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Short CutsDavid Bromwich
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Vol. 34 No. 16 · 30 August 2012
Short Cuts

Romney-Ryan

David Bromwich

1003 words

On 11 August, Mitt Romney stirred excitement in a dull election by announcing that he would share the Republican ticket with Paul Ryan: a seven-term congressman, chairman of the House Budget Committee and intellectual guru of the congressional Tea Party. The choice was not altogether surprising. The moderate lawmakers whom Romney might have picked were without popular appeal, and it must have seemed possible that Ryan’s extreme proposals for federal budget-cutting and lowering taxes on the rich could be presented as evidence of a manly concern with principle which any impartial spectator ought to admire.

News presenters, keen on human interest, point out again and again that Ryan’s father died suddenly when he was 16. He learned independence the hard way, the story seems to say. In fact, Ryan grew up in Janesville, Wisconsin, close to grandparents and aunts and uncles who constituted an aristocracy in the town. The Ryans were numerous and they were rich. In time of trouble, Paul could always fall back on the network of a family that lived in concentric circles around him. His proposals to reduce the social ‘safety net’ for the unlucky may be seen as drawing a convenient but contortedly wrong lesson from his own life.

Ryan learned his anti-government ideology from an intoxicated early exposure to the writings of Ayn Rand.* It is now clear that Rand has been the most influential thinker in American politics of the last fifty years. Her novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged promote, as Rand put it, a ‘morality of rational self-interest – or of rational selfishness’. The central tenets of her politics, hatred of anything that could be construed as self-sacrifice and cruelty towards the helpless, are the exact inverse of the worship of collective sacrifice and blind solidarity that she detested in communism. For a lonely but well-fed achiever in Janesville, this doctrine was a gift – just as it had been once for Alan Greenspan, a young cultist before he became chairman of the Federal Reserve and presided over the bubble and collapse of the Clinton and Bush years.

What signal did Romney send by choosing Ryan? He is on the ticket to make sure that Romney will let Wall Street write its own rules. Free the dollar men, and free them not abashedly but proudly. The odd thing about the choice is that Ryan, though he is running for vice-president, was immediately taken to be the counter-Obama. At 42, he is young, as Obama was young in 2008. He, too, is an ‘idealist’. What the country has vaguely now been promised is an honourable contest of ideals. Yet it was natural for people to compare Ryan with Obama on other grounds. Both are handsome, athletic, comfortable with their early success, and irritating in no obvious way. Somewhere beneath the Obama presentation was always the message: ‘No one (ultimately) can resist my serious charm, and all problems (eventually) find solutions by listening to my voice.’ Ryan’s appeal is just as in-the-groove, but it takes the delivery to the edge of aggression: ‘I am clever and quick, I never lose my temper, and people can only pretend I didn’t win the argument if they ignore my facts and numbers.’

Where Obama projected the calm consciousness of a grave but unnamed mission, Ryan’s self-love is more recognisably American-boyish. He radiates ambition, healthy ambition, as if ambition were one of those permitted substances you could take at the gym to enhance performance. He has a lean and hungry look even when he smiles; and a relentless eagerness also, which will wear on people over time. His constant demeanour is cocksure; his face never registers reflection. Listening to other people is a formality, for Ryan, to be endured before he springs his answers. And how the answers pour out! There is an attractive, efficient speed in the way he works, but also a kind of deadness. And the deadness is there in his eyes – the hard eyes of the self-fulfilled and self-justified, clean of mind and clean of body, a whole mental mansion trip-wired against invasion by entities seeking pity and bearing excuses.

Ryan’s allies at Fox News celebrated his entry into the campaign by raising a factual challenge after the manner of Ryan the budget master. Obama’s Affordable Health Care, they said, will divert $750 billion from Medicare into the new programme to cover costs for some of the newly insured, while those who paid money into Medicare will keep their coverage under the new plan. This is said to be a scandal, and why? The new people are getting something for nothing and meanwhile the Medicare retirees will end up having helped other people without their express permission. If you believe that society is a partnership, in which each person surrenders perfect autonomy in order to obtain the benefits of living among others, then the offense is hard to find: there is no scandal in some paying for others. Yet Ryan has laid it down that each man must water his own tree of dollars.

Many people are saying that the election is Obama’s to lose. He need only fight the old fight on New Deal ground and watch Romney-Ryan crash. After all, the Ryan plan to privatise Social Security fell flat in 2005 and brought low the second term of George W. Bush. A lot can still happen. A Middle East war is cooking, and among the cooks are Romney’s advisers and patrons and his personal friend Benjamin Netanyahu. But from this moment the pitch against the Republicans writes itself. Obama greeted the entry of Ryan by pronouncing him ‘a good man’ who has the ‘wrong vision for America’. This is pompous and beside the point. Call him, simply, the Tea Party Candidate. It is how he might describe himself, and is anyway a description he can never disown. Most voters, even among the baffled undecideds, know exactly what it means and have an unsentimental grasp of the changes a Tea Party government would bring.

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Letters

Vol. 34 No. 18 · 27 September 2012

Not that it is at all surprising that a professor of English at Yale would ridicule a prominent American conservative like Paul Ryan, but David Bromwich’s piece about him is a classic in Ivy League anti-Tea Party snobbishness (LRB, 30 August). Bromwich can’t seem to stand the fact that there are millions of Americans who actually admire Ryan, take him seriously as a thinker and are grateful that he is helping to lead a discussion about the future of the welfare state and its economic sustainability. He dwells on what Ryan looks like and on his supposed obnoxiousness. He talks about Ryan’s roots in the ‘aristocracy’, as if Bromwich’s life in the halls of Princeton and Yale has been one of proletarian purity and blue-collar struggle. Please. And this passage is pure mean-spiritedness: ‘He has a lean and hungry look even when he smiles; and a relentless eagerness also, which will wear on people over time. His constant demeanour is cocksure; his face never registers reflection.’ I did not realise that there was a Bromwich-ordained standard of appearance that American politicians must meet. If he would supply more info, I would be happy to pass his suggestions on to the many intelligent, well-read people in the Tea Party. Many of us subscribe to the LRB.

Hope Leman
Corvallis, Oregon

Vol. 34 No. 20 · 25 October 2012

Many readers must, like me, be impressed that, according to Hope Leman, many Tea Party supporters subscribe to the LRB (Letters, 27 September). But I am intrigued to know which political stances expressed in the paper they particularly approve of. Or is this a matter of ‘Know thine enemy’?

Hamish MacGibbon
London NW1

Viewed from here, the Tea Party shows a remarkable similarity to various political movements in interwar Europe: a right-wing populist movement which uses radical slogans to conceal profoundly conservative core values, financed by big business, cheered on by right-wing media, and drawing its support from the angry, the ignorant, the bigoted and the borderline psychotic. But Hope Leman assures us that many of its members are intelligent, well-read people. So that’s all right.

Tony Dennis
Leighton Buzzard

Hope Leman should consider the possibility that David Bromwich’s distaste for Paul Ryan does not stem from the ‘snobbishness’ of his being a professor of English at Yale, but rather from facts such as these: Ryan’s acceptance speech at the Republican Convention was a tissue of distortions and misrepresentations (which, if conscious, might properly be called lies, as indeed they were by several independent fact-checking organisations afterwards). Ryan has had to back away again and again from his budget plan as he met criticism from a public dismayed by its harshness towards the poor and the elderly; more recently, when asked to explain his tax plan, he declined, saying it would take too much time, because it is so ‘complicated’. Might this display of contempt for the voters he is trying to win over reasonably be called ‘populist snobbishness’?

Donald Friedman
Berkeley, California

Hope Leman makes the astounding claim that there are ‘many intelligent, well-read people in the Tea Party’. Perhaps things are different on the western side of our nation, but here in South Carolina the Tea Party can be characterised as ignorant, illiterate, racist and crypto-fascist.

Paul Denman
Columbia, South Carolina

Vol. 34 No. 21 · 8 November 2012

Please note that whereas I simply referred to David Bromwich’s snobbishness in my defence of Paul Ryan the liberals who replied to me from both sides of the Atlantic immediately resorted to alarmist language about Tea Party members (Letters, 25 October). I actually agree with Tony Dennis that the Tea Party is a ‘right-wing populist movement’. So? It is not a crime (yet) to be right-wing or populist. And, yes, there is (thank goodness) a growing right-wing media. But it is tiny compared to the liberal mainstream media. And the Tea Party does not conceal its ‘profoundly conservative core values’. It glories in them. And we are not ‘angry’, ‘ignorant’, ‘bigoted’ or ‘borderline psychotic’ (or even just plain psychotic) but reasonable people who do not attempt to portray all those who disagree with us as mentally ill.

Paul Denman, unlike Dennis, does not use the word ‘psychotic’. He says merely: ‘in South Carolina the Tea Party can be characterised as ignorant, illiterate, racist and crypto-fascist.’ What is disturbing in the letters of Denman and Dennis is their attempt to marginalise Tea Party members as bigoted, stupid, racist etc. So much for the liberals’ rhetoric about tolerance, bipartisanship, working across the aisle and so forth. Given that my letter was a protest against snobbishness and elitism, need I say more? And if everyone on the right is to be called a fascist, what will liberals do in the event of genuine fascists arriving on the scene?

Finally, Hamish MacGibbon writes: ‘I am intrigued to know which political stances expressed in the paper they particularly approve of.’ I can’t speak for the whole Tea Party but many of us read the LRB to remind ourselves of past follies of the intellectual left (Karl Miller’s short piece on the unrepentant communist Eric Hobsbawm helped there) and to keep up on the current ones. And we like book reviews and good prose.

Hope Leman
Corvallis, Oregon

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London Review of Books
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