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Class Carpetbagger

Pete Buttigieg’s comedy of class-signaling errors
Pete Buttigieg with top hat, monocle, and carpet bag.

Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and I have a few things in common. A few.

We’re both cis white guys. We’re about the same age. We both graduated from expensive Ivy League schools, and we both know everyone cares.

I trust we’ll prove equally successful at becoming President of the United States.

From there, slight differences emerge. Pete, though no giant on the political stage, appears to be slightly taller than me. I put this down to a lack of proper nutrition on my part. My father was frequently unemployed but always alcoholic. My mother is a stranger to me and has been homeless for most of my adult life. I’d like to think that with a little more support at home, I, too, might have picked up an extra seven or eight languages and a few inches of height.

Pete and I have both had books published with our names on the front. If we ever get to chat, I’d love to talk to him about his writing process.

We’ve both traveled the world and seen the dirty business of American empire up close, albeit from slightly different perspectives. We both enjoyed Graham Greene’s The Quiet American as undergraduates. Pete wrote a thesis about it, which has been described as a total misreading that’s overly sympathetic to the titular character, a young CIA officer in Vietnam. My takeaway from Greene’s book was rather more traditional: colonialism is an evil inflicted upon the undeserving by the unctuous, overprivileged, and naïve.

Pete may have feared for his life at times while deployed with the United States military, but it is also true he signed up for that risk. I don’t remember anyone asking me if I wanted to experience childhood poverty.

With the help of psychoanalysis, I’ve come to conclude that perhaps the only reason I’m alive today is that I didn’t listen to people like Pete. When he speaks about education and opportunity, Pete reminds me of my high school guidance counselor. That guy was a jerk. He didn’t want me to go to college when I did. He thought I needed discipline and suggested service work or the military. I didn’t need discipline, but freedom and respect. And money. Mostly, I needed money.

Similarly, Pete says college isn’t for everybody. I agree, in principle. That doesn’t mean I want him—or anyone of his class background, for that matter—deciding who is and isn’t suitable for management, government, and other professions reserved for the literate and educated.

Pete’s salt-of-the-earth schtick is profoundly annoying, beginning with the folksy nickname he has adopted to make himself seem more like a character from a Norman Rockwell painting.

Still, off to college Pete and I both went. After leapfrogging from Harvard to Oxford, Pete quickly (and now infamously) found a job at McKinsey & Company. Though I did well academically, no one taught me how to job-hunt. After college I felt lucky to get accepted by a temp agency. They set me up as a hospital janitor. The crew, mostly older women, rarely wore protective gloves to handle the cleaning chemicals. Such precautions slowed us down too much to hit our quotas. Their joints were swollen and knotted.

Those kind women shielded me from the worst of the job, like a “code brown” in the operating room (use your imagination). It was the professionalized nurses who were always most snippy and pushy, in the way that people tend to be when capitalism grants them some slight power over others. Judging by reports from his forced march-style campaign events, these women were close to the Platonic ideal of Pete voters: Nurse Ratcheds administering a sedative to a political prisoner, humming “high high high high hopes” with a skip in their step.

But my comrades on the “housekeeping” crew did not need more paperwork, or whatever else Pete is selling. They needed free health care, housing subsidies, and a labor union.

Those aren’t items on Pete’s agenda. What’s worse, he acts like a management spy. The clearest illustration of this was last year when he showed up to a United Auto Workers picket line and awkwardly interrogated a man holding a sign how much money was left in the union strike fund. Recently The Intercept reported that his campaign was hiring workers through Amazon Mechanical Turk, a nefarious project to crush labor power forever by turning every imaginable job into soul-crushing, ultra-low-wage piecework.

When I look at Pete, I see the face of America’s rotten sham meritocracy, and I know I am not alone.

Like so many bourgeois strivers, Pete takes up space wherever he goes. He never wanted to be a journalist, but he still took a newsroom internship. One of his Harvard professors got him the gig. According to the Washington Post, the reporter Pete ended up working for had been “pushing for her station to find an African American intern—or at the very least, someone who actually wanted to be a reporter.” In short, he used his connections to deprive an aspiring black journalist of an opportunity that might have made their career. Why? Because he wanted to be president one day, and thought it would be useful to see how the media worked.

“I grew up surrounded by crumbling factories and empty houses,” Pete recently said in his endorsement interview with the New York Times. But does he know what it’s like for people who lived and worked in such places? I think not.

I’ll tell you, Pete: it’s difficult. When I got my Ivy League graduate school acceptance letter, I wasn’t excited. I was ashamed of myself for leaving friends behind. And I was terrified, not just for social but also financial reasons. I’d had to sell my car because I lost my driver’s license over a ticket I couldn’t afford to pay, issued for a noisy muffler I couldn’t afford to fix. I took a Greyhound Bus across the country from Olympia, Washington to Columbia University in New York. It was not my first such trip, and having learned some lessons about self-defense, I arrived with a sleeping bag wrapped around a baseball bat.

Unlike Pete, I had a good reason to be there. I actually did want to be a reporter, for it seemed the only way I could make a living that suited my skills and temperament. Horatio Alger and Abe Lincoln myths aside, I knew the presidency was not for people like me. Did Pete ever once doubt himself? As far as I can tell, Pete thinks he’s qualified to lead the country because he went to a prep school, then to Harvard, then got a Rhodes Scholarship. Congratulations, Pete. Gold star. Lucky you. But you’re wrong. These plaudits say nothing about who you are.

Pete undoubtedly worked hard for his achievements. But boy, oh boy, did he have help. Not all of us are so lucky. What help I got came mostly from strangers. I benefited tremendously from the kinds of socialist-inspired programs that Pete thinks don’t work. Thanks to a federal tuition subsidy, I was able to complete an undergraduate degree, which neither of my parents did.

As a teenager, I was uncontrollable and fearless, because I was more or less permanently dissociated. I gobbled every drug I could find. I stole a car and drove it across three states. I was lucky to be a white boy. Not long after getting out of high school, I found myself in my hometown jail. I didn’t call dad to bail me out. He was a lot scarier to me than the guys in the drunk tank. I don’t know if Future Mayor Pete ever went to parties, but if he did, and the police showed up, I’m sure they knocked politely and told his prep school friends to be safe, have fun, and turn the music down by ten o’clock.

I know what I learned: America desperately needs socialism. What has Pete learned? That if we all work together, we can achieve absolutely nothing?

The most delicious thing about Pete’s campaign is that, possibly for the first time in his life, his privileged class position is a liability, not an asset. It’s visibly crushing for Pete—who recently had his own “please clap” moment at a rally full of geriatric whites—but as for me, I’m lovin’ it. The recent, widespread stirring of class consciousness is the best news for American politics in decades.

I’m not the only person who has noticed how Pete tries, and fails, to slum it. Last month in Iowa, he touted himself as a Washington, D.C., outsider, “somebody who can actually walk from his house to the nearest cornfield.” Golly! Shawn Sebastian, an Iowan and Working Families Party member, tweeted in response that Pete was “the mayor of a small college town dominated by a massive private university. Pete’s dad was a Gramsci scholar and he went to private schools his whole life. Enough of this phony rust belt/rural signaling. Pete walks into wine caves, not cornfields.”

When the New York Times’ Binyamin Applebaum accused Pete of fixing bread prices in Canada during his consulting days, the candidate again sought refuge in slumming it, this time with the calculated use of profanity. “So the proposition that I’ve been on front lines of corporate price fixing is bullshit,” he replied. I was not impressed by his command of the vernacular. He sounded like Mister Rogers miscast in The Aristocrats

When I surveyed my social media followers for their “Pete peeves,” they offered a laundry list of class cues. “He stands for nothing except his own career,” one person responded. Others noted the “self-righteous smirk whenever he’s criticized,” as well as his “vocal affect where he believes that taking a portentous tone makes his banal statements seem profound.” Another concluded, “he seems like a phony apple-polisher who volunteers at soup kitchens because it looks good on their resumes.” Reader, where is the lie?

This salt-of-the-earth schtick is profoundly annoying, beginning with the folksy nickname he has adopted to make himself seem more like a character from a Norman Rockwell painting. But it is a victory for the working class that someone like Pete feels compelled to downplay the upper-class cues he spent a lifetime mastering.

The most delicious thing about Pete’s campaign is that, possibly for the first time in his life, his privileged class position is a liability, not an asset.

When I see Pete tense up and purse his lips, or take a hasty gulp of water when he feels pressured to explain some facet of his paint-by-numbers political career or his regressive, unpopular policies, it makes me want to barricade the street with burning tires and shut down a container port. If Pete is nervous, it means others like him are nervous. They fear that everything they have worked for in life—not in the proletarian sense, mind you, but in the sense of writing ingratiating letters and leveraging connections—is at risk. They’re afraid of the socialist movement. Good. It’s about time.

Consider how pathetic Pete’s class carpetbagging act looks next to the smooth, class chameleon act of his fellow Rhodes Scholar, Bill Clinton. The arch-neoliberal former president is, of course, my political enemy. Yet I still find stories about his brutal childhood incredibly affecting, powerful, and, as the spin consultants say, “relatable.” Clinton’s ability to speak authentically about his underclass upbringing is part of why his charisma clicked with so many Americans. And yet “the boy from Hope” was, in the end, a class traitor. I’d like to think Bill might have turned out better without the Rhodes.

Pete is no Bill. He has no story to tell; he has studiously collected anecdotes. He is an unapologetic conservative in that he doesn’t think class matters at all, except to the extent that he can exploit it. His pitch is based on a phony heartland appeal. Nobody’s falling for it, except people who are even more out of touch than he is with working-class struggle.

When Pete was asked at the Vice News Iowa Brown & Black Presidential Forum what he would bring to a potluck, he was stumped. “Is it a breakfast potluck?” he asked. After a clarification from the hosts, Pete said he would bring “chips and salsa.” Chips and salsa! Thanks, Rhodes Scholar Pete. Such stinginess is typical among the upwardly mobile. How about we eat at a restaurant next time, and you can pick up the check? 

While we’re on the subject of authenticity, it’s past time for a frank assessment of Pete’s most-touted qualification: his military service.

I’ve never met an enlisted veteran who talks about war or military life in the way that Pete does. I certainly noticed how, in the last debate before the Iowa Caucuses, he spoke of the plight of “enlisted people that I served with,” as though they were a separate species. Even for an officer, Pete seems especially smug.

I asked enlisted U.S. Army veteran-turned-author Joe Kassabian, an outspoken leftist and co-host of the podcast Lions Led By Donkeys, what he makes of Pete, a Naval intelligence officer on a direct commission. “Nothing about Pete Buttigieg seems genuine, least of all his time in uniform. His service is hollow and speaks of the weird caste system that America has,” Kassabian said. “Who the fuck leaves a highly paid consultant position to deploy randomly for six months? That simply does not happen. But whenever the wars are brought up, he immediately brings up his six-month rotation, like being a lieutenant on some forward operating base allows you some higher knowledge of the war in general. He clearly failed to learn anything, because he doesn’t want to end it.”

Even John Kerry, an unabashed blue-blood officer, had the decency to throw away his medals and march against the war when he returned from Vietnam. Prior to his commission, Pete toured the imperial occupation zones as a civilian profiteer. How patriotic is that?

I would never claim Pete hasn’t faced challenges in life. I have no right to lecture gay people about their particular struggles, racial minorities about theirs, women about theirs, and so on. So please, can someone explain to me why rich kids feel so gratuitously entitled to tell the working class how to live? Go ahead. I’ll wait. I really want to hear this explanation, especially from Pete, but any rich kid will do. Please, Bret Stephens, come to my home and explain it to my face. Bring your own beaujolais.

Why the hesitation? Are you afraid? Do you think the poor are prone to violence? Do you think we are unbalanced and unpredictable? Damaged? Pitiable? That perhaps some form of mandatory national service might help? Debt peonage—that’s the ticket!

Do you think we could not possibly understand our own plight, or how to fix it?

This goes for all of you, but especially for the presidential candidates. Stop talking down to the working class. Stop stealing our valor as veterans of poverty. Simply say, “I am a professor’s son. I am more conservative than my father was, and here’s why.” And then, Pete, you can start listening. Only then will you understand why your class act falls flat, even though you’ve ticked every box like the good student you always were.

Is “Pete” alright? Can I call you Pete? “Mayor Pete” doesn’t sound right, seeing as how you aren’t a mayor anymore. Let’s be honest, though: Wouldn’t you prefer I call you Mister President, Sir?