Character Assassins

For the investor class, Romney’s call for good manners is soothing—and irrelevant

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Ah, leadership! The buoyant happy-warrior mien, the chin-jutting conjurations of a glorious and redemptive future, the grim patrician certitude of the devout austerian—these are all the calling cards of the true political Superego-on-the-make. They also represent, far from incidentally, the tribal rites of assurance that our disoriented neoliberal overlords in the blasted postindustrial New World Order desperately pine for.

As it happens, our organs of elite opinion have lately presented a pair of invaluable case studies in how deep, and disastrously misguided, this particular jowly brand of hero-worship can be. In a much buzzed-over oration in the reliably self-parodic Washington Post opinion section, newly minted GOP Utah Senator and master chin-jutter Mitt Romney bewails Donald Trump’s many well-documented deficiencies of character as an occasion for much rueful consternation. American presidents are nothing less than avatars of the nation’s great collective spirit, Mormon elder Romney preaches, and then bodies forth this stirring word-picture:

To a great degree, a presidency shapes the public character of the nation. A president should unite us and inspire us to follow “our better angels.” A president should demonstrate the essential qualities of honesty and integrity, and elevate the national discourse with comity and mutual respect. As a nation, we have been blessed with presidents who have called on the greatness of the American spirit. With the nation so divided, resentful and angry, presidential leadership in qualities of character is indispensable. And it is in this province where the incumbent’s shortfall has been most glaring.

While it’s diverting to picture such past presidential brigands as John Adams, Warren Harding, James Buchanan, and Richard Nixon as robust discourse elevators, brimming with honesty, integrity, comity, and mutual respect, Romney’s salvo is of course aimed at more than mere historical plausibility; it is, indeed, meant to embody those very qualities of leadership and character that the present occupant of the Oval Office so conspicuously lacks. The man who infamously equated Democratic governance with the rampant creation of handout addiction for 47 percent of the population now professes to revere the quasi-millennial specter of a nation fiercely united under the dispensation of a higher moral purpose, interpreted and administered by a leadership caste made up, for all intents and purposes, of miniature Mitt Romneys:

To reassume our leadership in world politics, we must repair failings in our politics at home. That project begins, of course, with the highest office once again acting to inspire and unite us. It includes political parties promoting policies that strengthen us rather than promote tribalism by exploiting fear and resentment. . . . In an innovation age, Americans excel. More importantly, noble instincts live in the hearts of Americans. The people of this great land will eschew the politics of anger and fear if they are summoned to the responsibility by leaders in homes, in churches, in schools, in businesses, in government — who raise our sights and respect the dignity of every child of God — the ideal that is the essence of America.

Along the way, of course, Romney also stresses how awesome the Trump tax cuts have been, and notes how very crucial it is to rein in spending and balance the federal budget, in the holy mandate to attract “the best talent to America’s service and the best innovators to America’s economy.” And that, too, is the standard refrain in the high-American leadership hymnal: You start out with the evocation of our better angels and calls to enhance a shared sense of moral devotion, and end up hacking away at income supports and TANF subsidies. (For a slight Democratic variation on the theme, see former Virginia Governor and world-class donation-bundler Terry McAuliffe’s preachments in the Post op-ed section two days later on the folly of Democratic presidential hopefuls who may be tempted to veer from the pieties of austerity in the bootless quest for “idealistic but unrealistic policies” such as a federal jobs guarantee or free college; never has the apothegm “same shit, different day” applied with quite such precision.)

Rather than parting company with the many baleful policy legacies of Trump’s first half term, Romney is simply expressing elite dismay with Trumpian etiquette.

Indeed, Romney’s awkward embrace of discredited supply-side dogma in the midst of his battle hymn to a revived moral republic is what gives the game away: rather than parting company in any serious way with the many baleful policy legacies of Trump’s first half term, Romney is simply expressing elite dismay with Trumpian etiquette—his heedless management of his senior staff, his blustery prosecution of trade wars, and his bigoted contempt for traditional norms of discourse in and around Washington. And this litany of elite effrontery, far from wounding Trump’s leadership profile, plays directly into the president’s own successful positioning of himself as a rough-hewn tribune of the plain people of America’s heartland, arrayed against the fusty, out-of-touch, and tone-deaf Republican establishment.

Trump’s well-worn repertoire of elite-baiting tirades goes by the lazy pundit sobriquet of “populism” these days, and it’s instructive, when gauging the temper of neoliberal discontent, to suss out just how much of this sort of vulgar demagogy our global plutocracy is prepared to put up with. The answer, furnished by the nameless thought leaders at The Economist, may surprise you!

You see, last week also marked the installation of bona fide neofascist leader Jair Bolsonaro as Brazil’s new president. Surely if Trump’s character flaws are now fomenting intra-party distress in the United States and greater dismay among global investors, why, then, the conduct of a homophobic, norms-trashing, press-and-opposition-baiting strongman who thinks the body count of Brazil’s last authoritarian regime was about thirty thousand shy of ideal conditions and is already laying the Amazon open to climate-degrading capitalist pillage will call down the righteous wrath of an aggrieved global elite.

Hmm, well, no, actually. In what passes for virtue signaling among the guardians of neoliberal comity, the Economist Twitter feed announced that, yes, Bolsonaro “is a dangerous populist,” but thankfully one who comes bearing “some good ideas.” The accompanying piece is something of a masterwork of moneyed unreason in the sphere of right conduct; one can only hope it will be taught as a cautionary text of neoliberal moral folly in the tuition-free colleges of the future. Here’s how the sage Economist thinkfluencers work through the puzzle of Bolsonarism on the global stage:

Mr Bolsonaro had an undistinguished record during seven terms in congress. He often belittles women, has praised the old military regime’s torturers and goads the police to kill more criminal suspects. His new ministers for foreign affairs, education, the environment and human rights all look likely to do more harm than good. Yet in some areas, he espouses sensible ideas. In particular, if he means what he says about the economy and can put his policies into practice, he could end up lifting Brazil’s fortunes. Brazilians are entitled to hope. A cyclical upturn, which has already begun, will help him. . . . He has entrusted economic policy to a genuine believer in free markets. Paulo Guedes, a former banker with a doctorate from the University of Chicago, wants to lighten many of the burdens that have weighed down the economy. Since 1980 GDP growth has averaged just 2.6%, far below that of many other emerging-market economies. Mr Guedes wants to deregulate, simplify the enterprise-crushing tax code, privatise state-owned firms and slash the enormous budget deficit, which was an estimated 7% of GDP last year.

Got that? The new authoritarian leader of Brazil may be a boorish chauvinist and soft on torture and altogether enamored of state violence unleashed on his own citizenry, but look, people: he’s put a former banker and Chicago-credentialed austerian in charge of a bracing round of budgetary cuts and an aggressive privatization campaign. What’s not to like—so long as you don’t happen to find yourself on Bolsonaro’s expansive cultural and ideological enemies list, or somehow happen to be poor in Brazil?

But what are we saying? This is The Economist! There’s no real downside to shrinking the welfare state in the name of unleashing greater returns on investment for the crony-capitalist strongman set. After all, the last great Chicago-engineered economic realignment in South America took place under the direction of Augusto Pinochet, who, yes, slaughtered dissidents in soccer stadiums and pushed journalists and political organizers out of helicopters over the ocean, but that’s exactly why he’s now a revered figure on the American right! Besides, the closer you look at the to-do list awaiting Guedes and Bolsonaro’s other apparatchiks in charge of economic policy, the more it seems like a dream diorama of neoliberal opportunity—a Petri dish of capitalism, you might even say. You begin, naturally enough, by nuking the pensions, which our editorialists helpfully explain, make up 12 percent of GDP—“roughly the same size in Brazil as they are in richer, older countries,” and if that weren’t bad enough, “on course to become staggeringly larger.” Unless the retirement age is raised and benefits are steeply cut, “the government has little hope of containing its growing public debt,” but once a hard dose of austerity kicks in, why, then, feast your eyes, investors: “An ambitious reform, by contrast, could keep inflation and interest rates low, hastening Brazil’s recovery and accelerating long-term growth.” Sure, such measures must be combined with a new anti-corruption initiative that The Economist urges on the new administration in a truly rousing show of token transparency-mongering, particularly given the sketchy series of charges that befell the country’s prior leftist government. (What’s more, the mantle of anti-corruption crusading is a rather mind-bending reformist program to entrust to a figure like Bolsonaro, who openly adulates Bibi Netanyahu’s brazen rule by kickback.) All in all, conditions are ripe, provided that Bolsonaro shows the right sort of leaderly brio, to deliver Brazil into the hands of profit-addled financiers—er, excuse me, to “unleash his country’s long-squandered potential.” Because, after all, nothing says “squandered potential” like “social provision for retirees” as any casual student of the American right’s decades-long war on Social Security well knows. The Economist even permits itself a little flourish of ill-concealed, and possibly etiquette-defying ex cathedra glee at the prospect: “Nothing would give The Economist more pleasure.”

No doubt. And the same would no doubt go for Romney, who named the great Randian foe of social retirement funding Paul Ryan as his 2012 running mate. What are a few breaches of etiquette among business partners, after all?

Chris Lehmann is editor at large of The Baffler and author of Rich People Things. His latest book, The Money Cult, is out now from Melville House.

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