How Mitt Romney Cynically Exploits White Tribalism and Resentment
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Eighteen-year-old Andy Egbert and 16-year-old cousin Troy Kloeppel’s family owns 5,000 head of beef cattle. Egbert said, “Romney is going to make more jobs for the middle class instead of sending them overseas to China.” Kloeppel supported Romney because he was opposed to welfare fraud: “It’s a great system if it’s not abused.” Egbert chimed in, “A lot of people are lazy and are paid to do nothing.”
Jason, a local soybean farmer, said, “I like everything about Romney.” Why didn’t he like about Obama? “No Obamacare,” he said before quickly departing.
A businessman worth a couple hundred million dollars was telling a white audience that a president who is changing the country “in ways we don’t recognize” was stealing their money for job-killing programs like Obamacare. In a warm-up talk, Ohio Gov. John Kasich railed against “bureaucrats” and “California rules.”
The audience knew what they meant. “We” – white America – are besieged by liberals using our tax dollars on undeserving poor, dark people. This attitude is often expressed as a crude or violent desire to eliminate the other, such as with the spate of “chair lynchings.” At the rally one vendor hawked toilet paper with Obama’s face on each sheet. Another sold buttons that read, “Forget your cats and dogs, spay and neuter your liberal.” Jeff Doresch said, “With Obama, if there’s another four years, it will be like when Hitler was here.” A few hours west of Sidney, near Fort Wayne, Indiana, a highway billboard showed a picture of armed commandos with text that read, “The Navy SEALs removed one threat to America … The voters must remove the other.”
But it’s not just about aggression. In his one effective moment, Romney painted a vision of a beloved, exclusionist community. He told a story about an American flag that went up in the Challenger, which was recovered intact after the shuttle exploded and that “was like electricity … running through my arms” when he touched it. He turned the secular symbol into a holy one that embodies “who we are.” Romney said, “We’re a people given to great causes. We live our lives for things bigger than ourselves.” That “who,” was people in the military, “a single mom,” “a dad taking on multiple jobs.” Finally, he said, “We’re taking America back.”
There’s little doubt that Romney will double down on decades of bipartisan policies that benefit plutocrats. But that’s not what the audience in Sidney heard. Romney offered an easy-to-grasp explanation that spoke to their years of suffering, their unease with the present state of affairs and their anxiety about the future.
An election or two down the road the appeal to white tribalism may no longer work due to shifting demographics, but it could triumph this November.