Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore
Ah, those craven fiends atop the Republican Party, whoring before power and calling it “unity.” Consider the man Donald Trump used to call “Little Marco,” a “disaster for Florida” who “couldn’t get elected dog catcher.” He might not be qualified to catch dogs, but he sure does a convincing imitation of one. He now says he’s “honored” to help Donald Trump become the most powerful man in the world, no matter that he once labeled him a “con man” who would “shatter and fracture the Republican Party and the conservative movement.”
Or Paul Ryan, who endorsed Trump days after calling his fine thoughts on the judge in the Trump University case the “textbook definition of a racist comment.”
Carly Fiorina, who formerly found Trump “pathological,” Bobby Jindal, who once judged him an “egomaniacal madman,” Rand Paul, who made this writer jealous by coining the phrase “orange-faced windbag.” They too have all leapt aboard the Trump train. As has Rick Perry, who has forgotten to remove his 2015 campaign brief “Defending Conservatism Against the Cancer of Trumpism” from web. Also the tender-hearted John McCain, forgiving the man who thought his sacrifices in the Hanoi Hilton marked him as a pathetic loser. Even Old Man Cheney, who once upon a time thought Trump “sounded like a liberal Democrat.”
Then there is Chris Christie, in another category altogether. We haven’t seen political hypocrisy this flagrant since Richard Nixon savaged Harry Truman in 1960 for uttering the word “damn.”
This whole sorry spectacle has me thinking a lot about Chris Christie, because not too long ago I had imagined myself voting for the guy.
Well, not myself, precisely. One cold February morning at Gilchrist Metal Fabricating in Hudson, New Hampshire, I was so dazzled by what looked to me like the gritty authenticity of the man we now know as Trump’s Trenton lap dog that I told myself that if I were a Republican, there was no question that Chris Christie was the man to protect us from the evildoers. He was 300 pounds of pure, unadulterated, Here-I-Stand-I-Can-Do-No-Other.
Republican Rick Perlstein wanted Chris Christie to be his president. Hell, he wanted him to be his daddy.
To be sure, I was in a daddy sort of mood. When I was growing up, my father operated a courier company in Milwaukee. As kids we played in the grimy warehouse; the summer after I turned 16 I began working as a clerk in the dispatch office, hanging out in the break room with burly Rust Belt truck drivers, tough on the outside, sweet underneath, and spending a lot of time with my favorite employees, the two dispatchers, who were women, and burlier—sweet on the outside and tough underneath. Summers during college I worked as a driver, and most of the places I delivered to were factories, leather tanning plants, foundries, and metal fabrication shops—exactly like Gilchrist Metal, whose dusty tannic smell of machine oil took me back to my youth so thoroughly I shook with emotion when I entered. Then, as I left, I shook again when I chatted up a guy in a flannel shirt and baseball cap.
“Do you work here?” I asked. He answered, pointing, “That’s my machine.” The Jeffersonian moral majesty—Americans making things—felt so palpably evident it could have turned Larry Summers into a protectionist.
Then, backed by Loverboy’s “Working for the Weekend,” proprietor Jack Gilchrist kicked things off in front of a giant American flag and oversized New Hampshire license plate. He opened his mouth and brought me back to earth. In fact, the Marxist Rick Perlstein wanted to puke.
“What this country needs is a boss!” Gilchrist said.
What could be more sickeningly Republican. No surprise that Gilchrist had starred in a Mitt Romney commercial broadcasting the Republican’s 2012 signature attack against Barack Obama: “President Obama, you’re killing us out here. My father’s hands didn’t build this company? My son’s hands aren’t building this company? My hands aren’t building this company? Through hard work and a little bit of luck, we built this business. Why are you demonizing us for it?”
Further research revealed that Gilchrist had actually benefited from millions of dollars in government subsidies.
But back in Hudson, the next speaker was Bartolo Valastro, proprietor of Carlo’s Bakery in Hoboken and star of the TLC reality show Cake Boss. Valastro looks, sounds, and acts exactly like a younger version of my ex-father-in-law Hank from Jersey City, so by the time the star took the stage I was back in my pater familias reverie, the perfect emotional register for Boss Christie to sucker Republican Rick Perlstein plumb out of his mind.
Then the governor took over, and immediately began mocking his audience—all those New Hampshire voters who cunningly monopolize the nation’s attention by insisting they are “undecided” even up to the moment they pull the voting booth curtain. It was 34 hours until the polls opened. “I can only imagine what the stores look like here on Christmas Eve,” he said, with an edge. “People jammed in the stores. Sayin’ ‘It’s finally time to buy. . .’”
I’d been in New Hampshire for two days, watching candidates abasing themselves kissing Granite State ass. Hearing one supplicant say how he actually felt was so bracingly refreshing.
Then he gloated about besting poor Marco Rubio in the debate the previous night—the one where Rubio kept robotically repeating the same line, which Christie held up as the perfect example of the programmed inauthenticity of Washington politicians—and turned it into a lesson about executive responsibility. “Jack Gilchrist wouldn’t hire him to manage a shift here. Let alone be the president of the United States.”
I was so dazzled by what looked to me like the gritty authenticity of the man we now know as Trump’s Trenton lap dog that I told myself that if I were a Republican, there was no question that Chris Christie was the man to protect us from the evildoers. He was 300 pounds of pure, unadulterated, Here-I-Stand-I-Can-Do-No-Other.
Rubio, after all, was a senator. “Everybody telling you what to do and what to say. And they give you a list of questions before hand, tell you how to vote. That’s not how it is being governor. . . .”
“No one calls at 4 a.m. to tell you the bill you thought would be posted in the subcommittee today is not going to be posted until next week.”
“They call you that a police officer was shot and killed.”
Or “when the second worst disaster in American history hits your state. It’s the governor people look to to build that state. . . . 365,000 homes in 24 hours. People’s lives and businesses were ruined. And when you’re sitting there as governor, no one gives you an instruction manual on how to do that. Except to dive in and roll up your sleeves. We don’t know what crises will face the next president of the United States, but there’s one thing we know for sure: there will be a number of them.”
That was, more or less, his prepared remarks.
He fought terrorism
Then came the main event. Practically all of Christie’s New Hampshire events were open-ended town halls. Sometimes they lasted as long as two hours. The governor took off his coat in preparation, handing it to his wife Mary Pat—Mary Pat, he noted, had promised always to hold his coat. Then he called on a woman who turned out to be a former flight attendant who on the morning of September 10, 2001, had worked the same United flight that 24 hours later struck the North Tower, incinerating some of her best friends.
“Good, sweet girls,” she began. “And very young. They were all young. And there was a lot of survivor guilt. Because I could have been their mother. And I wasn’t afraid to die. I was so angry. And so sad. And that combination did me in. I had to quit. And I loved flying. I mean, I started in the 1970s. . . . People would take cookies. Or apples off their trees, and brought them for the girls.”
She had us all in her thrall. Then she asked her question: “How are you going to keep us safe?”
(It could not possibly have been a set-up. Could it?)
Christie’s answer went on for almost 10 riveting minutes. “I’m the only one on that stage who fought terrorism,” he began. “The only one.”
He explained that he had been appointed as a federal prosecutor the day before September 11—which was a lie. But Republican Rick Perlstein didn’t care about that. And when he next intoned how at that moment “your job as a federal prosecutor—your only job—was making sure that it wouldn’t happen again.” And that because “it was no longer acceptable to catch these guys after it happened,” he had with hell’s own fury put in jail an awful man who had purchased shoulder-fired missiles to attack civilian planes, and convicted those six monsters from South Jersey planning to attack Fort Dix.
Republican Rick Perlstein didn’t care to litigate his claims. Even though a searing This American Life investigation had revealed that the arrest of hapless Hemant Lakhani had been a propaganda operation so sickening it would have made George Orwell’s Big Brother blush, and the Fort Dix case was even worse. Republican Rick Perlstein hasn’t heard of This American Life. Republican Rick Perlstein just wanted someone to keep his family safe, so Republican Rick Perlstein was, at the moment, riveted.
Though, sure, his eyes glazed over at the policy details. But he perked up again at the governor’s take on Syrian refugees. “While I care about the Syrian people, and so do most Americans, I’m president of the United States of America, and I’ll protect America first. If you can do that while helping other people, I’m all for it. But my first job is to protect you and your family.” And his pledge to take the ISIS fight to the enemy. “We can’t just sit back here and play defense. We have to play offense. . . . ISIS needs to know that it’s not just America who wants to destroy them. But that it’s the civilized world that wants to destroy them.”
He pivoted, no transition required, to an attack on Black Lives Matter. (It’s always useful to remember that on the right, fears are fungible: one fear always functions interchangeably with any other.) “Here in our country we also need to know—we need to support our law enforcement officers. . . . We can’t have law enforcement officers afraid to get out of their cars because they’re afraid they’re not going to be supported by their political leaders…. 99.9 percent of police officers in our country, men and women, are doing selfless things, and they need to be supported. They need to be supported by our political leaders. And I will do that in the White House.”
By the time Christie wound up for his peroration, Republican Rick Perlstein couldn’t imagine voting for anyone else.
“But in the end you need to know that this is personal. . . . The reason I’m the best prepared to sit in that chair is because I’ve experienced it, and I’ve lived it.”
“I’ve watched my wife go into the city on September 11. . . . My younger brother also. And you don’t ever take that for granted. . . . You need to understand, every day you wake up as president, your number one job is to protect the safety and security of the American people.”
He locked eyes with the former flight attendant:
“So I want to thank you for reminding us in a very personal way how important this is.”
The flight attendant responded. She said she was afraid the country had forgotten all that, and was grateful he had not.
And Governor Christie took that cue to add one more clinching thought: “When I talk about this I normally don’t mention these folks, but you brought it up, so I will.”
By the time Christie wound up for his peroration, Republican Rick Perlstein couldn’t imagine voting for anyone else.
He told the story of a dear friend of his who died that day in the World Trade Center offices of Canter Fitzgerald. He talked about the community center in their parish named after him. He talked about his widow, and the son they had watched grow up, who posts a Facebook picture of his father every single day, and the message: “Dad, I’ll never forget you.”
He concluded: “I have lived among them. This is not just a story I read in the newspapers. Every time this young man walks into our house, we are reminded of two things: our sadness for him, for his loss, and how lucky we are, not to have experienced that loss. You need a president in that chair who understands that.”
This exquisite tableau of a patriarch’s fortitude and determination to set the world aright, his dear wife holding his coat obediently, looking up at him adoringly all the while. . . This was what so seduced Republican Rick Perlstein that day in Hudson, New Hampshire.
Chris Christie has a history of seducing political journalists’ inner Republicans. There was a time when articles suggesting that Chris Christie was just the Big Daddy the Republican Party needed were everywhere. His decision to run and not to run was among the hottest stories of 2015.
Back then, Christie seemed to have oh so much of that special something for which so many political journalists achingly long—authenticity. This cult of manly authenticity among the pundit class reached its apogee, or nadir, in 2006, with the publication of Joe Klein’s Politics Lost: How American Democracy Was Trivialized By People Who Think You’re Stupid.
And what was it, exactly, that Joe Klein said politics had lost? He illustrated the answer with an account of Harry Truman going off script at the Democratic National Convention in 1948. When Truman said he was going to call the Republican “Do Nothing Congress” back to Washington on “the 26th of July, which out in Missouri we call Turnip Day.”
Wrote Klein, in rapture, of Turnip Day: “For the purposes of this book, it will represent all those tiny and not so tiny things—not just the intermittent bolts of un-massaged oratory but also the spontaneous moments of honor and cowardice, the gestures, the body language, the smirks and sighs—that give us real insight into those who would lead us.”
In the reckoning of sages like Klein, John McCain was the ultimate Turnip Day politician: a hero to Americans because they believed he always said what he meant and meant what he said. Now, in the fullness of time, clearer minds have revealed John McCain as hearty a shoveler of bullshit as any other Republican solon. By Politifact’s reckoning, McCain’s “Pants on Fire” plus “False” plus “Mostly False” quotient is 42 percent—miles worse than the score earned by the figure the gatekeepers of elite opinion consider the apotheosis of Turnipless inauthenticity, Hillary Clinton. Hers is 27 percent.
But McCain plays the part so much better.
Chris Christie used to play it even better than that.
Surrounded by so much bullshit, a reporter wants to believe.
I wanted to believe.
And, as the proceedings continued at Gilchrist Metal, I believed.
Christie talked about how he would “save” Social Security. On the level of policy, I knew everything he said was absolutely nonsense.
But then he told his story about Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg saying: “Let me ask you, governor, what will entitlement reform mean to me?”
“Absolutely nothing, Mark,” Christie said. “When you retire, you will get nothing.”
He would “means test” Social Security, cutting the rich off from benefits in order to replenish its supposedly bone-dry coffers. Which perhaps, he allowed, wasn’t fair. “But life isn’t fair, and the government stealing money isn’t fair.”
He segued to a riff about how he, unlike the other candidates, would work with Democrats to do things like save Social Security. John Boehner had recently noted that he had just flown on Air Force One with Barack Obama—for the first time.
“You make me president, and Nancy Pelosi is still minority leader,” Christie said, “Nancy Pelosi can come on Air Force One whenever she wants. She can even steal the M&Ms if she wants.”
By the time the governor of New Jersey exited to the strains of Bon Jovi’s “We Weren’t Born to Follow” he had been at it for nearly 90 minutes, patiently grinding out answers to questions from the sublime to the ridiculous (like the guy who wanted to get rid of the Air Force). He would do three more equally exhausting town halls the same day: “I don’t do drive-by town hall meetings, where you come in for 45 minutes, I do a speech for 20, say, ‘thank you, good bye!’ and then I walk out. I sit here, and I take detailed questions, and I give detailed answers.”
And he had. Like I said, I was truly impressed. He had concluded by explaining why he said things that might make him radioactive to fellow Republicans, like that he would cut them off Social Security, and treat the other side like human beings. Because that was what he thought was right, and Chris Christie would never trim his sails when it came to doing what he thought was right.
“Regardless of what the cost is.”
Because “regardless of what age you are in this room, you want to go back to a political system where people actually tell you what they think! Regardless of what the cost is. I may say something you might not like. Every time I say things you may not like, and I’m specific, I take enormous risks that you won’t agree and have you look for someone else. I’m willing to take the risk. Cause I’d rather have you know what you’re buying. . . . Not those general answers about how I love America. We all love America. If you’re running for president, you love America. Everyone loves America!”
His last word: “Demand 100 percent agreement in order to get your vote and you know what you’re going to get? A liar.”
You know the punchline.
Your humble correspondent got ready to write about Chris Christie’s surprising success in New Hampshire, convinced of his sharp-edged discernment that Republican New Hampshire would see what Republican Rick Perlstein saw, and deliver for Christie if not an upset at least an impressive showing. Instead, of course, over a third of them voted for Donald Trump. Chris Christie came last among all the candidates who campaigned there, with 7.4 percent.
He promptly dropped out, which is why this whole scene was left on the cutting room floor when I wrote about the New Hampshire primary last winter.
He had organized his last-ditch effort by presenting himself as the anti-Trump: “Showtime is over, everybody. We are not electing an entertainer-in-chief.” He called him a “carnival barker,” begging voters, “It’s not enough to express anger—we must elect someone who knows how to get things done.” A “grown-up.”
And he implored, “Always beware of the candidate for public office who has the quick and easy answer to a complicated problem.”
Sixteen days after dropping out, he endorsed the carnival barker.
The sucker’s game
The lessons here are several. Some are banal. It’s always good to be reminded that politics is a morass of bullshit and dumb show. That story about his friend who died on 9/11 that he “normally doesn’t mention,” naturally, he mentions all the time.
“Christie 2016: Telling It Like It Is,” ran the fat man’s campaign slogan.
And it’s always good to remember that the cult of authenticity is a sucker’s game. And that so many political pundits are suckers.
And, too, that anyone who organizes his or her life around the goal of becoming the most powerful person on the planet is not a normal person.
And that Donald Trump is the most not-normal of them all. In 1964, before finally naming Hubert Humphrey as his running mate, Lyndon B. Johnson forced the esteemed senator into a series of political humiliations. “I want Hubert to kiss my ass in the window of Macy’s and say it smells like roses,” Johnson supposedly explained. Afterward, Humphrey said Johnson made him eat so much shit he was growing to like the taste of it. Donald Trump makes LBJ into a piker.
“No, I wasn’t being held hostage,” Christie told a reporter writing about the infamous press conference where Christie stood behind Trump, looking very much like the picture Webster’s Fourth New International Dictionary of the English Language will someday use to illustrate the definition for “Stockholm Syndrome.”
Trump promptly found a place for Christie as a convenient receptacle for excess insults whenever he ran out of brown people to humiliate. To make a point against John Kasich, practically “living in New Hampshire” that absentee governors were not morally qualified to be president—he shouted out to the wings of the stage: “Where’s Chris, is Chris around? Even more than Chris Christie, he was, he was there, right?”
Trump made fun of Christie’s girth. He allegedly sent him off to fetch a hamburger, which Christie denies, though he can’t deny the time Trump barked in his general direction, “Get on the plane and go home.” T was caught on camera.
Two months into this, Christie had passed the crucial test: Trump announced the governor would be his presidential transition chairman. And then, last week, news leaked that Christie was a front-runner to become Donald Trump’s running mate—though only one of two top choices. The other is Newt Gingrich: a signal that, to finally earn the potential reward, Chris Christie must soil himself some more.
Donald Trump’s appetite for chumps to humiliate is bottomless, and defines him. Chris Christie is a pathetic scam artist, and deserves him.
Rick Perlstein is the Washington Spectator’s national correspondent.