Mitt Romney didn’t lose the election because he’s a Mormon, he lost because he isn’t Mormon enough.
All political candidates must prove that they’re just like us, yet this requires some demystification: you cannot just tell us that you’re like us, you must also explain how the strangest part of you makes sense to us.
George W. Bush was not only elected (and re-elected) because of neoconservative enthusiasm, Clinton backlash, or affinity with his evangelical narrative of the reformed playboy. More consequential was the sense that he was available to you, even as he also was privy to loci of unreachable power. Liberal critics couldn’t understand: How could someone from such a spoiled background have convinced a nation they would want to have a beer with him?
The answer was “W”: the word-inventing MBA in the stands, hollering for your son’s JV soccer team. There are a lot more people in America who prefer to believe that economics is the hapless conjure of jokey sons than the manipulation of overlords seeking to drain you of everything you’ve got. Bush was familiar in his prodigal elitism, his dunce-cap capitalism. His performance sought to suggest that he was like us.
This is what Barack Obama did, transforming his itinerant childhood and complicated genealogy into something profoundly relatable. There will, of course, always be those who resist your translated portrait—who will always see in Bush a dumb frat boy, or in Obama a Muslim with Black Power tendencies—but this is what it means to risk entrance into the public sphere: that you will be misread despite your best reading.
In the end, the most potent secret is the one advertised, but not revealed. And Romney’s mistake has been to avoid explaining the most open secret of his leadership, namely just how Mormon he is. He ought to have unveiled the relationship between his particular religious sensibility and his ideas for American success. He should have announced at every pit stop that he had met the world through his missionary work; that he came from a good Christian home that emphasized the principles of hard work and self-sacrifice; that he keeps a weekly calendar guided by the principles of Stephen R. Covey; and keeps a marriage because he believes those commercials are right—diamonds are forever, and so is this bond. He should have proclaimed his financial success was the result of all this earnestness, and explained private equity as just another way to organize free enterprise. Not because it’s a crafty re-framing of his biography, but because it is also true: it’s true to the very thing his supporters find so solid, and his detractors find so discomfiting, about Romney.
If he had cast himself as such a pioneer Mormon, he would have established an image that would have worked both sides of the aisle against one another, capitalizing on the Reagan cowboy motif while also owning the terms of his inevitable satire. The pioneer Mormon is an eager stranger in a strange land, a missionary naïf in a world of heathen Gentiles and decadent cosmopolitans. This is the missionary depicted in the works of South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who satirize Mormon resilience and, in doing so, also admiringly depict it. The pioneer Mormon is reliable in pop culture as a naively stalwart, and almost always inadvertently gallant, hero; which is exactly the kind of unwitting character that can overtake an incumbent.
Why didn’t Romney tell this story? Why didn’t he provide an account of himself that reckoned with the very things we find so uncanny about him, namely his unmitigated embrace of capital, procreation, and country clubs? Mitt was all elbows when it came to himself, unable to reveal the man behind the Power Point. But what if he had told us how he came to that smile? What if he told us the mystery of him? Perhaps because in the confessional squalor of public life, Mitt Romney has a secret, and it’s that he isn’t—not really, not at all—just like you.