump is a raging narcissist who can’t relate to others. After citing Trump’s awkward performance during the presidential debate on Sunday, Brooks writes,
Politics is an effort to make human connection, but Trump seems incapable of that. He is essentially adviser-less, friendless. His campaign team is made up of cold mercenaries at best and Roger Ailes at worst. His party treats him as a stench it can’t yet remove.
He was a germophobe through most of his life and cut off contact with others, and now I just picture him alone in the middle of the night, tweeting out hatred.
Brooks’s column is a superficially plausible depiction of Trump’s personality. It’s true that it is very difficult to imagine Trump having a heartfelt conversation. The recordings we have of his candid moments, such as his boasting about sexual assault to Billy Bush in a video published on Friday, shows a chatterbox who can’t interact on a genuine level.
But Brooks, as he often does, moves too quickly from the psychological to the political. Trump may well be a narcissist who doesn’t know how to listen to other people, but as a politician he’s very skilled at hearing the concerns of one particular group.
It’s not just that Trump beat out 16 other candidates for the Republican nomination, and in the process got more than 13 million votes; it’s that he’s still the leader of the GOP base today. Despite many conservative pundits and elite politicians’ warning that he’s a disaster to the party, he still has the majority of Republicans on his side.
Trump’s performance in the last debate might have been a flop in terms of appealing to undecided voters generally, and women specifically. But his conduct during the debate was shrewd as a way of re-energizing the Republican grassroots, making it much more difficult for Republican politicians to disavow him. In fact, so successful was Trump that Nebraska Senator Deb Fischer, who had called for Trump to step aside on Saturday, re-endorsed him on Tuesday.
Trump is a very good politician, but in limited ways. He’s superb at tuning into the Republican base and offering them what they want, but terrible at appealing to everyone outside that base. This is true not just of his signature issue of immigration, but also concerns about big money in politics (hence his pledge to self-finance) and rising Islamophobia (hence his calls for a Muslim ban).
Trump realized that there was a vast appetite among the Republican rank and file for overt white nationalism. His willingness to feed that appetite doesn’t speak well of him morally, but it does show that he is gifted with the essential political skill of reading public opinion and benefiting from it. If Trump is a narcissist, he’s a hyper-individualist who also speaks for the mob.
Trump’s gut instincts about the nature of the Republican Party is very rarely, if ever, wrong. Thus, he realized that the way to salvage his GOP support in the wake of the Access Hollywood tape was to amp up his rhetoric by calling Clinton the devil and bringing up Bill Clinton’s sexual misconduct. In doing so he shored up his base, at the expense of alienating the larger public even further.
By failing to see Trump’s skill at appealing to ordinary Republicans, David Brooks doesn’t just underestimate the nominee, he also misreads the GOP. “On Nov. 9, the day after Trump loses, there won’t be solidarity and howls of outrage,” he concludes his column. “Everyone will just walk away.” If Trump were truly just a narcissist, this might be true. But because Trump is also the voice of a large social movement, it won’t be possible for America to just walk away from him after the election. Trump might go, but but the angry white nationalism he’s revitalized is here to stay.