Braver Angels was founded, in large part, to help people understand how so many of their fellow Americans could have possibly voted for Donald Trump. This book helps to answer that question.
Carlson’s main point is that the liberals and conservatives who run the country are actually not that different from each other. But they are very different from their fellow Americans who have been left behind in the economic and cultural revolutions of the last few decades. (University of Notre Dame Professor Patrick J. Deneen makes a similar argument in his more academic “Why Liberalism Failed.”) A few quotes should provide a basic sense of Carlson’s message:
“The disaster began when almost everyone in power joined the same team. You used to hear debates between Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, on issues that mattered to the rest of the country. That’s over. Our public debates are mostly symbolic. They are sideshows designed to divert attention from the fact that those who make the essential decisions, about the economy and the government and war, have reached consensus on the fundamentals. They agree with each other. They just don’t agree with the population they govern.
“Left and right are no longer meaningful categories in America. The rift is between those who benefit from the status quo, and those who don’t. That’s rarely acknowledged in public, which is convenient for those who are benefiting. The people in charge are free to pursue policies that are disconnected from the public good but that have, not coincidentally, made them richer, more powerful, and much more self-satisfied.
“Trump might be vulgar and ignorant, but he wasn’t responsible for the many disasters America’s leaders created. Trump didn’t invade Iraq or bail out Wall Street. He didn’t lower interest rates to zero, or open the borders, or sit silently by as the manufacturing sector collapsed and the middle class died. You couldn’t really know what Trump might do as president, but he didn’t do any of that.
“There was also the possibility that Trump might listen. At times he seemed interested in what voters thought. The people in charge demonstrably weren’t. Virtually none of their core beliefs had majority support from the population they governed. It was a strange arrangement for a democracy. In the end, it was unsustainable.
“Trump’s election wasn’t about Trump. It was a throbbing middle finger in the face of America’s ruling class. It was a gesture of contempt, a howl of rage, the end result of decades of selfish and unwise decisions made by selfish and unwise leaders. Happy countries don’t elect Donald Trump president. Desperate ones do.”
And finally, Carlson asks a question that is at the heart of the Braver Angels mission:
“[W]hy should a country with no shared language, ethnicity, religion, culture, or history remain a country? Countries don’t hang together simply because. They need a reason. What’s ours?
“It’s hard to think of a more important question. Our ruling class, the people responsible for these changes, ought to be fixated on it. They ought to be staying up late looking for the glue strong enough to hold a country of 330 million people together.