How rich is too rich to be president? I ask merely for information.
Is it bad to be wealthy, full stop? Is it only inherited wealth that is a problem? Is it fine if you have enough money to run for president as long as you get everywhere in an inexpensive car that you drive yourself?
It seems to be less a specific number than a feeling. Seven houses, the number John McCain turned out to have, was obviously too many. Mitt Romney, everyone seemed to feel, was just too patrician and one-percenty, even if you couldn’t necessarily put a dollar figure on it. Ask (even innocently!) about how that new checkout machine works, like George H.W. Bush did, and you’re branded for life with the mark of the Silver Spoon.
It’s the sense that the candidate is cringing internally and thinking, “Oh no, a member of 99 percent just touched my sleeve, I need to go rub myself down with large bills and the deeds to summer homes.”
Call it what you like. The “hang test.” The question of “who can you have a beer with?”*
Candidates Who Can Hang, like the mythical Chicks Who Can Hang, are one of the unicorns of modern life. It is not that they don’t exist but perhaps that they shouldn’t. Everyone claims he’s seen one. Keep clapping and maybe one will pop up.
These candidates are just like you! They like the things you like. The things they know best are trucks, economic hardship, fast food, the struggles of working-class moms and putting pants on one leg at a time.
(As a footnote, “I still put my pants on one leg at a time,” is a terrible thing to say to show how down-to-earth you still are, because the fact that you even need to remark on it makes me worry that maybe a highly expensive robot is putting your shirt on in some weird new way that hasn’t even occurred to a plebeian like me.)
Candidates Who Can Hang don’t dress designer, love beer, hate opera — and run away screaming if anyone ever tries to show it to them. They know Exactly What You’re Going Through.
And, like Chicks Who Can Hang, they are by and large a fantasy. If they exist at all, it’s because we’ve desperately willed them into being, against all impulses to the contrary.
And now Hillary Clinton is running up against the Candidate Who Can Hang problem. The media have seized on her efforts to imply that she can relate to the financial struggles of the average American family (“We came out of the White House not only dead broke, but in debt”) and knitted ourselves a lovely narrative out of them, with tassels and everything — “Some Democrats fear Clinton’s wealth and ‘imperial image’ could be damaging in 2016,” read a headline in this newspaper.
And she’s not even running for anything yet!
We keep hearing about the need to be down-to-earth. But after a certain point, it is phonier to act like you lack wherewithal than it is to admit that you do. “Oh, we were just barely scraping by,” you say. “We almost had to mortgage our third beach house. I was working my fingers to the bone giving $200,000 speeches.” It just doesn’t quite ring right. This is not what most of us picture when we hear the phrase “just scraping by.”
And contrasting yourself to other people who are “truly well off” — you know, the people who actually have YACHTS of their OWN and don’t have to RENT vacation homes like rubes and plebeians — that doesn’t work either.
One solution, I suppose, would be to blast “Jenny From The Block” at every stop on the Clinton book tour (“Don’t be fooled by the rocks that I got/I’m still, I’m still Jenny from the block/Used to have a little now I have a lot/Everywhere I go I know where I came from”), but that seems like it could get pretty annoying pretty quickly.
It’s a vicious cycle. The American dream is to make it big so you get out of the lousy place where you started, a shack o’ hardship that you were forced to share with Eminem, all country singers and anyone else who wants to run for president, ever. If you had a childhood that was remotely pleasant in anything that might be described as a suburb — well, I mean, forget it.
Unfortunately, once you get out of the shack, the number of people who can relate directly to your material, whether it’s music or stump speeches, starts dwindling. Contrast “One day I’ll be/Living in the big ol’ city/And all you’re ever gonna be is mean” to later Taylor Swift lyrics, which can be summarized, “I dated a celebrity/But he failed to/Live up to my standards.” It’s not her fault. You can only sing about the life you’re living. I’m sure it’s tough, in its own way, to have to figure out how you’re going to scrape by on speaking fees. But it’s just not the struggle to which most people relate.
There’s a certain aspirational joy in listening to people sing about the sub-par Crystal being brought to their Ritz after-parties. But in politics, we really rely on populist appeals, especially given our attitude towards The One Percenters, and it can be tough.
Ever since Andrew Jackson stepped boot into the White House, we’ve been inching away from the idea that elites are supposed to rule us. We don’t want to be ruled. We can handle ourselves, thanks! So in order to be elected, a candidate has to convince us that he or she is one of us.
But is this really what we should want? Andrew Jackson wasn’t great.
Maybe the answer is to double down. “Yes, I live in a luminous cloud of celebrity and money and someone else has driven me around in a car for the past decade. I use summer as a verb. Beyonce and I move in similar circles. But I still know what you’re going through!”
It’s not that we want a beer. We want someone who understands.
All this awkwardness where Mitt and Ann Romney have to talk about eating TV dinners off ironing boards and Hillary Clinton has to reassure us that she pays income tax stems from the idea that someone who hasn’t experienced a thing can’t possibly understand or sympathize with it. This is a sadly limiting thing to think. If that’s true, most books are pointless. Shakespeare can’t possibly have written what he wrote about kings of Denmark — how could he? He was a glover’s son in Stratford. If you operate under the assumption that you have to have lived through a tough situation to understand it and be able to work to improve it — forget it. There isn’t enough time in a human life. Fortunately, this assumption is wrong. Look at FDR, who was the child of a silver spoon and golden credenza.
I’m not saying “run into the arms of the patricians.” Just maybe that it’s time to fine-tune the hang test. You don’t have to convince us that you are literally just like us. If you are literally just like me, your fridge is terrifying and I would not trust you with a whole country. Just as the coolest adults to teenagers are not the ones trying to behave like teenagers, the people who seem most like us are the ones who act most like themselves. That’s what enables you to hang. Beer or not.
*Also, why do Americans think it would be more fun to have a beer with someone who is “just a regular guy” or “just one of the gals” than with someone who can afford to buy us several rounds of expensive beer full of flakes of gold? I for one would rather have a beer when there’s a chance that beer might be on a yacht.