Americans love an underdog. Specifically, when it comes to politics, Americans love unpolished underdogs who don’t come across as wimpy, poll-tested, Machiavellian calculators. Here’s the problem, though: We generally don’t bother fact-checking their underdoghood. If they seem like underdogs—blue-collar, rogue-talking, not-conventionally-attractive straight-shooters—we’re generally ready to raise a mug to them.
So it’s no surprise that Chris Christie, the darling of the so-called new American right and well-known bully of the Jersey shore, has enjoyed a degree of armor against his obvious failings for years. Christie, who’s given us such charming soundbites as “You have numb nuts” and “Something may go down tonight, but it ain’t gonna be jobs, sweetheart,” garners the affection of millions with every new unscripted, from-the-hip, borderline-profane utterance.
That is, his lines have seemed to be unscripted. Now, with each passing day, they appear more and more the calculations of an outright bully with plenty of disdain for the American way and very little respect for the dignity and intelligence of the voting public. As his administration’s current brouhaha over the reckless, politically-motivated creation of traffic jams in Fort Lee, N.J., has blossomed into a full-fledged scandal—Bridgegate it is, folks—Christie’s brutish offenses against good governance are on flagrant display. Yet the governor has insulated himself, at least to this point, from any culpability.
“Mistakes were made,” he said Thursday morning at his press conference, conjuring that inevitable passive voice. After all, mistakes were made by other people is the logical conclusion of his statement. Christie presented himself to the media more or less as the hurt father of a dysfunctional family whose members simply, to borrow a phrase from another unfortunate Republican moment, “went rogue.”
“I don’t know anything about a traffic study,” Christie said, before going on to keep repeating that he understood the problems at the George Washington Bridge were the result of a traffic study. “I had no knowledge about this,” he laments, before explaining that his job is where the buck stops and that it is his responsibility to atone for these sins. In other words: It is his responsibility until it is not.
“It’s easy for people to be characterized in public life based upon their personality,” lamented the man who’s built his career on his personality, on his pinstriped swagger.
Yet he accepts no responsibility for the obvious culture of political extortion and brutality his words, approach and style have inculcated in, as we now see, his closest advisors—including his now-terminated deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly, who fell on her sword when emails surfaced to prove that the “traffic study” Christie has no idea about but references repeatedly was, indeed, an act of political retribution. See, he had nothing to do with it, obviously, because, as he stated forcefully, “The language used in those emails is unacceptable to me.”
Yes, that language is now unacceptable. A few months ago, though, such language was the shorthand of his entire campaign.
Remarkably, Christie implicitly endorsed the type of tit-for-tat revenge-governance he claims he wasn’t orchestrating here, in one strikingly casual offhand comment during the press conference: “I didn’t view this as political retribution because I didn’t think he did anything to us.” That is, in Christie’s mind, such a situation would be perfectly understandable if the mayor of Fort Lee had, in fact, “done something” to warrant an organized assault on the safety and well-being of the citizenry. The fact of the matter, though, is that Mayor Sokolich did “do something”: He refused to endorse Christie’s re-election, to add more bipartisan bona fides to the governor’s mythology.
What’s perhaps most dangerous about a demagogue like Christie is that, unlike Sarah Palin, he’s not obvious. He doesn’t swagger about with a shotgun or mention Jesus every other five minutes—the lazy dog whistles the populist right typically uses to rally its base. No, Christie’s approach is a pernicious style of anti-intellectual (really, anti-American) hostility toward dissent, the most repugnant component of which includes a complete disingenuous disbelief in his own responsibility for his own administration’s actions.
“I think I’ve developed a reputation for telling the truth as I see it,” an exasperated Christie remarked. Indeed, the truth as he sees it is one in which he bears no responsibility for the culture he created or the thuggish brutality his words, deeds and actions have imparted on his allies and followers. This is nothing new: Powerful men with distasteful aims oftentimes rely on confusion and misattribution to achieve their disgusting goals.
Touching on the Kubler-Ross stages of grief Thursday morning, Christie mused, “I don’t think I’ve gotten to the angry stage yet.” Several million area residents, however, have been in that stage for some time now.
Josh Kruger is a writer and editor from Philadelphia. His PW column, “The Uncomfortable Whole,” presents stories and ideas that challenge our cultural understanding of what “normal” means in American life anymore.