Conservative New York Times columnist Bret Stephens wrote over the weekend that one of the reasons Donald Trump appeals to people is that “brokenness has become the defining feature of much of American life: broken families, broken public schools, broken small towns and inner cities, broken universities, broken health care, broken media, broken churches, broken borders, broken government.”
With that hopeless rhetorical vision, Stephens wrote, no wonder people see Trump as “an agent of chaos … who can sweep the decks clean.”
Except no, Bret: “Brokenness” has been the defining descriptor of American life—and for longer than you think. I wrote about the danger of the rhetoric of “broken” in 2011, here at Writing Boots. I asked back then:
When did “broken” become the adjective by which we describe public education, the financial regulatory system, the tax code, The Culture in Washington or American politics in general?
When, and why?
I just read 700 pages of Hunter S. Thompson’s letters about how fucked up American politcs were in the late 1960s and 1970s, and not once did I see the system described as “broken.”
The trouble with this “broken” term—aside from its overuse by the same sorts of hacks who also write horrible things like “speaking truth to power”—is that it’s purposely simplistic.
What if you went to the doctor and after some tests, she said, “You’re broken”? You’d say, “What is broken? A bone? A blood vessel? My heart?” Or if your car mechanic called and said he’d found the trouble: “The car is broken.”
Yet we accept it when a columnist describes the free enterprise system—everything happening in an economy of hundreds of millions of people and dozens of nations—as “broken.”
It’s also a misapplication of a mechanical diagnosis to an organic problem.
And using the word “broken” to describe a social system can have a practical political consequence:
The only way to deal with something that is “broken” is to “fix” it. So if you and I think the American government is “broken,” the only remedy we’ll accept is from someone who promises to “fix” it. Now who are you and I both going to trust to do that? Sure, I might listen to your candidate’s bright idea to improve one or another area of the system. But I’m nervous even about my candidate’s plan to fix the whole “broken” thing. Maybe it’s just the carburetor and a the piston rings!
Obviously, we need terms to make broad statements about complex social systems.
But “broken” is just about the worst word I can think of.
Then why is it the best word anyone else can think of?
And of course, 13 years after self-serving politicians and mush-minded columnists were describing every social pillar as broken, those pillars still stand—chipped cornices, peeling paint and all. “Broken” families are still making ends meet and having Christmas. “Broken” public schools are still graduating students. “Broken” small towns and inner cities are still struggling—but struggling still! “Broken” universities are turning out engineers and scientists and doctors and lawyers. “Broken” health care is still curing patients. “Broken” media is still the gathering news all over the world. “Broken” churches are still open every Sunday. And “broken” government still governs—a pandemic and an insurrection after I noticed everyone was describing everything as “broken,” 13 years ago.
American institutions are flawed—in some cases, badly. Meanwhile they are also demonstrably alive and functioning—in many cases, heroically. And as long as they are, they are curable. Institution by institution, problem by problem—sincere reformer by sincere reformer.
But if you simply believe America is “broken,” then yeah—as I wrote eight years ago from the 2016 Republican National Convention—”Trump Is Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose.”
Believe it or not, my friends: There’s (still) plenty left to lose—and plenty, if we start speaking (and thinking) about our problems in more honest terms, to gain.