The Cruel Sophistry of Mr. Booker

My article on Cory Booker’s most recent visit to New Hampshire ran overlong—overlong by half, if you ask me. Maybe I was uniquely inspired by the startling lack of self-awareness in his theatrics, or maybe I was just puerilely peeved by his deliberate attempt to ignore me—twice. Whatever my reason, I allowed myself to drown in the details of my piece, which was awfully ironic, as I never penetrated the surface of the problem with Booker. Satisfying though it is to reflect on the comical absurdity of his public performance, we do so at the cost of an examination of the structural, logical faults in Booker’s argument, and so do we run a very serious risk of reducing our entire argument to an ad hominem attack.

It’s an especially pertinent problem in Booker’s case, as so many people try to psychoanalyze him. Sometimes, that psychoanalysis takes the form of an encomium: I nearly vomited when one of my liberal contemporaries teared up as he whispered, “Cory Booker, he’s just so smart . . .” And just as often, it’s the kind of juvenile belly-poking that I strove to avoid in my last essay: when MSNBC personality Chris Matthews delivered an extremely cheesy defense of his colleagues, Glenn Beck said, “I think Cory Booker wrote that for him!” Presumably, a lot of people have heard Booker say things like, “That woman must have heard my soul cry out of my body,” or, “We are here because our ancestors believed in our civic gospel,” or, “This is an American problem and it can be solved only by American will!”

Reading those words on a computer screen, you may be tempted to shrug and ask yourself, “What’s the big deal? Aren’t these just boilerplate political platitudes, no more alarming than Joe Biden’s call to ‘restore the soul of our country’?” It’s hard to argue with that: a transcript of one of Booker’s standard speeches may be a bit more flowery than the norm, but the substance of the content is far from distinctive. The intellectual uniformity of the Democratic candidates is its own problem, but it pertains to this discussion: because substantive homogeneity can be concealed only by a diversity of external appearance, Booker must distinguish himself by his demeanor, by his personality. For some reason, he has chosen to present himself as a warm-hearted intellectual with a great sense of self-deprecating humor. The humor, we’ll examine later; the intellectualism, you can already see; but the warm-heartedness, that is what is sometimes difficult to convey on the page, to convey in text alone.

At four different locations in New Hampshire last weekend, Booker told the story of the day that he tried to save the life of a child who’d been shot. He told us how the child died, bleeding out in his arms, and how he went home and took a scalding shower, “hoping that the pain on the outside would numb the pain [he] felt on the inside”. Every time he told this story, he paused, choking on his tears, at exactly the same moment. It’s a prepared speech, a memorized monologue, one he has rehearsed time and time again. He might tell that story to the entire country in one of the debates. I’m not suggesting that he feels absolutely nothing when he reflects on that memory, but he is very obviously feigning tears when he tells that story, when he delivers that speech. And the artificial emotion, expressed through his hammy method of acting, compounded by the pretentious frippery within the speech itself, bowls over gullible liberals, but becomes an easy target for a sophomoric right-wing jester like Glenn Beck.

It feels like days have passed since I said, at the beginning of this piece, that I didn’t want to launch a lazy ad hominem attack against Booker. I meant what I said, but breaking down the rationale for a specific ad hominem attack is necessary if we are to understand the con that Booker is trying to pull. There is no need for him to shed those crocodile tears, to release a forced gasp, when he talks about the kid succumbing to his wounds: any story of a child getting shot is inherently dramatic, so why does Booker risk the effect it may have on his audience by exaggerating his expressions? He has several motivations, the most critical of which is to humanize himself, to convince us that he is one of us, that he feels, just as we feel. He seeks to reduce his own stature, to persuade us that he is “one of the people”, by which he presumably means, “middle-class at heart.”

Politicians have played this game for a while, probably since the dawn of democracy. When they declare that they are “one of the people”, they are telling us to disregard the evidence we see. They are telling us to pay no attention to the private security team, the personal attendants who seem to work only behind the scenes, the elaborate assortment of promotional materials that someone must have paid for, the campaign vehicle that the candidate cannot drive back to his home state, and all of the other things that somehow coalesce spontaneously, that somehow just appear wherever the candidate happens to be. Booker is not the first candidate to rely on elaborate organization, clearly, but if he harnesses and wields this kind of manpower, then obviously he’s not “one of the people”.

His contrary claim is a familiar fib. A man who was once given serious consideration to become Hillary Clinton’s presidential running mate is not “one of the people”, even though, strangely, he seldom boasts about that honor today. He is much more interested in reminding us that he lives in a not-so-glamorous apartment building in Newark, his choice of residence allegedly reflecting his relentless desire to better the lives and livelihoods of “the people”. We shall decline comment on Booker’s good fortune to be able to choose to live in an ugly building, lest we fail to mention that, for more than a decade, the apartments adjacent Booker’s have been inhabited by armed security guards, twenty-four hours daily. Do you think that low-income families could make better use of those units? Speaking of which, how much do Booker’s constituents pay for this publicity stunt?

He must be shameless, and quite possibly desperate, to take such ludicrously inefficient measures to convince the public that he is something he’s not. He may be a Rhodes scholar, as he never tires of declaring, but he isn’t above using a word like “dude” or “like”, or even the occasional profanity, to prove that he’s just a regular guy . . . a guy you can have a beer with, perhaps? He’ll definitely have a beer with Rosario Dawson, and although there might be some destitute people living in his apartment complex, I can’t imagine they are dating movie stars. There’s nothing wrong with dating a movie star, any more than there’s anything wrong with organizing an event, but these activities take on an ominous dimension when Booker tries to pass himself off as an average joe.

More specifically, he describes himself as a “community organizer”, a term which should nauseate everyone over the age of twenty. He goes on to explain that he organized communities to show up at the polls and “make their voices heard”, which sounds to me like partisan campaigning—but on behalf of whom, and to what end? Isn’t a “community organizer” supposed to be a volunteer in a soup kitchen, or something? Maybe helping to clean up trash on the highway? Please tell me that a “community organizer” isn’t just a grunt for a corrupt, self-serving politician. I cannot take that depth of disillusionment, not when I still have to finish this essay.

Booker has work to do, too. He reminds us that defeating Donald Trump will not solve all of our political, social, and economic problems. We must be in an awfully unobservant state if we really need someone to inform us of this, but our analytic powers have been so enervated by the incessant agitprop of the Trumpish Age, maybe we really do need the instruction. In any case, Booker does not want us to tear each other apart just because we vote for different political parties; to do so, he claims, would be to play into Vladimir Putin’s hands. “I’ve read the intelligence reports from the Russians,” he declares, “and that’s exactly what they want us to do!” If the friendly reminder that Trump is not the root of all evil weren’t insulting enough, then the unironic spectacle of a United States Senator—and a Rhodes scholar, no less—promoting the Russiagate delusion at a backyard picnic in New Hampshire ought to convince you to have another drink.

We will leave Cory Booker with this final criticism. At the end of his speech at the aforementioned picnic, he described the national response to the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, and he told us that, “We, as one country and one people, rose up and said, ‘Enough is enough!’” I wasn’t alive in 1963, and neither was Booker, but I wasn’t aware that there was a time in American history when the American people were completely united on any issue, least of all a racial controversy. If Booker’s analysis of the past is as poor as his analysis of present-day Russia, then we can only imagine the dysfunctional future into which he seeks to lead us.

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