Do the Romneys Suffer from a Siege Mentality?

Their recent comments reveal a real resentment of the social changes that have helped former outsiders gain a toehold in society

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Evan Vucci / AP

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his wife Ann speak during a campaign rally in Nashua, N.H., on Sept. 7, 2012

As parents, we often encourage our children to give others a chance, to get to know them better, to take the time to discover that when you get beneath the surface, most people are a lot more sympathetic than they first appear.

Unfortunately, there may be exceptions to that would-be golden rule, people with whom familiarity breeds unease. Such has been the case with Mitt and Ann Romney. Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve gotten repeated glimpses of their under-the-surface selves, and the experience hasn’t been uplifting. First we had the governor’s surreptitiously taped comments from a Boca Raton, Fla., fundraiser in which he dismissed 47% of the population as being sniveling, entitled “victims” and complained that he’d have “a better shot” at the presidency if he were Latino. Not so nice.

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Then we were treated to Ann Romney’s churlish exclamation on Radio Iowa that her husband’s critics should just “stop it” and get over themselves enough to recognize “how lucky we are to have someone with Mitt’s qualifications and experience and know-how to be able to have the opportunity to run this country.” And most recently, her entirely cynical comment to Jay Leno this week that created an equivalence between the significance of our having elected our first African-American President and the good we might do, in terms of “leaving prejudices behind,” if we elect her husband. (Because, as we all know, anti-Mormon prejudice — particularly the oppression of white, multigenerationally wealthy, powerful and well-connected men like Mitt Romney — has played a central and damning role in our nation’s history.)

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What emerges from the composite inner self-portrait the Romneys have painted of late is a siege mentality. (Check out, once again, if you’ve forgotten it, the sound of the “you people” Ann Romney served up to Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts when she was impolite enough to ask questions about the Romneys’ tax returns back in July.) This mentality, unfortunately, has become a familiar routine: the cry of conservative types who still can’t quite get their heads around the democratizing changes to American society that began post–World War II (when lots of middle- and lower-middle-class sons of immigrant groups made their way into the highest reaches of higher education thanks to the GI Bill) and widened greatly in the ’60s, when African Americans and women started to fight for their place at the table.

This big democratizing push has been great for many — it brought us our first African-American President, for example — but it’s been a bitter blow to those who in the past might have been aided in life by having the right ethnic affiliation, the right amount of money and the right connections. It’s a blow that has left, among some, a pretty long-lasting sense of woundedness that can’t quite speak its name and that instead contorts itself outward into high-minded-sounding declarations about how wonderful our country is and how unworthy are the beneficiaries of its modern-day blessings.

I heard this churlish bit of mental acrobatics particularly in Ann Romney’s angry slap at those ungrateful enough not to realize their good fortune in having a man as fine as Mitt willing to work for them. Her response was ostensibly aimed at Romney’s Republican critics, who have pounded him hard in the wake of his ill-conceived comments about the “47%.” Yet she made sure to say that “it is time for all Americans to realize how significant this election is and how lucky we are.” How privileged, in other words, “we people” all ought to feel to be in the position of having the tables turned and to be on the receiving end of services from a man who, by his birthright, ought to be served by us.

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One hears this very specific form of rancor quite frequently in Republican utterances that slam the sense of “entitlement” among those — women, ethnic minorities, the working poor — who don’t recognize how lucky they are to have somehow wrangled their way into having a voice and being empowered enough to use it to make inconvenient demands. A voice, let’s recall, that was granted us, to which we are not “entitled” by any sort of natural right, for which we must realize that we are purely “lucky.” As Republican assaults on voting rights in swing states like Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania make all too clear, it isn’t sheer paranoia to hear, behind the talk of the “entitlement” of us people, a vague threat that rights so graciously granted can, under the right set of circumstances, be taken away.

Peggy Noonan and others who have unhappily wrung their hands of late over the haplessness of real-Romney communications need to see that the couple’s bad p.r. is a problem for which there is no honest solution. The Romneys have — as they were long advised to do — pulled back the curtain to show us where they really come from and who they really are. Who they are, it’s worth reminding, worked very, very well for them until very recently. Maybe that’s why these days they seem so very mad.

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