Some time ago I wrote about political bullies. I wasn’t thinking of Republican New Jersey governor Chris Christie in particular when I wrote it. In part this was because there were so many other fine examples in the Republican Party he hardly stood out. In fact, almost all the prominent Republican politicians are bullies. It’s part of their trademark, at least in recent years. The civilized and mannered ones have all pretty much retired, died or joined the Democrats.
Christie this week is an example of a political bully that got his comeuppance. In a long, tedious and frequently bizarre news conference on Thursday, Christie worked hard and unconvincingly to limit his political damage from Bridgegate. I don’t think the scandal has an official name yet, but this will do. It involved restricting the number of lanes allowed to residents of Fort Lee, just across the Hudson River in New Jersey from Manhattan to a toll plaza to get into Manhattan via the George Washington Bridge. For a full week, ironically during the week of September 11 last year, local citizens of Fort Lee were tied up needlessly in traffic because their access to the toll plaza had been restricted from three lanes to one. This caused monumental traffic jams and likely contributed to one death. Reputedly this closure was ordered, if not by Christie himself, then by his close aides, as retribution. Why? Reputedly, it was because Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor refused to endorse Christie for reelection. Christie handily won reelection anyhow by an impressive sixty plus percent margin.
At the news conference, Christie portrayed himself as something of a victim. He said he was lied to by his staffers, and said that he was shocked that people he trusted lied him to. To hold people accountable he fired an aide, Deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly. Port Authority executive David Wildstein resigned last month reputedly due to the scandal. Curiously though for a bully, at least when it came to his friends, he was not up to doing it personally. Kelly was fired by email. During the news conference, Christie said he was sorry, of course, but also said he was not a bully, and that people who know him would not characterize him as one.
Really? This easily passes the smirk test. Being loud, obnoxious and in your face are key ingredients to Christie’s style. It’s what got him elected then reelected. In New Jersey, these are something akin to assets. The state has a history of corrupt officials, typically Democratic officials because it is an overwhelmingly Democratic state. The state also has a history of mob influence, and has lots of Italians in general. In short, being obnoxious and corrupt is part of the culture. What gave Christie allure to New Jersey voters is that he was a Republican not afraid to take on the powers in his state. Given the state’s history, it’s not surprising that his bullying and obnoxiousness was considered an asset.
Christie is a caricature of a bully. He is not afraid to get up close and personal, yell loudly, put his finger in your chest and violate your personal space to make his point. He takes the initiative rather than wait on events. As I noted in my earlier essay, bullying generally works. It is considered bizarre behavior. Most of us are trained to be civilized so we are taken aback when we encounter a bully. We simply don’t know how to behave. While we feel incoherent and flustered, the bully has asserted himself and changed the dynamics. And so far it has worked well for Christie. Arguably, in a state with such a corrupt history as New Jersey, you need a bully in charge.
If you are going to be a bully though, at least have the decency to admit it. Don’t spend much of your news conference proclaiming that you are not the person you made yourself out to be as part of your trademark. It’s not surprising in the least that he would attract and hire people with a similar temperament; indeed it would be surprising if he had not. Given that their boss was into retribution and political payback, his subordinates probably felt they were being faithful to their boss by imitating his behavior. And if the Democratic mayor of a New Jersey city isn’t going to endorse their boss for reelection, well, then there is a price to pay. It’s time to show who’s really in charge. And so they did because they could. It’s how bullies operate. You are liberal in dishing out punishment because you are trying to make an emotional impact. You do this on the assumption an emotional impact will change future actions. The message to residents of Fort Lee was pretty obvious: if you elect people not in tune with the governor then you are going to pay a price. For most it was the price of inconvenience, but inconvenience is costly and in this case allegedly deadly as well.
Bullies are rendered powerless when they are stood up to. Ideally this courage inspires others to do the same, soon rendering the bully impotent. Restricting traffic to a major thoroughfare into Manhattan is an example of a bully going too far over the line. With the help of grassroots Democratic activists, eventually the press took notice and started digging. That Christie’s subordinates ordered this is simply all we need to know about the character of the guy. Christie is in the moving cheese business. While voters appreciated most of the cheese that Christie managed to move, you can move too much too quickly. And when that happens, as in Bridgegate, you learn which boundaries can be transgressed and which cannot.
Given that the incident was widely publicized at the time, Christie’s ability to tune it out suggests his insular, incurious and haughty nature. Publically, he suggested that such local issues were beneath him. Most likely privately he was aware that his minions were pulling some strings on his behalf, and he enjoyed seeing his enemies squirm. I doubt his staff involved in this affair gave it much thought. It was consistent with their boss’s management style.
Time will tell if this will have a lasting effect on Christie’s political ambitions. It certainly gives Americans, who probably haven’t tuned that much into Christie, some concerns to chaw over. For Christie, successful damage control will mean tempering his temper, the very asset that brought him political fame. Once tempered, it’s unlikely that he will shine out above the crowd of other Republicans with eyes on the White House in 2016.
The bullying trademark of the Republican Party has been wearing thin for a long time. Americans are disgusted with the Tea Party in particular, for their obnoxious and uncompromising attitudes and the damage it caused. Rush Limbaugh’s show is in tatters. Political compromise is in; political extremism is out. Part of Christie’s trademark was that sometimes he would work across the aisle, or take a position anathema to most Republicans, thereby demonstrating the courage of his convictions. Without bullying as his shtick though, there is little to recommend him. Instead, now there are lots of red flags.
Christie has become the symbol of change we cannot believe in.