In New Jersey, charisma is a blunt instrument. Even in its most lyrical incarnations—in Philip Roth’s perception, or Bruce Springsteen’s—the state is the site of a fevered, haywire sexuality, a place where all of the most full-blooded human instincts run loose: aggression and vanity; a big hearted, desperate romantic yearning; a carnal materialism. This is the metaphorical Jersey identity, and not too long ago it claimed at most a portion of the actual political state, if any. My wife grew up in the nineties in a lakeside town in Sussex County, a place so culturally distant from the sulfurous refineries near Elizabeth that it possessed its own municipal water-skiing team, and when her classmates at college would make fun of New Jersey, she genuinely did not know what they were talking about. But since then, the metaphorical Jersey has spread, diffused through television dramas and reality shows, and now the whole state exists in some relation to it. We used to talk about New Jersey as if it were a cultural appendage to New York and Philadelphia, as if it were someone’s anxious cousin. This self-consciousness still exists, but no one would mistake New Jersey, anymore, for anything but itself.
News of this sort can sometimes take irritatingly long to breach politics, but New Jersey finally has a governor equal to itself. Very swiftly, just over three years after his election, the emotive, combative Republican Chris Christie has come not just to personify the vivid strangeness of politics in this place but has also become arguably the most popular politician in the country and a rare figure of bipartisan interest in a party that has been led by its most fervent ideologues. By this summer—the summer of the death of James Gandolfini (and therefore, definitively, of Tony Soprano)—Christie’s identity has so fully merged with that of New Jersey that he has been able to defend his frequent national media appearances by saying that when his own pugnacious face is on television, it presents the best possible public image of the state.
Part of the intense affinity between Christie and his state is owed simply to his rare capacities as a politician, the precision of his cultural ventriloquism. To take one example: In his first year as governor, Christie decided that he wanted to kill a project called the ARC tunnel, which was set to be the capstone of the liberal senator Frank Lautenberg’s long career. The project included two commuter-train tunnels under the Hudson with a surfacing station near Herald Square—it was to be a little foothold in the city for New Jerseyans alone. But the ARC tunnel was an expensive project, and Christie had other priorities. So he started referring to the project as “the tunnel to the basement of Macy’s,” a line he’d picked up from a local environmentalist. The phrase came to define the project. In retrospect, it was engineered almost perfectly to leverage the way people in North Jersey view New York City: It captures the feeling of being a second-class citizen, the sense that New Jerseyans in the city are wanted only for the money they spend, that they are subject to the most hectic and disorienting experience of New York and should be denied the dignity of sunlight. Within ten months, the tunnel project was dead. “He killed us with that phrase,” one of the ARC tunnel’s chief proponents told me mournfully. And all of this in the space of seven words, two of which were prepositions.
But the question for Christie now is not what New Jersey means to its own residents, and the tension of the summer has nothing to do with his reelection campaign—he leads in the polls by more than 30 points and the name of his opponent, State Senator Barbara Buono, is barely mentioned at all. What is at stake instead is Christie’s relationship with the rest of the country and with his party: He is running, in New Jersey and outside it, an identity campaign. In this campaign, the governor has taken a pointed pleasure in noting the splits between himself and the predominant conservative mood, deeply partisan and profoundly anti-government. There was his famous embrace of President Obama during Hurricane Sandy and afterward, and his denunciation of the conservative congressmen who bridled at funding federal relief of the Jersey shore. Recently, he has begun to make the contrast of ideas direct: At an Aspen Institute forum in Colorado late last month, in a conversation about the national security state, he chose to speak broadly, calling “the strain of libertarianism” that had engulfed both parties, but especially his, “is a very dangerous thought.”
Politics, everywhere, is a consequence of geography, but with Christie the effect is more pronounced than with most. New Jersey is a very specific place, with its desolate cities and fortified suburbs and an extreme economic privilege that is both widespread and barely acknowledged. Christie holds conventionally conservative positions on many issues—he’s against gay marriage, pro-life, opposed to government programs for the poor and supportive of cutting taxes on businesses and the rich—and can voice anti-elitist grievances as sharply as any leader on the right. But his anger is directed at different targets and serves a different politics—more cosmopolitan, less alienated, less stringently individualistic; he offers an alternate idea of what conservatism might have looked like during the Obama years, had it been fed by the frustrations of the suburban middle class rather than those of the suspicious, disempowered fringe. With characteristic humility, Christie has spent his summer on the campaign trail offering himself, and his state, as a national ideal.