ELIOT WEINBERGER ~
A Hologram for President
1 September 2012
Poor Mitt. He became the Republican candidate for president by default, as the least worst choice from a pack of bizarre characters seemingly drawn from reality TV shows or Thomas Pynchon novels, but he’s not finding much love, even at his own coronation. Only 27 per cent of Americans think that he’s a ‘likeable’ guy. (Obama gets 61 per cent.) On television he projects a strange combination of self-satisfaction and an uneasiness about dealing with others who might doubt his unerring rectitude. The only well-known anecdotes about his bland life of acquiring wealth are both cruel: leading a pack of bullies at his prep school, personally cutting off the long hair of a weeping and pleading gay student, and putting the family dog in a box on the roof of his car for a twelve-hour drive to Canada. (His five sons knew something was wrong when they saw diarrhoea streaming down the back window.) Even Ann Romney, given the task of ‘humanising’ Mitt on the opening night of the Republican convention, couldn’t come up with a single warm or amusing story from their 43 years of marriage. One commentator has compared him to Prince Charles at a welcoming ceremony in New Guinea: he maintains a fixed half-smile, but has no idea what the natives are getting excited about.
Americans value sincerity, above all, in their presidential candidates, regardless of opinions on specific issues. Obama, Bush Jr, Bill Clinton, Reagan all appeared to mean what they say. Failed candidates (Hillary Clinton, McCain, Kerry, Gore, Bush Sr) were all too obviously reversing or avoiding long-held beliefs to pander to the various voting constituencies. But Romney is more than merely insincere. He seems to be a hologram programmed by whatever audience he is addressing at that moment. With an expression as impenetrable as Andy Warhol’s, he is reminiscent of the Warhol who once told an interviewer: ‘Just tell me what to say.’ He is the simulacrum of a candidate: many have noticed his uncanny resemblance to the extraterrestrials in 1950s movies who take on human form.
Republican dogma forces him to rail against the Obama health plan, but sometimes he can’t help but brag about the success of the identical health plan he instituted as governor of Massachusetts. He has subscribed to every possible variation in the medieval theological debate over abortion, and contradicts himself, sometimes on the same day, on economic details. He was at his most Romneyesque when, denouncing gay marriage he said: ‘I agree with 3000 years [sic] of recorded history … Marriage is an institution between a man and a woman.’ He was not only erasing his former support of gay rights, but his own recorded history: his great-great-grandfather had twelve wives and his great-grandfather five, and his father was born in a colony of renegade Mormon polygamists in Mexico.
Romney is so inordinately proud of his enormous wealth, which he mentions at every opportunity, that he apparently assumed it would command unquestioned respect from the masses. He’s been actively running for president for six years, but – even to the amazement of Fox News – it never occurred to him that it might not be terribly appealing to American voters that a potential president hoards his millions in the tax shelters of Switzerland and the Cayman Islands. Or that an election year in the midst of an economic recession might not be the moment to spend $12 million renovating his beach house in California, complete with an elevator for his cars. Or that perhaps his wife should have been encouraged to take up another hobby besides $400,000 dressage horses.
His campaign ‘narrative’ (as the political handlers say) was going to be simple: ‘The economy is a mess and we need a successful businessman to clean it up.’ It seems never to have occurred to him that the Democrats might start looking into exactly how he made his $250 million. Americans revere mega-capitalists who actually make something – consider the canonisation of St Steve Jobs, despite all those Apple sweatshops in Asia – but Mitt, as is often said, is Gordon Gecko, master of the universe of leveraged buyouts. Ordinary mortals have trouble understanding how it all works, but they can see the results: the closed factories, the tens of thousands of jobs lost, the ostentatious displays of wealth, the famous photograph of Mitt and the Bain Capitalists posing with $20 bills stuffed in their mouths and ears. No one, even the experts, can quite figure out his Byzantine system of tax avoidance. (How, for example, he has $100 million in his Individual Retirement Account, a tax-free government pension plan, when the rest of us are only allowed a maximum donation of $6000 a year. Or how, when the tax credit for a child is $1000, he gets a $77,000 credit for one of Ann’s horses.) He is, of course, keeping these secrets to himself, and has refused to release his tax returns. As Ann Romney put it: ‘We’ve given all you people need to know.’
Even Republicans don’t like Mitt. (John McCain thought the inimitable Sarah Palin a better choice as his running mate.) At the convention, it was astonishing how many speakers barely mentioned the presidential candidate at all. In the end, there was almost nothing for a good Republican to say. His business career – however much they try to portray him as a ‘job creator’, which is palpably untrue – is poisonous. His acts as governor of Massachusetts were the exact opposite of everything proposed in the party platform. For these railers against government spending, his management of the 2002 Winter Olympics cost $1.5 billion in taxpayer money – more than all seven previous Olympics in the US combined – and was denounced at the time by McCain as a ‘national disgrace’. (Nor does anyone want to be reminded of Mitt’s embarrassing performance at the London Olympics.) He cannot be praised as a ‘patriot’, when he avoided the Vietnam War by becoming a Mormon missionary for two years among the barbaric tribes of France (and where, typical of his social skills, he did not manage to convert a single soul, which he attributed to the natives’ addiction to wine). He is not, like Bush Jr, a guy you’d supposedly like to have a beer – or, in his case, a glass of milk – with. And, try as they might, he can’t really be extolled as a man of faith, a bishop in his church, for Catholics and evangelical Christians tend to find Mormonism as bizarre as Scientology, with its secret rituals, its unusual underwear, its afterlife where every man has his own planet, with his wives as moons around it. The best the Republicans can say about him is epitomised in a line from Mike Huckabee, the Baptist preacher and former governor of Arkansas with higher political aspirations: ‘If you've just been diagnosed with a brain tumour, you honestly don't care if your neurosurgeon is a jerk.’
Romney has attempted to ‘energise the base’, as they say, by selecting Paul Ryan as his running mate. Ryan is the Tea Party wunderkind, a body-builder who likes to show off his six-pack abs, an ardent disciple of the ‘rational selfishness’ of Ayn Rand (except, of course, for the atheism) who requires his interns to read Atlas Shrugged. He is the author of the Tea Party manifesto, the ‘Ryan budget’, which adds trillions of dollars to the military; cuts trillions from every programme that aids the poor, the disabled, schoolchildren or the environment; privatises Medicare and Social Security (the health and assistance programmes for senior citizens); and completely eliminates nearly all the taxes that rich people pay: capital gains, dividend interest and estate taxes. (Under the Ryan budget, Romney himself would end up officially – not counting all the usual Mitt loopholes – paying 0.82 per cent of his income in taxes.) Ryan – an anagram of ‘Ayn R’ – considers the poor to be the weakling parasites of society; he has said that his budget will make them more ‘self-reliant’. Republicans couldn’t agree more: 57 per cent of them believe the poor are poor because they’re lazy.
There is, however, a portion of humanity that Ryan does indeed care about: fertilised eggs. He not only supports an amendment to the Constitution banning abortion in all circumstances, including danger to the health of the mother, incest and rape (which he calls merely a ‘method of conception’). He is also the sponsor of bills that would declare a single fertilised egg a ‘person’. (One imagines it with a little hat and stick arms and legs.) Thus, anything that destroys an egg would be legal ‘murder’ – which includes not only abortion, but many methods of contraception and even in vitro fertilisation.
Republicans adore him, and the general consensus is that, only 42 years old, Privatise Ryan is the future face of the party. I suspect that he’s a passing fad. On television, his charisma is inexplicable: he looks and sounds like Woody Woodpecker, though a Woody who has perfected two puppy dog expressions: eager for a treat and baleful eyes. My son says he’s like the most annoying kid in high school: the one who raises his hand to tell the science teacher that they’re running short on petri dishes. His speech at the convention, while enthusiastically embraced by the faithful, was so full of factual lies about the Obama administration that its mendacity became the major topic of response, even in the mainstream media commentary. (A Romney spokesman countered: ‘We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers,’ which was reminiscent of the Bush Jr administration’s derision towards the ‘reality-based’.)
In the end, the Romney-Ryan ticket is running on a single platform: ‘We’re the white guys.’ White people, in the next few decades, will become a minority in the USA. (2011 was the first year in which the majority of babies born were non-white.) Obama is the most visible sign of this inevitable future and there is no doubt that it is race that has led Republicans to oppose everything Obama supports (even if they supported it the week before). Sixty-four per cent of Republicans still believe that Obama was born in Kenya – Romney likes to joke that no one ever asks him for his birth certificate. Thirty-four per cent of conservatives think Obama is a Muslim. The continual Republican refrain is that ‘Obama doesn’t understand America’ or even ‘Obama hates America.’
But, as Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said this week: ‘We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.’ Thanks to the police-state anti-immigration policies of the Republicans, only 26 per cent of Hispanics (who would otherwise share the social conservatism) support Romney. In the latest poll, he gets 0 per cent of the African-American vote. (They couldn’t find a single black person who likes Mitt? Even McCain got 4 per cent.) In Tampa, the Republicans managed to put some minority speakers on the stage – most notably Condoleezza Rice – but the crowd in the hall itself was a sea of milk. Nationally, the Republicans are 90 per cent white.
Demographics are shrinking the Republican Party, which is not merely the last fortress of white people. Like Japanese soldiers discovered on a Pacific island ten years after the war, Republicans don’t seem to know that the world has changed. The new generations simply don’t object to the social issues – mainly abortion and gay marriage – with which the Party used to rally the troops. Most people, living through last July, the hottest month in recorded history, believe that global warming exists. (Romney, in his acceptance speech, ridiculed Obama for caring about this.) Above all, in one of the strangest reversals in American politics, it is now the Democrats who have become the true conservatives, trying to maintain the status quo: a federal government that is, at least in part, devoted to the various forms of social welfare. The Republicans have been largely taken over by people who, not very many years ago, were considered the lunatic fringe.
On the way to his nomination, Romney competed in the primaries against, among others, Rick Santorum, a former senator who is against public schools – he believes that education is the responsibility of parents and should not be left to ‘government employees’ – and Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who thinks we shouldn’t pay any taxes at all and that the Muslim Brotherhood has infiltrated all the branches of the Obama administration. Her colleague Congressman John Shimkus, chairman of the subcommittee that deals with climate change, says there’s nothing to worry about: ‘The earth will only end when God declares its time to be over.’ On the same committee, Congressman Joe Barton says that ‘wind is God’s way of balancing heat’ and that global warming, if it exists at all, is being caused by wind turbines slowing down the winds and heating the earth. Fifty-eight per cent of Republicans believe the earth is 10,000 years old. Congressman Jack Kingston wants to know why, if evolution is a fact, we don’t have an indent on our bodies where the monkey tail used to be. Congressman Todd Akin, member of the Science, Space and Technology Committee, says that an exception for rape victims is unnecessary in the anti-abortion bills he has co-sponsored with Paul Ryan because women can’t get pregnant from what he called ‘legitimate rape’. Ted Cruz, candidate for Senator from Texas (and likely winner), a graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law School, believes that Obama, under the direction of George Soros, wants to turn over the sovereignty of the United States to the United Nations, which will then abolish golf courses and paved roads. Many of the Republican-controlled state legislatures have passed laws saying that their state cannot be subject to Sharia law, and the one in Oklahoma is debating a bill to ban the use of aborted human foetuses in food for human consumption. Gabriela Saucedo Mercer, a Mexican-American candidate for Congress, wants to ban all Middle Eastern and Chinese immigrants, legal or illegal, because ‘they look Mexican’ and ‘mix in’, but ‘their only goal in life is to cause harm to the United States.’
Mitt may be a dull man, but he’s not crazy. He’s tried to pander to his constituency – for example, assuring a worried voter that under his watch the United States will never relinquish its sovereignty to the United Nations or claiming that we don’t need any more teachers or joking that he never saw a car with a windmill on top – but nearly everyone agrees the cause is hopeless, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars that Romney will spend for television advertising, paid for by a handful of billionaires. The convention in Tampa was notable for the spectacle of the young Alpha-males, vying for dominance in the 2016 elections. But, in the end, it will only be remembered for the sight of a dishevelled Clint Eastwood in an ill-fitting suit, mumbling to an empty chair.
Copyright © LRB Ltd.
London Review of Books