‘Yes, I am ‘nouveau riche,’ but then, it’s the ‘riche’ that counts, now isn’t it?” So declared Jim Williams in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. And in the American context, that is broadly true: There are at least two senses of the word “class,” and Americans in general care a great deal less about either of them than we do about money. Rich is rich is rich is rich: You can be a rich vulgarian in a line of rich vulgarians (Donald Trump) or a striver from Brooklyn (Jay Z) or a Chicago bus driver who figures out that options traders don’t actually know what they’re doing and makes a truly gigantic pile of money (Joe Ritchie), and in each case Americans will celebrate your success.
You just can’t be Marco Rubio.
Marco Rubio, according to that last surviving bastion of pure Yankee bigotry, the New York Times, has financial problems. What are those problems? He managed a $300,000-plus annual income and an $800,000 book advance in a way that was — get this! — different from the way a New York Times reporter might have. Thus we were treated to the spectacle of Michael Barbaro of the Times writing, no doubt from the study of his $1.1 million New York City apartment, about the fact that Rubio “spent heavily” by buying a house in Miami that cost half of what Barbaro’s apartment did. Rubio also leased an Audi and kept his four children in parochial schools. Because you know how those flashy Latin arrivistes are: always trying to impress their historical betters with their “meticulously manicured shrubs and oversize windows,” as Barbaro and co-reporter Steve Eder put it. We all remember how important it was to Tony Montana that his children attend Catholic schools and that his window treatments be just so.
Strange thing about Americans: Class resentment is, in socioeconomic terms, a short-range phenomenon. Guys who work in convenience stores do not, for the most part, go around hating guys who work in Silicon Valley venture-capital firms; if anything, Americans of more modest means typically admire those who have done spectacularly well for themselves, and we Americans do not even mind our billionaires’ being a little conspicuous in their consumption from time to time, a cultural peculiarity that is markedly different from prevailing norms in, say, Scandinavia, where a supercharged version of tall-poppy syndrome keeps things ruthlessly modest. There’s a reason why the popular music genre thematically organized around a taste for champagne and yachts did not emerge from Sweden.
No, if you want to see class resentment in the United States, you need to get a $150,000-a-year guy in a room with a $400,000-a-year guy; alternatively, put a top-tier journalist or academic in a room with a top-tier entrepreneur or corporate executive and watch the envious fur fly. (Not that they’d be so gauche as to wear fur! Heavens!) It’s a circus of intra-rich-guy class anxiety, with the bottom end of the ruling class rolling its eyes at the higher end — not the proles mocking the 1 percent, but the 6.7 percent mocking the 3.2224115 percent and up.
#related#You’ll see some interesting things in that context: You’ll see people complaining that Mark Zuckerberg’s plan to bring free high-speed Internet to every dusty Third World village that doesn’t even have two goats to its credit is basically a crime against humanity because it’s not super-good Internet. You’ll hear people who haven’t given $400 to charity bitching — out loud! — about a guy who gave away $400 million, because he didn’t give it to the sort of charity they’d have preferred — because his choice of beneficiary — Harvard — was self-aggrandizing. And you’ll hear graduates of Oberlin and NYU whose parents were graduates of Oberlin and NYU sniffing that the Rubios — a family whose members have gone from waiting tables to serious White House contention in the course of a very few decades — can’t handle money.
That charge is, of course, preposterous. Barring some dramatic, out-of-left-field development, Marco Rubio is going to die a financially comfortable man, and probably a very rich one. Whether he ends up in the Oval Office, stays in the Senate, or takes his political career elsewhere, one of these days that political career is going to come to an end, and on that day, Marco Rubio will have the opportunity, if he so chooses, to walk into any law office or lobbying shop in the country and say: “Write me a check for a million dollars, and keep ’em coming.” Or maybe he’ll write a few more books, bank a bevy of corporate-speech paydays, whatever. He’ll make a lot more in the future, but Marco Rubio was making more money by his early 40s than most Americans will ever earn, and he bought a boat.
He bought a boat. Deal with it, you upright, ridiculous, short-panted, ninnified Manhattan thumbsuckers in your million-dollar rat’s-nest apartments.
The Rubio story is not about where Marco Rubio is, socially and financially. It’s about where he is from and where he is going.
The Rubio story is not about where Marco Rubio is, socially and financially. It’s about where he is from and where he is going. That’s the source of resentment. You see this all the time, if you know where to look for it: The chairman of a college department is steamed that he has to suck up to a man with a dozen successful car dealerships when he wants a new building to house his prestigious department of lesbian basketweaving grievance studies. “Why should that guy make 40 times what I do? Think about my value to society! Think about how important my work is! Look at his big, ugly house and his car that cost more than I make in a year — he does all the wrong things with his money!” Nobody blinks an eye at John Kerry’s yacht.
But woe to the up-and-comer who “isn’t our kind of people.”
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent and the author of The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome.