Should Mitt Romney Embrace His Rich-Guy Image?

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Charles Dharapak / AP

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, seen at right next to his wife Ann, drives his boat out of his vacation home with his grandchildren on Lake Winnipesaukee in Wolfeboro, N.H., July 5, 2012.

Evidently feeling that our political discourse is not silly enough yet, the kind folks at National Review have given us a cover story arguing that Mitt Romney needs to fully embrace his inner Thurston Howell. And that he should start calling himself R-MONEY, like some sort of middle-aged Mormon rapper.

You want to make it rain? R-MONEY is going to make it storm, like biblical. Rappers boast about their fat stacks: R-MONEY’s fat stacks live in a beachfront house of their own in the Hamptons, and the bricks in that house are made from tightly bound hundred-dollar bills.

No, that’s really what the story says.

The author of the story, National Review deputy managing editor Kevin D. Williamson (not to be confused with Dawson’s Creek auteur Kevin M. Williamson) also professes to be baffled as to why more women aren’t drawn to Romney, given that (in his mind at least) women are programmed by their biology to love guys with lots of money. “The conventional biological wisdom is that men select mates for fertility, while women select for status,” Williamson writes. “From an evolutionary point of view, Mitt Romney should get 100 percent of the female vote. All of it. He should get Michelle Obama’s vote.”

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It’s hard to know just how much of Williamson’s weird, sprawling piece is meant as a joke – a deliberate attempt to annoy liberal sensibilities and get some media attention – and how much is meant seriously.

But Williamson seems sincere about one thing: the notion that Romney shouldn’t act as if his wealth is shameful. “He should not be ashamed of being loaded; instead, he should have some fun with it,” Williamson writes. “Americans do not hate rich people. Americans love rich people. Americans will sit on their couches and watch billionaire Donald Trump fire people on television — for fun.”

Now, it’s worth pointing out that some of those who watch Donald Trump on Celebrity Apprentice may be merely fascinated, perhaps hypnotized, by his hair, and that the number of people who want to see Trump actually holding electoral office is vanishingly small.

But Williamson is right about one thing: Americans don’t hate rich people. They may have complicated and deeply mixed feelings about wealth and the wealthy, but they’re certainly not opposed to voting rich people into office. Indeed, nearly half of those in Congress are millionaires, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), and President Obama himself may be worth as much as $12 million, according to Celebrity Net Worth.

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When many Americans look at rich people, they’re less likely to think “class enemy” as they are to think, a little wistfully, “I’m one lucky lottery ticket away from that.” In Europe, the stark inequalities in wealth that grew out of the industrial revolution led many working people to turn to socialism and even communism. But in the US, land of Horatio Alger and his plucky, lucky, upwardly mobile young heroes, socialists have always had a harder time making their case. Yet Americans are no fans of “fat cats” either.

“Americans fear and disdain wealth as well as love it,” legal scholar Marjorie Kornhauser has pointed out. We also draw distinctions between different kinds of rich people:

Americans imbue earned income with an aura of morality and virtuousness that unearned income, particularly inherited income, does not have. Consequently, we Americans admire the person who acquires her wealth by means of her own talent and industry, while at the same time, we distrust (though perhaps also envy) the idle rich who live off of their [investments].

But this is where Romney gets into trouble. While hardly “idle,” he made his (probably hundreds of) millions through complicated and mysterious financial transactions which, as many future voters are vaguely aware, sometimes involved outsourcing American jobs and led to American companies being shuttered. Heck, at least with Donald Trump we can see what he’s built – he sticks his name on his buildings in giant gold letters. With Romney we suspect we wouldn’t necessarily understand how he made his fortune even if he sat down and explained it to us all in detail.

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In the National Review piece, Williamson compares Romney to Jay Leno, noting that “[n]obody hates Jay Leno for owning seven Aston Martins and 17 Lamborghinis.”

Well, Conan O’Brien might.

In any case, to a lot of people Romney looks less like Jay Leno than Gordon Gecko. And Romney knows this. That’s why he’s played down his time at Bain Capital. That’s why he’s tried to pass himself off as a NASCAR fan, and why he pretended not to care about his wife’s horse competing in the dressage events in the Olympics.

Williamson claims that, if Romney “hadn’t given away so much money to his church, charities, and grandkids, [he] would have more money than Jay-Z.” Maybe. Just don’t expect him to do any Big Pimpin any time soon.

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