What Is Chris Christie Doing Right?

Photo: Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos/New York Magazine

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.

Christie in the seaside township of Brick last month.Photo: Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos/New York Magazine

In the days before July 4, Christie was besieged by rain. “The wettest June on record in New Jersey, since they’ve been keeping records,” he moaned to a crowd in Seaside Park on a rare sunny day. Christie and his wife, Mary Pat, and their children had filmed television commercials trying to tempt tourists to the rebuilt time-shares and resorts, the governor sitting at the beach, windswept and happy. “Stronger Than the Storm” was the slogan. But the rain and the devastation seemed to have kept visitors away, and as far away as Nantucket, the word was that summer rentals were pricier because people were steering clear of the Jersey shore. “I’m hoping it’ll mean a very good Fourth of July weekend,” Christie said, scanning the sky. But later that week, in Ortley Beach, the rain would be pouring down again. “Three and a half years as New ­Jersey governor … I’ve had hurricanes, blizzards. I’m wondering, When are the locusts coming?” He considered. “We’ve had the cicadas …”

Politicians, generally speaking, have a problem: “It is hard to communicate,” as State Senator Joe Kyrillos, Christie’s ally, puts it. It is not so hard for the governor. Christie has a genius for combative clarity; Trenton, in his mouth, is a theater of grotesques, of corrupt and deluded and self-interested politicians, enemies of progress. He has a tendency to become so overwrought (“Can you guys please take the bat out on her?” he once groused to reporters, about a state senator named Loretta Weinberg, then a 76-year-old widow) that the aggression has become an event in itself. Christie’s lap-band surgery may have made him healthier, but it has not discernibly altered his physical appearance; he still looks like a bully, still deploys menace as if it were a form of seduction. His crowds come, in part, for the cartoonish pleasure of watching a grown man blow a gasket. But Christie is cannier than that. He is not unmanageably angry so much as he is a mechanism for managing anger, for channeling it and dispersing it tactically.

“All right, so this will be the entertaining part for all of you,” Christie said when he reached the microphone, “where I take questions from the press.”

What the press wanted to know about, that day, was same-sex marriage. Christie had vetoed a marriage-equality bill in 2012, but polls show most voters in the state disagree with him. “You guys are obsessed with the issue,” he grumbled. Christie has said that he would defer to the results of a referendum (though none is imminent) but that legislators and courts should not hastily alter “a 2,000-year-old institution.” On the stump, he treats the question as if it were a test of the personal character of politicians; he emphasized his own consistency—“you can agree or disagree with me”—while attacking Democrats, in this case the State Senate president Steve Sweeney, who had the bad judgment to abstain on the issue when it came up for a vote three and a half years ago. (“The worst mistake I’ve made as an adult,” Sweeney told me, somewhat miserably.)

“Here’s a guy who, on this issue, his principles are like that flag that blows around in the wind, okay?” Christie said. “It makes me laugh, it’s absolutely ridiculous.” Christie went on, “I mean, if there’s anything that is more indicative of a lack of principle on an issue—you don’t vote yes or no? What’s that, maybe?” There are moments in Christie speeches when a logical line has ended but you get the sense that the energy has not yet dissipated, in himself or in the crowd, and that whoever speaks next will be a target. In this instance, it was a reporter who wanted to ask a follow-up question. Christie turned to him: “That’s my answer. So if you don’t like it, go ask someone else.” It took six Springsteen songs before the crowd let him leave.

There are few living politicians so firmly identified with a place that you get the sense, watching them deliver a speech at an elementary school, that the school will one day be named for them. You get that sense watching Christie on the Jersey shore. This is because of the storm, which destroyed nearly 350,000 homes and left tens of thousands of families still without one, and the way in which Christie has been able to channel both the sense of loss and the energetic spirit of repair. In other states that have suffered disasters—Texas and its wildfires, Oklahoma and its tornadoes—Republican governors have stuck to a libertarian line. But as Christie moved down the shore last month, he staged press conferences not with individual heroes but at the sites of businesses that had applied for relief grants, dwelling on the details of coming deadlines. He also dwelled in the rubble. In Sayreville, touring the damaged homes with Jon Bon Jovi, he took in stories—the surging ocean, flooding so high that it fully submerged the cars parked in the streets. At a beach-supplies rental store, he assessed the scale of the damage. “Two and a half feet of water coming in and out of here twice,” the governor said, marveling. “And the sinkhole.”

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.

The contrast was on display last week in the fight he picked with Rand Paul. The senator from Kentucky, having watched Christie denounce libertarianism, called him the “King of Bacon,” presumably referring both to his pleas for immediate federal help after Hurricane Sandy and to his weight. Christie had pointed out that New Jersey is a “donor state,” taking only 61 cents for every dollar it sends to Washington, while Kentucky takes back $1.51. (No acknowledgment from Christie that this is owed not to New Jersey’s superior character but to its good fortune of existing next to the great economic buoy of Wall Street, while Kentucky is near no economic buoy at all.) “So if Senator Paul wants to start looking at where he is going to cut spending to afford defense,” Christie had said, “maybe he should start looking at cutting the pork-barrel spending he brings home to ­Kentucky.” For Christie, the villain is always specific: not government, not socialism, not impersonal historical forces, but one moron in particular—the teachers union, or Steve Sweeney, or in this case Rand Paul, the libertarian ophthalmologist, high-mindedly denouncing government while his state is on its dole. “He’s not the first politician to try to use me to get attention,” Christie said later, dismissing Paul’s slight. “And I’m sure he won’t be the last.”

What Christie is doing when he starts arguments with other Republicans—and it is telling that what looks very much like a presidential run has begun with a sequence of fights—is offering his party the chance to preserve its anger, while trading in its revolutionaries for a furious institutionalist.

“We know that this is where our heart is, and it is the heart of New Jersey, too,” Christie said the week before last, sweating and crammed into a small restaurant in Newark’s Ironbound district. His father had come from the neighborhood, he said, and he talked about the images of fifties Newark, the tight, ethnic communities that live now mostly in nostalgia and food tours: “That’s what we want New Jersey to be, from Cape May up to Bergen County.”

The heart of New Jersey, yes, but also the scene of its greatest racial brutalities and the source, thereafter, of its deepest feelings of regret. In many prosperous North Jersey towns, you will still find first-generation migrants from Newark, some who shun what the city has become, some who express guilt at its abandonment. Christie’s own working-class parents left Newark in 1967, borrowing money from his two grandmothers to make a down payment on a house in Livingston, which was then on its way to becoming a rich suburb. This was also the year of the ­Newark riots, which means the Christies were part of one of the greatest episodes of white flight in American history.

Almost no one from Newark votes for Christie, and yet the city has been symbolically important to him: He spent the first day after his election as governor at a charter school in the North Ward, addressing students in sweater vests, and has made the major cross-party political alliance of his career with the city’s Democratic reform mayor, Cory Booker. Two years into his term as governor, Christie held a town-hall meeting in the Christian Love Baptist Church in Irvington, just outside Newark. “Everyone, everyone expected it would be explosive,” said Ron Christian, the church’s politically connected pastor. “I think his staff was a little shaky.”

When most white Republicans—when many white Democrats—visit a black church, the encounter is suffused with a toxic pandering, an oppressive self-­consciousness of difference. Christie acknowledged no difference at all. He simply asserted that he was a Newarker. And then he tried to wrap the audience into his own theater of outrage. They should be furious, he said, that the ­“education Establishment” would brag about the accomplishments of New ­Jersey’s suburban schools while telling inner-city parents, “We’ll get to you later.” In these schools, “children and their families are being cheated, and their futures are being determined by their Zip Code,” Christie said. “I know in my heart that if I had been left to the schools in Newark, that there’s a very good chance I wouldn’t be standing here as the governor of New Jersey … How many children are sitting in Newark today who have both the brains and the heart to be governor but will never be, because we didn’t have the guts to stand up and say, ‘This system needs to be changed’?”

For Christie, Newark is always both a nostalgia and an aspiration tour, a way to stress what the city has in common with the rest of the state rather than what keeps it from catching up. “If he were really concerned about Newark, he’d be like [former Republican governor] Tom Kean. He’d spend his time in the South Ward, the Central, the West Ward, where the minorities live and where there is gangbanging, and he would address the criminal-justice problem,” says Newark state senator ­Ronald L. Rice. “He just does not do it. He doesn’t care.” But Christie does not need to convince suburbanites, as Kean did, that the inner city is a controllable problem, that the watch stations and barracks are in place. What he needs from Newark is something more modern, something that explains his intense connection with Booker: He needs to be able to prove to a more liberal state that a historical loop has been closed and that his own anger can become a politics of hope.

Harlan Coben, the best-selling thriller writer, was 9 years old, another Newark refugee in Livingston, when he met Christie on a Little League field, the future governor a chunky kid in a catcher’s get-up coming toward him, saying his full name: Harlan Coben—Hi, I’m Chris Christie. “What 9-year-old does that?” Coben said to me 42 years later. New Jersey then was barely the Jersey we know now, but by the time Christie was a teenager and a Bruce Springsteen fan of extreme emotion and attachment, the persona of the state was beginning to take hold. Christie shares Springsteen’s Everyman persona, but Coben told me he thought there was another commonality, that each understood the power of the Jersey identity, “that to be something specific was to be something universal.” For a musician, this means a way to envelop a listener in the drama of his song. For a politician, it can mean an answer to the most basic question voters ask: What are you in this for beyond yourself?

There is a video available online of an incident on the boardwalk in Seaside Heights last July that—depending upon your view of the governor—is either comic or obscene. It is nighttime, and Christie is eating an ice-cream cone when a heckler walks past and says something to the governor about his war on the school system. At which point the governor, furious, charges down the boardwalk after his antagonist, ice-cream cone in hand, at first baiting the man, then taunting him. “You’re a real big shot, you’re a real big shot shooting your mouth off,” the governor yells, as the heckler eludes him—not all that difficult, given Christie’s sheer mass and the presence of the ice-cream cone. “Keep walking away,” the governor calls after him. “Really good. Keep walking.” It is possible to interpret this as just more bullying, which is how some of the state’s newspaper editorialists took it. But it is also the response of a man for whom argument is the ultimate form of human contact.

Christie is a small-craft warning of a human being; he is a rush of blood to the head; he is a bully. But the governor is something else, too, something that ­separates him from the nihilistic elements of his party and—maybe—gives him a chance to lead them. He is a believer.

See Also:
On the Campaign Trail With Cory Booker

What Is Chris Christie Doing Right?