Political Animal


August 29, 2012 12:16 PM “We Did Build That…”

By Ed Kilgore

I was pretty much focused on the speeches in Tampa last night, and less on the videos and other trappings, and so didn’t write about the overarching theme of “We Did Build That.” It was, as the New York Times’ Bill Keller noted, pretty odd to see a retort to something Barack Obama actually never said become the dominant theme of the convention dedicated to ousting him from power.

But the one honest thing about this theme and its power among conservatives is the righteous indignation it arouses. Wealthy people, and even some not-so-wealthy people often become furious at the suggestion that their “success” is not purely and simply a tribute to their moral superiority and hard work. The flip side of this calculation, of course, is that people who aren’t so successful are not so virtuous and/or are lazy. When Virtuous Republican Businessman was putting in that extra hour of labor, Lazy Democratic Looter was asleep, or having sex, or doing something else unvirtuous. Or so goes the mythology.

This identification of “success” (i.e., wealth) with virtue, ancient as it is, has always laughably defied common human experience. The hardest working people on earth are those who are literally working to keep from starving. Relatively few of them live in the United States to begin with, and those who do are rarely Republicans. And pride over one’s “success,” particularly if it is expressed via conspicuous wealth, has been the target of stern warnings in virtually every major religious tradition.

It has taken many decades of laborious revisionist work for the devout, scripturally literalist adherents of the faith whose God and Savior was quoted as saying, “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God,” to become uninhibited enthusiasts for earthly success and wealth, and despisers of the “undeserving” poor. It’s the same revisionism, of course, that makes it possible for the Roman Catholic Vice Presidential Nominee of the Republican Party to fondly view Ayn Rand as an “intellectual influence,” instead of someone whose books any Christian should abjure like a Black Mass—someone whose fondest desire was to wipe both religion and altruism from the face of the earth.

But such thoughts do not seem to trouble the delegates in Tampa, for whom Paul Ryan is their true leader for decades to come, their very own Ronald Reagan.

I’ve spent a lot of my life around the non-college educated white voters who seem to be the only “swing voters” the GOP is concerned about at the moment, and while a lot of them do indeed tend to “kick down” and resent the “undeserving poor” they view as too lazy to work, they don’t automatically admire the very wealthy—their own bosses, for example—as paragons of virtue. So I suspect this whole “We Did Build That” theme is basically for the emotional benefit of the GOP base and its donors. It says a lot that at a National Convention their hurt feelings must be so lavishly propitiated. And it is about “hurt feelings,” as TNR’s Leon Wieseltier suggests in his savage takedown of Paul Ryan and his intellectual pretensions today:

It is no wonder that Ryan, and of course Romney, set out immediately to distort the president’s “you didn’t build that speech” in Roanoke, because in complicating the causes of economic achievement, and in giving a more correct picture of the conditions of entrepreneurial activity, Obama punctured the radical individualist mythology, the wild self-worship, at the heart of the conservative idea of capitalism.

“Self-worship” is an apt term for people who have all the material abundance anyone could hope for in this life, but still burn with resentment at the “lucky ducky” working poor who don’t have federal income tax liability, and are insulted at the very idea that they owe something back to their community. I hope they enjoyed their evening of self-congratulation last night. To mention another saying by Jesus Christ with respect to self-regarding “godly” folk: “They have received their reward in full.”

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • c u n d gulag on August 29, 2012 12:30 PM:

    Jyazoos H. Christ in his house of many mansions, with many dusky servants, a garage with many elevators for his Mercedes and BMW's, keeping seats open for you by his side in Heaven for when the he whisks you up before Armageddonen the rest of us poor heathens:


  • stormskies on August 29, 2012 12:32 PM:

    Right, these are the self appointed Zarathustra's who are naturally superior to the 99% who are not 'like them'. And, of course, we are MEANT to serve this Zarathustra's with our very being, our very life.

    So of course they want a reality that lead to the 99% being nothing but indentured servants to them. That's why every one of their economic policies are aimed at creating an American form of fascism defined by an oligarchy of the 400 families that we are meant to serve, and to be happy to serve them to boot.

    In reality these self appointed, superior, Zarathustra's are nothing more that hopelessly narcissistic pigs who deSERVE TO BE DESTROYED.

  • IDTT on August 29, 2012 12:33 PM:

    They need to put "We did build that" underneath the National Debt Clock.

  • CalStateDisneyland on August 29, 2012 12:33 PM:

    Well written post.

    It is truly amazing for the working class Republican to kick those further down the economic ladder. Instead of asking why ever greater concentrations of wealth are occurring among fewer and fewer people, and what their effect might be, it is easier to blame those "siphoning" off the wealthy. While there ae certainly some societal parasites, the problem is as much as the top as the bottom.

    I know one fairly wealthy Republican, apparently borrowing from Freud, who writes it all of as "class envy." To question the top of the pyramid is to be a traitor to capitalism... the greatest sin of all.

  • Mimikatz on August 29, 2012 12:35 PM:

    The way I learned it was that the Puritans had a very austere doctrine of predestination, under which certain people were deemed "the Elect." They would succeed irrespective of good works or faith. In the Colonies, that was not a sufficient motivator, nor was it psychologically satisfying, so over time the doctrine dropped the predestination part and inverted the other part, so that first people would recognize who the Elect were by their success, and then that success guaranteed one was one of the Elect, so in that way material prosperity became a manifestation or sign of spiritual elevation. That gradually lost its religious roots and just became the Holy American Doctrine that the fabulously wealthy are better than the rest of us, the very aristocratic idea that people had supposedly fled to this continent to escape. And during the Gilded Age and for awhile after Social Darwinism gained currency as the justification for great disparities of wealth.

    None of is has anything really to do with the teachings of Jesus, at least not those in Matthew. But it does provide a great many people with some psychological satisfaction. That it is not sufficiently believed by the other 99% led to the use of the divide-and-conquer strategy of using racial divisions to distract poorer whites from their deprivations. All of this seems to be working well for the GOP, but I wonder how widespread these beliefs are these days with so many people from other traditions having come here in the last 100 years.

  • Mark_NC on August 29, 2012 12:36 PM:

    No, you've quoted the Bible all wrong.

    In the NEW OFFICIAL Bible - the Republican Bible edited by Fox News (and dictated by Jesus personally), the phrase has been corrected to:

    “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a poor person to enter the kingdom of God. I therefore command you to go forth and make money, money, money - lots of it - for you'll never get past St. Peter at the Pearly Gates without a generous bribe"

  • delNorte on August 29, 2012 12:38 PM:

    I think Flannery O'Connor was ahead of her time when, in her 1952 novel "Wise Blood," she had a con-man start the "Holy Church of Christ Without Christ," which the disenfranchised could join for a donation of $1.

    My guess is that many Republican voters consider themselves disenfranchised, or about to be...just listen to their many "we're the ones being persecuted here" complaints.

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on August 29, 2012 12:41 PM:

    I was watching the pre-prime time speakers on the public station, and one of the commentators (cant' remember who) astutely pointed out that the GOP is basically trying to co-opt Obama's self-made success for their own. For a party that's hell bent on trying to prove they bootstrapped everything they ever earned, it's rather ironic that their nominee is the progeny of an auto-industry capitalist turned governor and is challenging a half-black President who was raised from very humble means... Hmmmmmm... Very ironic, indeed.

  • SecularAnimist on August 29, 2012 12:41 PM:

    Ed Kilgore wrote: "... pretty odd to see a retort to something Barack Obama actually never said become the dominant theme ..."

    It's not really odd, given that the "dominant theme" of the entire Romney campaign has always been blatant LYING, and the dominant characteristic of what is called "conservatism" in America today is the absolute, unquestioning embrace of LIES.

  • davidp on August 29, 2012 12:46 PM:

    I'd like to know how many of these right wing pundits and enthusiasts for self-reliance who currently infest the media are actually on salaries from think-tanks, PACs, pressure groups, the Koch family etc. To be a paid hack is sad enough, but a hack who is paid to proclaim the virtues of rugged independence is truly pathetic.

  • Ron Byers on August 29, 2012 12:50 PM:

    “Self-worship” is an apt term for people who have all the material abundance anyone could hope for in this life, but still burn with resentment at the “lucky ducky” working poor who don’t have federal income tax liability, and are insulted at the very idea that they owe something back to their community.

    John Calvin said something like man by his very nature is a perpetual factory of idols.

    Ed, you are entirely too Catholic in your views. While the Republicans don't have a Protestant on their ticket, the evangelical base as well as devote followers of the Book of Mormon are deeply committed to the worst of traditional Protestant teachings that the rich have been blessed by God and the poor are unable to rise above their sinful natures. Of course, the best of the Protestants take those teachings as a starting point for great personal charity and profound propriety. Ayn Rand, the modern Republican saint, teaches these guys that they don't have to give a fig about their fellow men and women.

  • boatboy_srq on August 29, 2012 12:55 PM:

    I seem to remember Him saying something about not being able to serve God and Mammon all at once....

    @Mark_NC: IIRC that was part of the original Protestant quibble - the selling of indulgences. Apparently bribing/contributing/donating/tithing/whatever one's way into Paradise wasn't especially popular with Teh Pious Volk in the 16th century, though it made The Vatican a pretty penny.

    @CUND: what with all the tax havens and other dodges in The Caymans, Bermuda, etc. one would think that either a) they already have gone Galt and their accountants just haven't mentioned it yet, or b) if they did go Galt at last, their impact on the US economy would be sufficiently slight as not to be noticeable beyond the thousandth-of-a-percentage-point change in the GDP the remaining in-country wealth represents.

  • zandru on August 29, 2012 12:55 PM:

    Typo Watch

    underserving poor"

    You mean undeserving - it's not like you're referring to the poor who don't dish out a full helping...

  • Anonymous on August 29, 2012 12:56 PM:

    It’s the same revisionism, of course, that makes it possible for the Roman Catholic Vice Presidential Nominee of the Republican Party to fondly view Ayn Rand as an “intellectual influence,” instead of someone whose books any Christian should abjure like a Black Mass—someone whose fondest desire was to wipe both religion and altruism from the face of the earth.

    Interesting turn of phrase, as Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan, describes it as
    "Ayn Rand with trappings."

  • gelfling545 on August 29, 2012 1:01 PM:

    To me a big part of the issue with the whole "I Built That" thing even if the President had said it is : sorry, Buddy, but your employees built that. Did they get a reasonable return on their investment of labor? Sadly, the answer is probably "no".

  • gregor on August 29, 2012 1:22 PM:

    There is a bollywood movie in which a rich villain is shown getting up each morning and, as the first ritual for the day, going in the front of a mirror and worshing himself according to the local religious practices.


  • BobbyD on August 29, 2012 1:22 PM:

    I find it comical that GOP is featuring that Gilcrest dude at the convention, he of the metal fab factory Romney toured in the initial "I built it" kerfluffle.

    Will the media point out that Mr. Gilcrest took govt backed loans to start his business and is a whining, ridiculous hypocrite? That the GOP is lying when they claim Gilcrest did it all on his own?

  • emjayay on August 29, 2012 1:37 PM:

    John Calvin of course started the whole predestination thing in the early 1500's. Presbyterians are Calvinists and Puritans were people who thought Presbyterians weren't nearly Calvinistic enough.

    Good point Ron Byers - Ayn Rand is Calvinism minus any need for concern for anyone else. Just like Jesus wanted. (Or is it the exact opposite....)

    Apparently a lot of Megachurches have added a different sort of Calvinism to evangelicalism in another wierd way with Prosperity Theology, which should have Bullshit as its middle name.


    Traditional Christian (Catholic or Anglican) worship, among other things, was about directing thoughts to God (you know, the sublime and unknowable) and in a way creating a vision transcendence and heaven on earth with stained glass windows and soaring architecture and complex, intellectual, beautiful and powerful music (pipe organs, choirs, Beethoven). This realization crossed my little mind a few years ago at a choral performance at the Exeter chapel in Oxford.

    Everything about the modern American evangelical sort of religion, from concepts of being saved by Jesus who is then your very own personal Savior to the lite fake rock band with arm waving and swaying Sunday megashows is about the very American idea of me, me, me. The prosperity untheology fits right in. It's just the opposite of tradition. And it's very Republican.

    I guess repeated brazen shameless bald-faced lying in the face of complete debunking by, well, everyone is the Mormon religion's contribution to modern Republicanism.

  • scott_m on August 29, 2012 1:47 PM:

    For me, the perfect Bible verse that addresses the "I'm rich because I'm successful" idea is Ecclesiastes 9:11.

    (Hey, Republicans--it's even from the Old Testament!)

    I returned, and saw under the sun,
    that the race is not to the swift,
    nor the battle to the strong,
    neither yet bread to the wise,
    nor yet riches to men of understanding,
    nor yet favour to men of skill;
    but time and chance happeneth to them all.

  • Guscat on August 29, 2012 1:52 PM:

    The whole "we built that" theme goes beyond just the government. Businessmen don't just think they didn't get help from the government, they also seem to think they didn't get any help from their workers or even given the way they've often run public companies from their shareholders either.

  • TCinLA on August 29, 2012 1:56 PM:

    “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God,”

    If one understands what exactly was being referenced with "eye of a needle", the statement is even more damning.

    Back in the 1st century, cities and towns were walled, and the gates closed at dark. If a caravan arrived after that, they could either camp outside the walls where thieves might fall on them, or they could enter the city by going through "the eye of a needle." This was a small door in the city gate, and a camel could indeed enter it, if the baggage the camel was carrying was removed and the camel crawled in on its knees (camels being one of the few animals other than humans that can do this).

    And of course, asking a rich man to "remove his baggage" is pretty much next to impossible. Thus, it is indeed easier for a camel to pass through "the eye of a needle" than for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.

    Once you hear the story explained that way, it makes at least one part of the fantasy called religion make sense.

  • bigtuna on August 29, 2012 1:56 PM:

    After Paul Ryan's father died, did Ryan recieve Social Security survivor benefits?

    Didn't his mother attend a public university? And I assume mr. Ryan has, at some time in his life, travelled on publically funded roads? And, gone to a library? I do seem to recall that - er, his salary, as it has for much of his adult life, comes from tax dollars?

  • boatboy_srq on August 29, 2012 1:59 PM:

    Perhaps the best "shorter version" for the GOP-speak item under discussion:

    Every man is his own sole proprietorship.

    And yes, I did phrase it that way deliberately.

  • Steve P on August 29, 2012 1:59 PM:

    Given the LA Times article that disclosed the fact that the Ryans would still be driving around doing freelance coldpatch were it not for the Federal Highway project and other "looter" projects, I'd say his capacity for self-deception alone would qualify Ryan for the veep spot.

  • T2 on August 29, 2012 2:15 PM:

    interesting, isn't it, that the Republicans have based their entire campaign on a statement that resulted from a cut and paste job. Cheating is really at the core of that Party.....and it's so obvious one has to assume close to half of our citizens are cheaters too.

  • Doug on August 29, 2012 3:05 PM:

    "It says a lot that at a National Convention their hurt feelings must be so lavishly propitiated." Ed Kilgore

    "Hurt feelings" or guilty consciences?
    Too many of these people were raised on the same principles as was I and as those principles definitely do NOT include lying, cheating, bullying I wouldn't be surprised if much of what is put down to "hurt feelings" is in reality an effort to silence those long-ago lessons.
    Pity they weren't more effective...

  • Califlander on August 29, 2012 3:07 PM:

    It's wildly funny to listen to conservatives preening about how their success is solely due to their own efforts. These were the same folks, who -- with tears in their eyes -- were singing in 1992

    And I'm proud to be an American,
    where at least I know I'm free.
    And I wont forget the men who died,
    who gave that right to me.

  • nuts and rocks on August 29, 2012 4:54 PM:

    T2, not cheating, selective "deregulation".

  • Neil B on August 29, 2012 5:56 PM:

    One of the issues often lost in the tax liability wars is: individuals deduct their basic living expenses as an "cost of doing business", similar to how a business gets to deduct its "costs." Hence there is no more reason an individual worker should be taxed on his gross income, as a business.

    "Simple thoughts are for simple minds."

  • yellowdog on August 29, 2012 9:08 PM:

    One of the deepest fault lines in the GOP is between the Randians and the evangelicals. Look at evangelical Chuck Colson's denunciation of Ayn Rand for a quick lesson in mutual contempt. Rand was a militant atheist who believed in Objectivism. That's the philosophy that gets teenage boys aflutter when they read her books. Objectivism is decidedly not what Colson and the Christian conservatives are all about. It's a tough combination for one party--hard individualism based on economic liberty from Rand, moral absolutism imposed by the state from the evangelicals. Any journalist who dared should be able to keep Ryan busy trying to explain how those two fit together. Romney is having trouble juggling the competing ideologies too--and he looks pretty weak everytime he veers back and forth.