The Real Romney Captured on Tape Turns Out to Be a Sneering Plutocrat

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Photo: Kevork Djansezian/2012 Getty Images

Presidential campaigns wallow so tediously in pseudo-events and manufactured outrage that our senses can be numbed to the appearance of something genuinely momentous. Mitt Romney’s secretly recorded comments at a fund-raiser are such an event — they reveal something vital about Romney, and they disqualify his claim to the presidency.

To think of Romney’s leaked discourse as a “gaffe” grossly misdescribes its importance. Indeed the comments’ direct impact on the outcome of the election will probably be small. Romney repeated the wildly misleading but increasingly popular conservative talking point that 47 percent of Americans pay no income taxes. The federal income tax is, by design, one of the most progressive elements of the American tax system, but well over 80 percent of non-retired adults pay federal taxes. But most people hear “income taxes” and think “taxes,” which is why the trick of using one phrase to make audiences think of the other is a standard GOP trick when discussing taxes. For that very reason, it won’t strike many voters as an insult: Most people who don’t pay income taxes do pay other taxes, and fail to distinguish between them, and thus don’t consider themselves among the 47 percent scorned by Romney.

Instead the video exposes an authentic Romney as a far more sinister character than I had imagined. Here is the sneering plutocrat, fully in thrall to a series of pernicious myths that are at the heart of the mania that has seized his party. He believes that market incomes in the United States are a perfect reflection of merit. Far from seeing his own privileged upbringing as the private-school educated son of an auto executive-turned-governor as an obvious refutation of that belief, Romney cites his own life, preposterously, as a confirmation of it. (“I have inherited nothing. Everything I earned I earned the old fashioned way.”)

It is possible to cling to some version of this dogma and still believe, or to convince yourself, that cutting taxes for the rich or reducing benefits for the poor will eventually help the latter, by teaching them personal responsibility or freeing up Job Creators to favor them with opportunity. Instead Romney regards them as something akin to a permanent enemy class — “I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

Romney explained to reporters tonight that his remarks were not "elegantly stated," but did not repudiate them as his true beliefs. In fact, it was quite eloquently stated. The Romney speaking to fund-raisers was not the halting, smarmy figure so frequently on public display but an eloquent and passionate orator. He had no reason to believe his donors needed to hear him denounce the poor — they would have been perfectly satisfied with a bromide about how cutting taxes on the rich will create opportunity for one and all. Instead he put himself forward as the hopeful president of the top half of America against the bottom.

Some pundits have likened Romney’s comments to Barack Obama’s 2008 monologue, also secretly recorded at a fund-raiser, about his difficulties with white working class voters in rural Pennsylvania. But the spirit of Obama’s remarks was precisely the opposite of Romney’s. While Obama couched his beliefs in condescending sociological analysis about how poor small town residents vote on the basis of guns and religion rather than economics, the thrust of Obama’s argument was that he believed his policies would help them, and to urge his supporters to make common cause with them:

But the truth is, is that, our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there's not evidence of that in their daily lives. You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. So it's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

Um, now these are in some communities, you know. I think what you'll find is, is that people of every background — there are gonna be a mix of people, you can go in the toughest neighborhoods, you know working-class lunch-pail folks, you'll find Obama enthusiasts. And you can go into places where you think I'd be very strong and people will just be skeptical. The important thing is that you show up and you're doing what you're doing.

Obama was aspiring to become president of all of America, even that part most hostile to him, in the belief that what they shared mattered more than what divided them. Romney genuinely seems to conceive of the lowest-earning half of the population as implacably hostile parasites.

The revelations in this video come to me as a genuine shock. I have never hated Romney. I presumed his ideological makeover since he set out to run for president was largely phony, even if he was now committed to carry through with it, and to whatever extent he’d come to believe his own lines, he was oblivious or naïve about the damage he would inflict upon the poor, sick, and vulnerable.  It seems unavoidable now to conclude that Romney’s embrace of Paul Ryanism is born of actual contempt for the looters and moochers, a class war on behalf of his own class.