The election special. A thick edition of the weekly newsmagazine featuring 100 photos that tell the story. Okay, 50 of them are a two-page spread of campaign lapel buttons, something I rarely saw this year. But after that, on page 87, two of the pictures, and the accompanying text, summarized for me the heart of the election. Or at least the Republican side of it. How they hoped to win, and how they lost, was right there.
A poncho, and a work shirt.
One picture was of a dirty plastic poncho. The story was about Mitt Romney's visit to a NASCAR race. He insulted a group of fans by joking about their raingear, their plastic ponchos. Then he said that while he rarely attends NASCAR races, he has many friends who are team owners.
With hindsight, the implications of those remarks, taken together, are even stronger than they seemed then. Romney's sense of superiority, of born to be superiority, stood out like a sore thumb. He was insulting the fans because they were practical enough to wear ponchos that were not branded fashion accessories. It was meant as a joke, but as an insulting joke, where the insult was aimed at the people to whom he was telling the joke. Good insult humor (I accept that it is a real genre) doesn't even work that way; you don't try to actually make the audience feel inferior to you. Mitt's remark backfired because it showed how hard it was for him to relate to his voters.
And the remark about team owners cemented that distinction. Mitt was reminding the fans that he thought himself better than them, and preferred to associate with his own kind, the very rich. Mitt was entitled. Shouldn't everyone accept that? He knew his place, and others should know theirs.
Mitt never had to mix with "commoners". He never had to make friends with them, live with them, work with them, attend school with them. Daddy sent him to an expensive prep school. He went to a difficult Harvard law/business program and passed it, but would he have even been considered for it were his father at that point not already a wealthy governor and presidential candidate? To be sure, he did okay there, which put him a notch above W, who was remembered at Harvard Business School for so obviously not belonging there. But being so high born certainly gave Mitt an advantage.
Then Mitt started Bain Capital and needed to find clients. Bill Bain probably figured that Mitt's family name and political contacts would help, and they did. Bain Capital's initial funding largely came from El Salvador, from the feudal ruling catorce and their adjutants. This was during the civil war there, and the people who funded Bain were the sponsors of the notorious death squads. Most people would have considered them poison. Mitt saw them as friends. They helped him become rich.
Contrast this with George Romney. He started as a poor kid from Mexico who worked his way up. He was a commoner before becoming a respected business leader and then a respected governor. George did not need to insult the working class and middle class in order to remind himself of his own superiority. George Romney spoiled his kids, or at least spoiled Mitt, and the two turned out very different. That's the problem with choosing princelings for politicians: They rarely have the same background as their parents. And while some pick up their parents' values, others are just spoiled rich kids. I do think this largely correlates to party affiliation...
And then I saw another picture. It was a work shirt from Sollman Electric. It accompanied the story of "you didn't build that". As we here all recall, President Obama was talking about the national infrastructure that enabled business to succeed, but the Republicans edited down his text and lied about it, to say that he claimed that business people didn't build their own businesses. Sollman was picked by the Republicans as an example of a businessman who stood up and said that he, not the federal government, built his business.
But that's old news. What struck me about the picture was a subtle dogwhistle. The employee's shirt said Sollman Electric on the left side and had a name embroidered on the right side. The name was Forrest.
Now I don't meet a lot of people in New England named Forrest. I don't want to seem to be insulting any Kogs who might have that name, but it's not a very common name in New York, California, or elsewhere in the north. It is associated with the south. Forrest as a forename often commemorates Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate general who went on to found the Ku Klux Klan. (This is narrated by Tom Hanks at the beginning of the movie Forrest Gump.)
I strongly suspect (or should I bet $10,000?) that if you surveyed voters by first name, you'd find that most Americans named Forrest voted Republican, while most Americans named Miguel or Juanita voted Democratic. Republicans court the white southern vote, the ones who pine for the days when just being white brought privilege.
Several years ago, Jonathan Haidt write an excellent essay on What Makes People Vote Republican? He noted that conservatives and liberals had different value systems. Conservatives, but not liberals, value social rank, which can also be described as "knowing your place". Upward mobility is a liberal value. So to such a conservative, Romney's superior rank is accepted. But equality for African-Americans is not accepted. Their place is at the bottom, and the southern white working class -- NASCAR's base -- sits next up on the scale. It is easier to "fight down", pick on those below you, than to fight those above you who are actually calling the shots and taking most of the profits. So the people whose parents named them after the founder of the KKK are likely to accept the Republican line, essentially favoring the very rich while cultivating racism.
So a shirt with the name Forrest on it that commemorates a misquote is a great metaphor for the whole Republican strategy. Racism and lying. That it still gets 47% of the vote is still scary. We should be happy that those are not quite majority values across the country as a whole.