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The Talented Mr. Romney

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We tend to over-emphasize personalities in our politics especially in presidential campaigns. It matters who's president, of course, but our national elections are the product of much larger economic and social forces. They're increasingly dominated by a few financial powerhouses, and those who win them are then subjected to the intense gravitational pull of economic forces before even taking office.

The individuals running for president should be seen as the symptoms, as well as the causes, of larger events. Obama the Candidate was the product of social and economic yearnings which he shrewdly exploited. Bush the Candidate used larger forces in a shrewd way, too. He won and kept office by cleverly manipulating the corporate media, and by exploiting a network of relationships that extended from the boardrooms of Corporate America to the cloakroom of the United States Supreme Court.

To get lost in personalities during campaign season is to reduce all our elections to the presidential race and the presidential race to a reality show: America's Next Top President.

Having said all that: Man, can you believe that Mitt Romney?

What does it say about this moment in history that an individual with no discernible core is the GOP candidate? Not that the man is evil or hateful. Romney's lack of a self has led to the striking absence of even these qualities. Dick Cheney had a genuine, old school, castle-on-a-stormy-night-with-lightning-flashes kind of darkness. So did Dick Nixon. Mitt Romney just... really, really wants the job.

In that sense Romney resembles no historical or fictional figure in recent memory more than Tom Ripley, the protagonist of Patricia Highsmith's detective novel The Talented Mr. Ripley (played by Matt Damon in the movie). While the plots of the book and movie are somewhat different, both the literary and cinematic Ripleys had one quality in common: While he did very bad things -- cheating, lying, even killing -- Ripley never seemed like a particularly bad person. He just really wanted to be somebody.

Of course, Mitt Romney's never killed anyone (that we know of, anyway -- but that's true of everyone, isn't it?) He did brutalize that kid who dyed his hair in high school. You could argue that this incident happened so long that it doesn't cast much light on Romney's personality.

But Romney's reaction to the story happened in the present, and what was striking was his absolute lack of remorse when it came to light that the young man in question had been devastated by the experience. His reaction was eerily detached, even disinterested, as the suffering he had caused was revealed to him. He was cold and detached about it, like, like ...

... well, like a Patricia Highsmith character.

Romney's "European" trip was an oddly detached masquerade, too. His only stops on (or near) that continent were in Great Britain, a nation that's been struggling for many years to decide how "European" it wants to become, and Poland, which has only recently returned from decades spent outside the Europe of Western economics and Western imagination.

There's a reason for that, of course: Like Ripley stepping over a victim's corpse, Romney was stepping over the smoldering ruins of a continent devastated by the economic interests and philosophy which he represents. Whatever you do, don't open that door!

But that begs the question: Why make a big display of going to Europe only to skip over it like a flat shiny stone across a muddy lake? Because, like Tom Ripley, Romney is all about appearances. He wanted to appear like a statesman, appear like he was taking a European trip, appear like a President-to-be on an international mission.

Appearances were so much more importance than reality on this trip that it wasn't just irrelevant what Romney did or said. It was even irrelevant where he did or said it.

It could have been worse. Romney could have taken the advice that John Cochrane gave the National Journal. Cochrane, the Journal observes, is a "prominent supply-side economist at the University of Chicago." (Is there any other kind of economist at the University of Chicago?) Cochrane told the Journal that Europe needed a dose of "shock liberalization" and "more explicit free-market statements from Mr. Romney."

"Shock liberalization" and "explicit free-market" policies are exactly what Europe's been getting for the past several years, and they're destroying its economy. But Romney didn't even bother making that argument, because he's not an ideologue at heart. He's not anything at heart. He's just a poser.

That explains the Israel portion of Romney's trip, the one where he made the worst kind of gaffe a politician of his stripe can make: telling the truth. He praised the Israelis for managing their health economy so efficiently: "You spend eight percent of GDP on health care. You're a pretty healthy nation... Our gap with Israel is 10 points of GDP." It was promptly noted that Romney was embracing a highly socialized system.

What went wrong? As always, Romney was in "pander mode." He knew he was in Israel to pander to Sheldon Adelson, and to a few other billionaire funders and influential ideologues politically aligned with the Israeli Right. His flattering words about Israel's health care system were intended to please them, that's all. Romney didn't make this gaffe because he was "off script": He made it because he was on a different script.

That's how it goes in the Highsmith-like world of Mitt Romney. Sometimes one pose conflicts with another. Remember the shipboard scenes in The Talented Mr. Ripley? In fiction, these are moments of high tension. Oddly enough, in real-life politics nobody seems to care anymore.

Even Romney's Bain Capital experience had that Ripley flavor. Bain would swoop in on a company, pretend to be its friend and rescuer, then pick it clean and leave the remains for the crows. Then there was the matter of Romney's involvement with a company whose president, along with other employees, defrauded Medicare on a blood test scam. Romney wasn't accused of wrongdoing, but he did work alongside that president before promoting him into the top spot. And the business magazine Forbes confirms that he was a hands-on supervisor.

In one of life's little synchronicities, the company in question was called the Damon Corporation.

Tom Ripley's modus operandi was to work his way into your life as a trusted friend with no discernible identity or wishes of his own. Then, when you least expected it, he took everything you had. He took your life, in both senses of the word. What was once yours became his, including your identity, and you were no more.

Remember when Romney released his "59 page economic plan" to great fanfare last December? No? Neither do most people. But I do. I must admit I didn't understand Romney's personality back then like I do now. But what was striking at the time, and what seems even more striking now, is how carefully it was packaged to look like something it wasn't. What seemed conspicuous, in a foreshadowing of Ripleyesque moments to come, was the contrast between its utter economic vacuity and the great care given to the choice of typeface, its layout, and the design of its (meaningless) graphs.

Tom Ripley wore a Princeton jacket to play piano at a private party, even though he'd never gone to school there. That got him a job searching for a Princeton graduate in Europe, whose identity he eventually assumed. For Ripley the key to happiness was always looking like somebody who mattered. Appearances meant everything. Content meant nothing.

That also happens to be a good description of the Romney "jobs plan."

Economists are pressing Romney to explain how his plan works because the numbers don't add up. They don't know they're living in a unsettling mystery novel where nothing adds up. Other economists are staggered by the fact that Romney's tax plan would cut taxes for the richest among us while actually raising them for the 95 percent of Americans who aren't wealthy. The average American earning less than $200,000 would get a tax hike of $2,000, while the wealthiest 0.1 percent would would get an average tax cut of nearly a quarter of a million dollars.

Who has the audacity to attempt a deception that big, that bold, that obvious? Who thinks they could could get away with something like that? Tom Ripley, that's who. Romney's plan takes everybody else's money and gives it to ultra-rich people like himself. Remember: What was once yours becomes his...

Romney doesn't even have to persuade very many people that he's the real thing. Like a piano player in a Princeton jacket, he performs for a private and very exclusive audience. Mother Jones summarizes some fine work (with compelling graphs) from Demos and USPIRG to show that 94 percent of all Super-PAC donations in this election cycle came from just over 1,000 people. They could gather comfortably for a croquet party at an estate in Greenwich or Newport.

And 57 percent of all individual Super-PAC donations came from just 47 people who each gave $1 million or more, which includes the real money being given out by Adelson and the Koch Brothers. That group could fit comfortably in a parlor while Romney -- we mean Ripley -- played "Roll Out the Barrel" on the hostess' baby grand.

What does it say about our country that Mitt Romney is heading up the GOP ticket? Nobody in his own party seems to like him. Nobody outside his party, except some political insiders, seem to dislike him very much either. He's just there -- ingratiating himself, making himself useful, and always always always looking for the next opportunity.

Who is Mitt Romney? Let him into your life and you'll regret it. Before you know it your life will become his life.

Who is Mitt Romney? He's a public figure for whom, as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, there's no "there" there. He's a shape-shifter, an identity hijacker, a human being who would rather appear to be than actually be. He's the living incarnation of the self-seeking, ethos-free, "always be closing" vacuousness of the hedge fund set. He's the Golem of Grosse Pointe, the Dybbuk of Darien, the animated spirit of vacuous wealth. He is soulless and amiably amoral ambition made flesh as a candidate for the highest office in the land.

Who is Mitt Romney? Don't bother turning the page because you already know the answer.

Who is Mitt Romney? He's Tom Ripley. And if he wants to be and you let him, someday he'll be you.