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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

More About Pete

Why support someone who gives no reason to trust that he cares about anything other than his career?

It is a sad reflection on American politics that Pete Buttigieg is taken seriously as a presidential contender. After all, the question voters should ask themselves when choosing a candidate is: What have you done with your life that can give me confidence you mean what you say? Every politician will tell you what you want to hear at election time. Anyone can look at the mood of the electorate and craft policies that will be popular. But so few leaders actually deliver on their lofty promises, and you need to know what kind of person they really are, whether they can be relied on to fight for you when it counts. You need someone who has been consistent in sticking up for the right thing. 

Pete Buttigieg, as I have documented at length before, has spent his life doing little more than try to advance himself to higher and higher levels of status and power. When he was at Harvard, he passed by the “social justice warriors” (his term) fighting to get a living wage for the school’s janitors, so that he could go and have pizza with governors and media elites. As a newly minted Rhodes Scholar, with the privilege to do almost anything in the world, he chose to go to McKinsey, a totally amoral consulting firm that advises dictators and drug companies on how to optimize their evil. There, he almost certainly helped craft layoffs and insurance rate hikes at Blue Cross (instead of denying this, he pivots quickly to trashing single-payer healthcare). He worked on McKinsey’s contract with the Department of Defense in Afghanistan, which funneled millions of dollars of taxpayer money to the consulting firm for seemingly doing almost no work. (The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan could not find anything that McKinsey had produced for the $18 million the government gave it except a 50-page report highlighting the economic development opportunities in Afghanistan.) When asked about it, Buttigieg simply says it’s all a secret

Buttigieg’s company appears to have stolen millions from the U.S. government (or at least, the Inspector General has no idea where the money went except into McKinsey’s pocket), in addition to their work on helping corporations fire people and pump more opiates into more bodies. Let’s be clear: McKinsey is sociopathic. They have no hesitation about advising murderous autocrats like Mohammed bin Salman (of bombing school buses and dismembering dissidents with bonesaws infamy), and they even disgusted ICE employees by considering plans to optimize immigration detention centers by spending less on feeding detainees. (Then they lied about what they did.) Yet when Buttigieg was first asked about McKinsey, he could see nothing wrong with the firm and refused to accept that he had any moral responsibility whatsoever for the kind of work he chose for himself. He said that McKinsey’s job is simply “answering questions and solving problems,” and they are only “as moral or immoral or amoral as the American private sector itself.” (So very immoral, then.) 

Up until the moment his presidential campaign began, Pete Buttigieg cared little about issues facing working people and people of color. Don’t believe me? Read his memoir, and see how much he talks about evictions, homelessness, the racial wealth gap, gentrification—all problems that plagued South Bend during his time as mayor. He talks about upgrading the city to “smart sewers,” and “rightsizing” the city from its “contagion of blight” through a controversial program of rigid code enforcement and demolishing homes in disproportionately black areas. He does not talk about issues of justice, or even seem to understand what those issues might be.

Mayor Pete’s oft-discussed “black voter problem” is better described as “the fact that black people, having had to live in a racist world, are often able to see through white lies,” and know when yet another white person is bullshitting them with opportunistic empathy. Pete’s record on black issues as mayor was bad: He fired the black police chief who “was well liked and had built confidence between the black community and the police department,” after the chief allegedly recorded white police officers making racist remarks. Buttigieg has repeatedly denied knowing what is on the (unreleased) tapes, but a Young Turks investigation found that he was told about them, and his legal team has had “detailed, explicit” descriptions of what was on the tapes since 2013. Buttigieg has declared over and over that he fired the police chief because he was under federal investigation, but this too was not true.

The obvious fact is that Buttigieg was simply uninterested in the relationship between the black community and the police. The number of black police officers in South Bend plummeted over the course of Buttigieg’s tenure, and by the time Buttigieg announced his run for president, the force was only 6 percent black in a city where ¼ of residents are black. Michael Harriot, in a detailed and scathing report on Buttigieg’s indifference, said it was very clear that Buttigieg ignored racism in the department and then lied about doing so. At one point, “half of all black SBPD officers were raising their voices and risking retaliation to call attention to the problems”—problems including white officers receiving promotions not advertised to black officers, white officers not backing up black officers, and black officers being disciplined more harshly than white officers. Harriot documents just how dishonest Buttigieg’s own retroactive portrayal was: 

Not only is there a mountain of evidence showing that the city’s black officers felt marginalized, but we could not find a single black complainant who said Buttigieg responded to their concerns personally or in writing. When The Root asked Buttigieg if he was aware black officers had raised issues of racism and discrimination, his campaign would only say that Buttigieg was aware “that some officers had filed complaints with the EEOC, and those were ultimately dismissed.” They also claimed they couldn’t respond because “doing so in the middle of a legal process would’ve been inappropriate.”Maybe Pete Buttigieg can’t see. Perhaps the black officers were not loud enough for Buttigieg to hear. Or maybe he’s deaf. There is ample evidence proving the black cops complained loudly about racism on the force before anyone filed an EEOC complaint. TYT and The Root have examined a slew of court records, memos, and emails, which revealed that the SBPD’s dwindling supply of black cops alerted every available resource to them of the discrimination in Mayor Pete’s police force…. It’s what black officers specifically, repeatedly, told the South Bend Common Council, the BOPS and Mayor Pete in memos, emails and complaints obtained by The Root and TYT. The claim is reflected in at least five discrimination lawsuits filed in federal courts. The accusations were leveled in our conversations with current and former SBPD officers. Included in the documents were letters signed by 10 black SBPD officers—a significant cohort of the force’s black members—in which they describe several problems within the department. 

In fact, Buttigieg consistently spins or outright lies to make his record look better than it was. Black South Bend city council member Henry Davis Jr. said of Buttigieg that “he tolerated [systemic racism], he perpetuated it, and [at the debate] he lied to millions of Americans about it,” referring to Buttigieg’s denial that marijuana arrests of Black residents escalated during his time as mayor. He made these kinds of deceptive statements more than once. Citizens of South Bend had long asked for a citizens’ review board to oversee police. In his 2017 State of the City address, Buttigieg proudly announced that there was now a citizens’ review board. But as black city council member Regina Williams-Preston noted, this was utterly “disingenuous.” Buttigieg had done nothing except start referring to the agency that already oversaw the police as a “citizen’s review board.” “It’s the same thing we’ve always had… Just because you say that doesn’t make it so. To me it was a betrayal.” A betrayal, yes, and a bit of political gaslighting: telling people they were crazy—they had had a citizens’ review board all along! (Even that board went from 80 percent male to 100 percent male under Buttigieg’s tenure.)

Buttigieg mixes fudged facts with public statements of contrition and pledges to do better, which might be plausible if he weren’t simultaneously lying about what he did (e.g., by presenting misleading statistics to imply he addressed African American poverty, when he didn’t—at the end of his term “poverty among African-Americans stubbornly [remained] almost twice as high as for African-Americans nationwide”) and portraying himself in a way that makes it seem as if he did nothing bad. (A thing self-serving people frequently do is apologize for something and say they were wrong, while simultaneously presenting what they did in a way that obscures how bad it actually was and therefore makes it seem as if they’re being generous and humble by apologizing for something that there was no need to apologize for. I have previously documented how Bill Clinton does this.) Buttigieg apologized for the racial problems in the department by saying he “couldn’t get it done,” which implies that he was sincerely trying, when, as Harriot shows, he simply wasn’t. By apologizing profusely, and releasing new racial justice policies with great fanfare (including touting support for his Douglass Plan” from black people who had never signed on to it), Buttigieg believes that he can overcome his record with rhetoric. 

In my initial article about Buttigieg last year, I warned that he would rapidly change his language to suit his audience, in the hopes that nobody will remember what he sounded like five minutes ago. I also noted that he would be very good at this; Buttigieg is a polyglot who masters languages quickly. So he has gone from being an “all lives matter” guy who talks about how kids in “minority neighborhoods” don’t have “someone they know personally who testifies to the value of education” to being as woke as necessary to win. When Michael Harriot expressed disgust with the latter remark, Pete quickly sat down for an interview with Harriot, where he Listened and Learned and Promised To Do Better. Buttigieg will surely do this every time a constituency needs to be appeased: He will do his research, release a plan, and dull the discontent. 

Of course, there are many people who take politicians at their word, and see their sudden evolutions on issues as sincere rather than opportunistic. Sure, Mayor Pete has a record of completely ignoring black concerns until they caused a scandal that could harm his political career, but maybe he has Learned and Grown. Maybe even though he showed zero interest in issues of social justice in his 2018 memoir, and revealed himself to be a narcissist whose constituents were invisible, he has had a revelation since it was published. Again, I don’t think it’s possible to accept an apology when someone is still lying about what they did, but even Pete’s rhetoric during the campaign has been slippery and dishonest, suggesting over and over again that he adopts positions out of convenience. 

Back before his campaign had any policies, and he was still speaking purely in platitudes (he still deploys sentences of jaw-dropping vacuity), Buttigieg said that this was intentional: Democrats had hitherto focused too much on policy and too little on philosophy. Plainly this was only because the policies were being focus grouped and poll-tested, because he subsequently began debuting and touting big policies. Buttigieg supports those policies with dishonest talking points: Defending his decision to not to advocate free universal public college, he said that doing so would be a handout to billionaires, which it wouldn’t. Defending his shift from being a staunch supporter of Medicare For All to trashing Medicare For All, Buttigieg implied that M4A removes people’s insurance coverage, which it doesn’t, and spoke up to defend insurance industry jobs (to see why this is ridiculous, imagine how it would sound if fire services currently operated the way healthcare operates). It is hard to believe that Buttigieg offers up these talking points because he believes them; he’s smart enough to know they’re misleading.

Where Pete’s positions and record would be embarrassing, he simply avoids answering the question, in the hopes nobody will follow up. When the New York Times asked him whether, as president, he would support U.S.-backed coups and war with Iran, he refused to answer. The potentially embarrassing parts of his consulting work are confidential. (When he does give clear positions on things, they either shift at his convenience—such as pledging to stand up for Palestinians and then changing his mind—or often offer troubling hints about how he would wield power, such as being “troubled” that Barack Obama offered whistleblower Chelsea Manning clemency after she was tortured.)

Witness this extraordinary exchange with reporters asking him about making his fundraisers more transparent: 


Earlier today you said you were open to having a conversation about opening up fundraisers and that’s a question that reporters have been asking for months now. So, I’m wondering when do you expect to actually have that conversation and give an answer on that?


I don’t have a timeline for it.


As the candidate can’t you just direct your team to open these fundraisers?




And why haven’t you done that?


There’s a lot of considerations and I’m thinking about it. Next question. 


Can you give us an example of those considerations? 



Buttigieg evidently realizes that the U.S. media does not grill politicians particularly hard, and it’s possible to just ignore what’s inconvenient to answer. As Glenn Greenwald commented, the “aggressive arrogance and utter contempt for basic transparency” Buttigieg shows here is “stunning” and does not bode well at all for a Buttigieg presidency. (Imagine if he adopted this attitude toward disclosing the federal government’s actions.) 

It is very plain that Buttigieg is a corporate candidate. He has dozens of billionaire donors, and is heavily backed by lobbyists, pharmaceutical executives, and finance executives. (The list is a who’s who of the American power elite.) He tried to disguise who his donors are, selectively disclosing them in order to hide the Wall Street fat cats, only opening up access to his fundraisers after months of pressure for transparency. Against “the advice of both staffers of color” and public relations advisers, Buttigieg’s campaign pressed forward with a funrdaiser by Rahm Emanuel’s attorney, who was “known for trying to block video evidence in the investigation of the death of Laquan McDonald from being released.” (Amid uproar, the fundraiser was finally canceled.) Buttigieg has declined to say whether he will follow the corrupt practice of rewarding big donors with ambassadorships, which means he will. When confronted about having big-dollar fundraisers in wine caves, he responds by pleading poverty (no excuse when he could have built a grassroots campaign like Bernie Sanders) and pointing to other candidates’ hypocrisy. (And the wine cave attendees have spoken up to pretend they are not actually wealthy and imply it only costs $11 to attend instead of $2,800.) 

What is particularly annoying about Pete Buttigieg is that it is extremely obvious what kind of person he is, because he’s virtually a caricature of the “empty suit” politician. (Watch this sketch about a fictitious senatorial candidate and see if it doesn’t seem almost word-for-word like a parody of Buttigieg.) In his memoir, he recounts being flummoxed when a voter asks him how he can prove he’s not just offering pleasing rhetoric—he can’t, because that’s exactly what he is doing. But because our politics have become so divorced from the real world, so focused on image instead of substance, and Buttigieg seems like the kind of person who might be president on a show like The West Wing, he has a chance. The media like him not because of anything he has done (undistinguished tenure as mayor of the fourth largest city in Indiana, mostly memorable for a handful of race scandals), but because he has, in his words, the right “alignment of attributes.” He is made for TV: a Rhodes Scholar veteran from the “heartland,” whose identity would make his election a civil rights victory. Much of Buttigieg’s “Indiana heartland boy” image is manufactured—his memoir downplays the fact that he was the child of Notre Dame professors raised on an elite college campus. (He claimed never to have seen “exposed brick” or clock towers until reaching the Big City of Cambridge, Massachusetts—which, for what it’s worth, a correspondent of mine has claimed is false.)

Unfortunately, this kind of politics is downright dangerous. More than ever, we need someone who isn’t a hollow careerist putting on a “folksy” image, but who cares passionately about fighting for justice. The threats of climate change and war are too great to leave in the hands of someone who doesn’t seem to care about the lives of working people. Buttigieg has already dialed back his ambition on climate change, and his plan falls woefully short of what is necessary, even if we could trust him to passionately fight on the issue, which we can’t. (The McKinsey approach to climate change will probably involve “optimizing climate mitigation for maximal economic growth” or something.) 

Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary offers the chance to repudiate this kind of politics once and for all, for voters to show that they demand something real and substantive, and someone who has shown over their career that they actually give a shit about ordinary people. Let us hope New Hampshire voters seize the chance to show this man that they will not be manipulated, that they see what Pete is doing and have no intention of rewarding it. 

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