Politics

01.11.14

Chris Christie and the Runaway High-Speed Presidency Train

Bridgegate became a massive scandal because Christie is on America’s breakneck new path to the presidency—the speed of which is one reason Americans have lost faith in their elites.

Chris Christie is a big deal. He’s a big guy with a big mouth and big ambitions. In one sense, he’s just another governor of just another state of the union. But in another—this is America we’re talking about—he’s now the biggest story in politics.

Why? Not because “explosive emails” suggest that his office choked traffic to exact revenge against the Mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey. Not because Christie functions with the level of personal bravado we associate with the celebrities we love to watch fall from grace. Not even because Christie is a polarizing public figure inside his party and out.

No, everyone’s talking about Christie’s surprise ordeal because everyone knows he’s running for president. (He’s just got to!) Plus, everyone in the media knows we know. And it’s not the kind of common knowledge that unites us in boredom. Christie is buzzworthy—because he’s still a novelty. There’s never been anyone to rush toward the White House quite like Chris Christie. There’s never been quite this kind of catalyst to accelerate the horse race.

The tempo of a presidential election is faster than ever. The timetable begins earlier than ever. The frenzy of signaling, supporting, and fundraising, the scrambling to lay the groundwork, the amplification of chatter, the propagandizing of “early favorites” and “early polls”—all of it, now, is on the brink of ludicrous speed.

Any faster, as Spaceballs informed us, and we’ll go into plaid. As scandal imperils Christie’s administration, reputation, and political brand, the cycle of presidential hype is in danger of reaching terminal velocity.

How did we get here? The Republican party is often mocked, with what seems like good reason, for refusing to nominate new blood for president. Only this cycle, however, has America’s favorite alternative come into focus. Got a rising star? Saddle up, hotshot—you’re running for president. Right? Right?!

Bobby Jindal! You can rub many brain cells together. Surely you’ll run for president! Rand Paul? You seem to “excite” the “base” in some “authentic way.” Quick! Make like Barack Obama and run for president!

It’s a reflex that began on the right last time around, but it ran up against a little obstacle to Newbie Fever named Mitt Romney. Still, Paul Ryan—another nearly-rushed-to-market presidential prototype—was hurried onto the ticket with the diligence and urgency of a corporate turnaround. As Sarah Palin can attest, Republicans long ago sacrificed the vice-presidential slot to the propaganda of speed.

Matters are all the more frantic given how desperate the GOP has become for a win. It’s not just about beating Obama at his own game of fresh-facedness. It’s about staving off Hillary, the ultimate in old news. Only the velocity of maximum hype—from Greek word huper, for “over,” or “beyond”—can defeat the colossal inertia of America’s second-most-powerful living political dynasty. Right?

It’s either that or Jeb Bush, he of America’s first-most-powerful living political dynasty. Zinging out of the Obama years with wounded pride, Democrats are prepared to do their duty and enthuse theatrically over Hillary Clinton. Republicans, on the other hand, haven’t had their Obama yet. And in spite of it all, they want one. We, they seem to believe, can do New better. We can do New right.

Good luck with that. At these speeds, nothing works right. But the nonpartisan cult of progress that infects sector after sector of life demands of us louder demands for ever-faster speed. We can handle it! The Feiler Faster Thesis says so!

All the while, the narrower our field of vision, the more fixated we become on the vanishing point. The more fixated our view, the faster we rush ahead. And the faster our hurrying, the more acute our tunnel vision becomes.

Whatever policy we want, we want it now. Nothing is worse than a “do-nothing Congress.” Nothing is more pathetic than a president who won’t do “everything in his power ” to create results now, no matter how disinclined our legislature is to move quickly. We Can’t Wait!

This isn’t about “conservatism” versus “liberalism.” It’s about the moderate tempo at which our institutions of governance need to move in order not to malfunction. As Greg Weiner explains in the overlooked study Madison’s Metronome, our constitutional architecture is premised on the moral axiom that impulsive impatience breeds misrule. Rather than the anti-majoritarian fetish it is often mistaken for, “temporal republicanism,” as Weiner calls it, simply intends to slow the pace of democratic decisionmaking to more deliberate—get it?—speeds.

Sadly today we hate that idea. Hate it. Everything else moves at the speed of light, why not politics? Because racism! Or classism, or old boy networks, or fat cats, or the corrupting influence of money on politics—anything answer will do, including correct answers, so long as they elbow out the one scandalous truth: a democracy conducted at light speed will twist our judgments and disfigure our justice. It will give us a government of weapons that kill instantly anywhere, computers that know everything everywhere, and money that can be printed at whim in any quantity.

Such is life when every moment is an emergency. Liberals like Alan Wolfe poured withering scorn on George W. Bush for turning German legal theorist Carl Schmitt’s “state of exception” into standard operating procedure. Well, guess what the cult of speed gives us, whatever our partisanship?

Why do we suffer such a lack of confidence in our private and public-sector elites? In our big State and our big Market? “For a reason of biblical simplicity,” writes philosopher and urbanist Paul Virilio, “confidence can never be instantaneous. It must be built, earned, over time. Instant confidence, like instant faith, doesn’t work.”

It’s no coincidence that the highest-velocity politician in America has suddenly become a whipping boy for slowing down cars. There can be no train wreck without first inventing the train. Chris Christie is the first of us to learn all over again what we ain’t got time to remember: the wages of instantaneousness are instant karma.