The blue-collar success stories piled up so fast at the Republican Convention in Tampa that one would have been forgiven for assuming that the party was made up entirely of the sons and daughters of garage mechanics, fruit pickers and removers of rotting animal carcasses from the nation’s highways.
Over and over again, speakers informed us of how they came from families of hard-working strivers, with parents who fought their way up from nothing. Such tales were almost de rigueur, especially if they involved “starting a small business.”
Before telling us how little girls now approach her with reverence and awe, Susana Martinez, the runaway egomaniac who is the governor of New Mexico, informed us that her mother and father started their security guard business by handing her—then an 18-year-old girl—a “Smith and Wesson .357 Magnum,” and posting her in the parking lot of a church during bingo games. There are those who might assume that this accounts for Ms. Martinez’s decision, as a prosecutor, to specialize in child abuse, but never mind.
Rick Santorum told us that he was a first-generation American and the grandson of a coal miner. (He didn’t mention that he was also the son of a clinical psychologist and an administrative nurse.) John Boehner told us he was “a regular guy with a big job,” whose father and uncles had first put him to work “mopping floors, waiting tables” at the bar they owned. Paul Ryan assured us that when he “was waiting tables, washing dishes or mowing lawns for money, I never thought of myself as stuck in some station in life.” No doubt, that optimism was at least partly inspired by the trust fund he would inherit, thanks to his family’s enormously successful construction company (founded in 1884), and confirmed by his marriage to his millionaire wife, a Washington lobbyist and scion of a family of wealthy trial lawyers—not exactly the social familiar of your average dishwasher or lawn boy.
By the time Marco Rubio told us on the last night of the convention that his father “stood behind a bar in the back of the room all those years, so one day I could stand behind a podium in the front of a room,” this trope had reached the level of self-parody.
What could be next? “My father played piano in a whorehouse, so I could play on the stage at Carnegie Hall?” “My mother scraped gum off the sidewalk, so one day I could scrape the Iranian mullahs’ fingers off their nuclear-enrichment cyclotrons?”
Tim Pawlenty made sure to tell us that he was the only one of the five kids in his family to go to college, about the sweetest personal anecdote told by a Republican since the days when Supreme Court aspirant Clarence Thomas used to go around the country regaling audiences with tales of what a lazy no-account his sister was.
All this poor-mouthing of origins, family finances and siblings served a dual purpose, as both a reaffirmation of rugged, Republican individualism, and to support the convention talking point that the press and the Democrats must stop seeking to “demonize success” in general, and that great “businessman,” Mitt Romney, in particular … with their demands that he release his tax returns.
Before the convention was over, Mr. Romney had been transformed—in his own words—into the son of a Mexican immigrant, whose family were “war refugees” from the Mexican Revolution of 1910-17, and who “never made it through college and apprenticed as a lath and plaster carpenter,” before becoming the head of a great automobile company and governor of Michigan.
In fact, Mr. Romney’s family had fled to Mexico from the territorial U.S. to avoid federal prosecution of the Mormon practice of polygamy. (The Mormon “Mexico colonies,” as they were called, were uprooted following the overthrow of dictator Porfirio Diaz by local rebels who had bought their weapons in the U.S.) George Romney was indeed a remarkable man, almost a great one, but he was already an affluent auto executive by the time Mitt was born—able to provide his newborn son with “a few thousand dollars” in birthday gifts, according to Mitt’s wife, Ann.
This money was in turn invested by George in American Motors stock, which, under his dynamic leadership and that old-timey liberal prosperity thing, increased exponentially in value. Earlier in the convention, Ann had described her early married years with Mitt as a time when they ate “tuna fish and pasta” off an ironing board pressed into service as a table, and had to walk to graduate school classes. (The horror. The horror.) But if you believe her earlier accounts of the nest egg George had hatched for his son, they were scraping by on at least several hundred thousand 1969 dollars-worth of investment windfall.
Even by the standards of political bio exaggeration, all this comes off as a rather nervy piece of family revisionism, but never mind. The bigger issue here is that nobody in the Republican party seems to remember what a good job or a true businessman is anymore.
Almost all work is noble, of course, but not all of it is ennobling, and not all of it brings any multiplying or lasting value to an economy, a society or a family. The ambitions of Susana Martinez’s hardworking parents are nothing to mock, but hiring a teenaged girl to tote a .357 Magnum around the parking lot of a bingo game reflects the increasing desperation of the American working class, more than it does the traditional American dream. So is shoveling liquor into drunks, then making your kid clean up around the place. One does what one has to in this world, but the reality that those of us who don’t have that trust fund or “a few thousand” shares of prime stock awaiting their maturity are indeed more and more likely to be stuck mopping floors and waiting tables seems lost on this party. For Republicans, manual labor has become a weird sort of fetish, like Marie Antoinette’s fake pastoral village at Versailles, where she could play at running a working farm before returning to her glittering palace.
For that matter, Mitt Romney himself was hardly a “businessman” in the tradition of his father. He was, at best, a “venture capitalist,” at worst a “leveraged buyout artist”—and it’s not clear that, in a career of endlessly chopping up and restitching existing companies, he really created any net jobs at all, much less invented, produced or marketed anything. In the incredibly lazy, outdated hack job that is his campaign biography, No Apologies, Mitt makes his greatest success story—backing the expansion of Staples—as momentous as Andrew Carnegie developing a process for the mass production of steel.
Sorry, but putting some of your vast inherited wealth behind a company that has found a way to distribute office supplies more cheaply is not the same thing as, say, running Chrysler. Republicans are trying to make the case that Mr. Romney’s vaunted business experience will save the country. Unfortunately, what he has told us of his plans seems all too likely to reflect that experience. That is, taking apart and selling off the majestic constructions of our past.
Kevin Baker is covering the conventions and the election for harpers.org.