“How We Destroy Lives Now,” David Brooks typed, in his column about the MAGA Teen story, not long before the MAGA Teen would nail down his invitations to go to the White House and appear on the Today show. By the time Brooks’ thoughts on the MAGA Teen and “a new technology that we don’t yet know how to control” were really bouncing around on said technology, the whole thing had already turned into a cautionary tale about cautionary tales about cautionary tales—a genuine catastrophe of meaning buried under layers of argument about perception.
Naturally Brooks wasn’t interested in grappling with any of this, beyond waving his hands at how both sides were implicated in their willingness to get worked up about something they didn’t really know about via social media. David Brooks wasn’t worked up. He is never worked up. He was merely dismayed by the spectacle over everyone jumping to conclusions—and, while being dismayed, he wanted to work in a few conclusory observations about the whole thing:
Everybody involved in the incident was operating in an emotional and moral context that has been set by the viciousness of the Black Hebrew Israelites. Of the major players, the boys’ behavior is probably the least egregious.
So Sunday was a day of conservative vindication. See? This is what those liberals do! They rush to judgment, dehumanize and seek to expunge us from national life. The main boy wrote a public letter that was consistent with the visual evidence and that was actually quite humane.
In this case the facts happened to support the right-wing tribe. But that’s not the point.
The “probably” in “probably the least egregious” was trying to do about five centuries worth of work, and it was bad work all along. The boys’ behavior was fully egregious; that was why it jumped out of the video frame and into infamy. No matter what kind of motivated refereeing you might choose to apply to the central standoff between the drum-banging old man and the smirking teen, there was still a whole whooping and crowding and tomahawk-chopping mob in the background to account for. When a bunch of teens gets that way in normal life, unless they’re a very special kind of teens, people call the cops. Especially the sort of people who read and agree with David Brooks.
It was possible, if you bothered, to keep shaking falsehoods and wishes out of that passage all day (the MAGA Teen wrote that public letter himself? It was humane?). But the crucial one was the claim that the Black Hebrew Israelites had created the context of the incident.
The real and larger context, the reason the MAGA teens were at the Lincoln Memorial to get riled up by offensive protesters, was that they were in town for their own protest. They had been brought in from their Kentucky suburban private school for the March for Life, a grim annual event where the aging American right wing tries to recast itself as a youthquake. The march tells children that they are the survivors of mass violence against children, victims and targets of a hostile culture. Somehow, somewhere along the way, the Kentucky teens decided the way to express this position was by dressing up in Donald Trump’s rally gear: the gear people on TV wear to perform rage and resentment toward their designated enemies.
Everyone on the scene was performing, and they knew they were performing. David Brooks knows what the MAGA hats signify, and he knows how the teens were behaving. He knows nobody’s life gets ruined, especially in today’s media hellscape, by becoming a right-wing martyr. But he’s been doing his own performance for too long to stop now.