Between the Lines: GOP Time Travelers

The rote political debasement of words leaves voters guessing.

Comments (6)
Thursday, August 23, 2012

As the rough beast known as the 2012 presidential campaign slouches toward the candidate-coronation phase of things at the end of August, it's also entered the high-baroque phase of language manipulation.

In July, Romney campaign hands deftly altered the video of a campaign speech about the economy by President Obama in Roanoke, Va., making it sound as though the president denies the role of individual human agency in determining the fate of any small business. "If you've got a business, you didn't build that," our perversely anti-free-enterprise leader is heard peremptorily announcing—minus the bit of anodyne rhetoric that led into that remark, which the attack-ad impresarios pointedly edited out: "There are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges."

Voters can be forgiven for seeing something less than the soul of the Republic at stake in these matters—and yet, when you pan back from the trench warfare of the editing console, there's very little else on offer for the electorate to hang on to. The Romney spot, after all, followed former Republican National Committee head Ed Gillespie's attempt to dispel media reports that Romney had in fact misrepresented the length of his tenure in command of Bain Capital so as to decouple it from the most damaging run of Bain-orchestrated outsourcing in the early aughts. Gillespie's ingenious, time-bending claim was that the presumptive GOP nominee had "retroactively retired" as Bain CEO—evidently he climbed into Doc's DeLorean and gunned it with a lightning-bolt charge.

Just a few days after the Gillespie misfire, yet another Romney surrogate, John Sununu, told reporters that he wished Obama would "learn how to be an American"—an unsightly lurch into McCarthy-era insinuations about a political opponent's shadowy origins and deficient love of country. Sununu was later forced to "clarify" his remarks, but the point was made: the nation's first African-American president was something shy of truly "American."

Yet these are lower-order distortions of words and their putative meanings. Indeed, we exist in a Wonderland, in the Lewis Carroll sense, where conservatives descry "class warfare" in any threatened marginal increase in taxes and vigilantly warn against an "epidemic" of voter fraud, when the number of verified cases is smaller than the number of people killed by lightning strikes. The Obama team, too, has indulged in linguistic fancies, most famously with the misleading tallies of the jobs "created or saved" under the 2009 stimulus law—a category that the Office of Management and Budget was forced to retire on the grounds that it made little sense. And to get around legal strictures against the assassination of U.S. citizens, the White House has introduced "targeted killing" into the sprawling lexicon of national-security euphemisms.

There is certainly nothing new in the rote political debasement of words and their meaning. George Orwell famously anatomized the whole ugly process in his 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language." What has shifted, however, is the way that such deliberately non-signifying expressions now actively shape the making of policy.

While meeting with a group of historians in 2011, Obama asked them to spell out just how he could address the subject of spiraling inequality without inviting the "class warfare" line of attack. The obvious response here is to tell the world's most powerful man to stop whining—to affirm plainly that the presidency is committed to serving the interests of the ordinary working Americans dispossessed by the predations of the American oligarchy. The great architect of the modern Democratic consensus Franklin Roosevelt did just that in 1936, by affirming that the nation's banking and investment interests were "unanimous in their hatred for me—and I welcome their hatred." But that is plain talk from a chapter in our national politics that now seems scarcely imaginable. Don't look for it to be retroactively unretired any time soon.

Chris Lehmann has written for The Atlantic Monthly, The Baffler, and The Washington Post, among other publications.

Comments (6)
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About the quote... the whole context is bad.... and the whole idea is horrible which is why it's being roundly rejected and is energizing people to vote against Obama. It was a wrong narrative for Elizabeth Warren and stupid one to pick up by the president.

The basic faulty concept: If you have been successful, you did so at the expense of others... you took advantage of the non rich. Let's break it down..

If .. YOU .. were successful

.. roads and bridges..

..YOU didn't built that.

"You" didn't build the roads and bridges? That doesn't even make sense. All tax payers fund that work and "the rich" and "the successful" pay the most taxes. So logically it should be argued that people paying the largest dollars in taxes are MOST responsible for the roads and bridges.

It's a false and dishonest narrative. Person 1 made an obscene profit by driving his trucks on the roads Person 2 (or person 2 through 300billion) paid for?

The truth is that most of us (those who pay taxes) DID build the roads. Either way, we all have access to the roads so what's the difference? Sometimes it's intelligence and sometimes it's working harder... but mostly it's the willingness to take a risk and make the sacrifices necessary to start a business.

So if it's not because we're smarter... because there are lots of smart people out there. And it's not because we work harder, what is it? We can all access the roads!!!

The answer is that most people don't want to take the high risk of starting a business or the time to figure out how to do it. It's much easier to demonize those who do and succeed.

This narrative is dishonest class warfare and that's why it's not working. And that's why the "You didn't build that" backlash is growing.

Posted by k on 8.23.12 at 4:14

Millertime - You you are just continuing the narrative that successful people had something handed to them or were somehow unfairly lifted up. Every dollar earned by the successful doesn't take a dollar out of your pocket. It's not true and that anger doesn't help you or anyone else who isn't successful.

But here's the real question, seriously. Do you own your own business? If not, why not? Have you tried to make a business plan and get a loan? The answers may get us closer to the real issue.


Posted by k on 8.24.12 at 3:50

By the way, and just to further prove how silly this argument is, infrastructure almost always comes AFTER privite citizen innovaction. Roads were not built to allow the invention of cars. Roads were people BECAUSE the car was invented and there was now a need for the infrastructure.

But again... the rich pay the most taxes and by the logic above everyone else should be thanking them for contributing such a high percentage of the dollars used to maintain our infrastructure.

Posted by k on 8.24.12 at 3:57

Kaiser Soce. My mind = blown.

Posted by The usual suspect on 8.26.12 at 17:41

Millertime - Why can't you answer my question? Have you ever tried to start a business? If not, why? Your avoidance is telling.

Posted by k on 8.27.12 at 3:45

First, you avoided because you DID post after my last message and didn't answer the question. I didn't

You had 2 small businesses that were fairly successful but now choose to work for someone else, why? Seems like an odd choice. I would think most would prefer to work for themself. What makes working for someone else more attractive?

I'm convinced we'll eventually get to the point and am going to keep pressing you. Thanks.

Ps - as for me, I'm a working stiff that would prefer the comforts and security of working for a large company with reasonable hours, etc. So I have a lot of respect for people who put it all on the line to start a business. I don't vilify them for their success.

Posted by k on 8.28.12 at 3:31



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