2012 Election Mirrors Great Gatsby

Farrow, Redford in "The Great Gatsby"

Sometimes life and literature are so hard to tell apart that one’s jaw drops open. I’m thinking of Mitt Romney’s weekend fundraiser in the Hamptons ($75,000 a ticket) and that great American novel also set in the Hamptons—which is, of course, The Great Gatsby. The quotation that has many shaking their heads in disbelief is one reported by a Los Angeles Times reporter:

A New York City donor a few cars back, who also would not give her name, said Romney needed to do a better job connecting. “I don’t think the common person is getting it,” she said from the passenger seat of a Range Rover stamped with East Hampton beach permits. “Nobody understands why Obama is hurting them. 

“We’ve got the message,” she added. “But my college kid, the baby sitters, the nails ladies — everybody who’s got the right to vote — they don’t understand what’s going on. I just think if you’re lower income — one, you’re not as educated, two, they don’t understand how it works, they don’t understand how the systems work, they don’t understand the impact.”

Several pundits have had fun juxtaposing such quotes from the event with passages from Fitzgerald’s novel and challenging readers to tell which is which. Ilya Gerner of Comedy Central sets the tone by the way he prefaces his quiz:

One of these is an extended metaphor on cynicism, greed and the destruction of the American Dream amid an orgy of material excess. The other is a book we force upon high school freshmen.

You should check out Gerner’s quiz or that of Alex McGillis in The New Republic, but to give you a taste, can you tell which three quotes are from Fitzgerald and which three are from the fundraiser? (Answers at the end of the post.)

1. “A woman in a blue chiffon dress poked her head out…’Is there a V.I.P. entrance? We are V.I.P.’

2. “Tell him who’s on your yacht this weekend! Tell him!”

3. “I like to come. I never care what I do, so I always have a good time. When I was here last I tore my gown on a chair, and he asked me my name and address — inside of a week I got a package from Croirier’s with a new evening gown in it.”

4. “One thing’s sure and nothing’s surer/ The rich get richer and the poor get – children./ In the meantime,/ In between time–”

5. “He is a socialist. His idea is find a problem that doesn’t exist and get government to intervene.”

6. “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such – such beautiful shirts before.”

And then there’s the quotation, this one from Gatsby, that articulates race anxieties of many rightwing Americans, exacerbated by a black president, a rising percentage of American minorities, globalization, and the hollowing out of the middle class–an anxiety that helps explain why 19 states are engaged in voter suppression efforts  (supposedly to fix the non-problem of voter fraud). The speaker is Tom Buchanan:

Civilization’s going to pieces. I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things… The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be–will be utterly submerged… It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things.

Since the financial meltdown of 2008, which ravaged retirement accounts and housing values and threw thousands out of work, the wealthiest Americans have been making a comeback.  According to Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez, in 2010, the first year of the recovery, the top one percent of Americans captured 93 percent of the income gains while the rest of the country struggled. Meanwhile Romney continues to call for tax reductions on the upper echelons along with cuts in infrastructure and governmental spending. And although J. P. Morgan recently reported losses resulting from shady deals that could go as high as $9 billion, financiers continue to resist bank regulation or to take responsibility for the 2008 crash. Instead, one hears aggrieved complaints by the wealthy that Obama does not appreciate them enough

As illogical as their sense of victimhood may sound, Fitzgerald understood their sense of entitlement. As Nick Carraway says about Tom Buchanan after he has set Gatsby up to get killed,

I couldn’t forgive him or like him but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused.They were careless people, Tom and Daisy–they smashed up things and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made. . . .

We are still trying emerge from the smash-ups caused by our own Buchanans.

I wonder if Nick Carraway coming to West Egg to interact with the jet set is at all like Barack Obama making overtures to Wall Street in 2008. At one point Obama thought that we could all get along, and in the last election a number of wealthy Wall Streeters supported him. Somewhere along the line, however, he, like Nick, was divested of his illusions, and Wall Street has responded with fury, pouring millions into Super Pacs designed to defeat him.

If we want to push parallels with the book even further, maybe Tom riling up Wilson so that he kills Gatsby—even though Tom has been sleeping with Wilson’s wife and Daisy is the one who runs her over—is like the Koch Brothers funding the “populist” Tea Party to undermine populist measures like Obamacare. These rightwing billionaires couldn’t care less about “the people.” They just use them.

At the end of the novel, a chastened Nick returns to the Midwest, just as a chastened Obama is turning increasingly to populist themes.

The election has become a contest between Nick Carraway and the Buchanans.

Answer key: 1, 2, and 5 are from the weekend event, 3, 4 and 6 from The Great Gatsby.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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