The storm gave Christie a national spotlight for his bipartisanship. It also gave him a setting to match his politics. The Jersey shore has its class cleavages, its luxuries, but in its iconography it is the site of working-class aspiration. After one Christie event, I found myself talking about the shore with a Christie-endorsing union official, Greg Lalevee. He has been going to the shore ever since he was a little kid, he and his cousins “stuffed into bungalows” by his grandparents. But what moved Lalevee, when he visited the shore after the storm, was the devastation of the mansions in Mantoloking. When he was a kid, his grandfather would tell the grandkids silly, made-up stories about the rich people who lived in those houses. “You knew coming from a working-class family that your family was never going to own one,” Lalevee said. But still they were something to dream about. Now they were off their foundations, split in two. “It’s very hard not to get emotional about it.”
What Sandy did for Christie was to reveal him as an unexpectedly moving middle-class sentimentalist. A few days after the storm, flying over the damage by helicopter, Christie had pointed out the “dumpy little house” he’d crammed into with “like, twelve guys”; he also lamented the loss of a favorite sausage-and-pepper stand. At an event in Highlands last month, a local school superintendent turned to Christie and said, “You’ve been here so much, we’re going to make you a volunteer fireman,” which was hyperbole, but not by much. Every time he could, he emphasized the people who were still homeless, the work that remains to be done. “I know how much this means to you,” Christie said a few days later. “It means that much to me.”
Community has a particular political meaning here. The state has 565 municipalities, most of them small enough to sustain the illusion of classlessness. This proliferation of tiny fiefdoms—distinct, politically isolated—is a quirk of the state’s political history and is kept in place by its system of taxation. New Jersey’s state income tax is the lowest of the 43 states that have an income tax, and its local property taxes are the highest in the nation. (One consequence is that the state taxes fall more heavily on the rich and the local taxes on the lower middle class, and so as Christie has vetoed attempts to reinstate a millionaire’s tax, cut business taxes, and severely diminished a program for property-tax relief, he has shifted the tax burden downward.) The promise of this system is that resources can be kept close to home, where they will be plentiful, and used to build little utopias, and often this has actually happened: The state is filled with superlative school systems.
Because power is concentrated locally, anger can be, too. One Democratic pollster who ran focus groups in the state during the recession told me he’d found less rage than he expected at banks and plutocrats and more directed locally at the schoolteachers and cops whose pensions drove local property taxes higher. “I had one guy in a focus group go on a rant about the pension his father, who was a retired cop, got from the town, that the pension was way too generous,” the pollster told me. “His father.”
We have never had a president as outwardly angry as Christie, but then this country has rarely been as angry as it is now. In the tea-party era, conservative anger has often been channeled by figures such as Michele Bachmann and Ted Cruz into a hysteria over very abstract and inflated threats: health-care death panels, the national debt, the specter of a country overrun by illegal immigrants. Christie’s use of anger is very different: It is much more targeted, and therefore potentially much more useful.