We can scoff and sneer at those images of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on his beachfront imperium, or we can learn from them. As he took in the sun, he doled out a lesson, the same one that Donald Trump is delivering on a daily basis and in a grander fashion:
Beware the politician who doesn’t give a damn for decorum. What he markets as irreverence can be something coarser and more perverse.
It can lead to ruin. Christie’s approval rating from New Jersey voters was just 15 percent — the lowest rating for any current governor in the country and the worst in his state’s history — before his weekend repose on what turned out to be quicksand. He could sink into single digits after this. Negative integers aren’t entirely out of the question.
I hope Trump is watching, but I have my doubts. The Christie family’s swimwear pageant wasn’t the kind that he’s known to ogle. Plus, he surely turns the channel when the visage on the screen isn’t his own.
The stories of the disgraced New Jersey governor and the disgraceful American president overlap. Christie was “Trump before Trump,” Michael Steele, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, told The Washington Post’s Robert Costa in an article published late Monday. “He does what he wants to do, and his success can be traced to that. But there are consequences, of course, when you work that way.”
Steele could as easily have been talking about Trump, and when Costa referred to the “defiance that has both lifted and hobbled Christie’s political career,” he brought to mind Trump’s temperament and trajectory, whether he meant to or not.
The twins of tantrum, Christie and Trump had almost identical political appeals. They mocked propriety. They broke rules. They assertively peddled the impression that as happy as they were to make friends, they were even happier to make enemies, because that meant they were fully in the fight.
In an era of resentment and anger, many voters thrilled to the spectacle. The problem with other politicians, these voters legitimately reasoned, was too much indulgence of vested interests and too cowardly an obeisance to convention. If you didn’t slaughter the sacred cows, you’d never get to the tastiest filet.
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But Christie and Trump proved to be butchers of a more indiscriminate and self-serving sort, and both demonstrated that there’s a short leap from headstrong to hardheaded and from defiant to delusional. Bold nonconformity can be the self-indulgent egotist’s drag.
Yes, Christie called out fools in certain circumstances where they deserved it and steamrollered opponents who stood in the way of some plans that were wholly defensible. And he was seemingly immune to any of the subsequent caricatures of him as a bully.
But he was also deaf to inevitable and entirely fair questions about his behavior. As Nick Corasaniti noted in The New York Times this week, he was caught “using a state helicopter paid for by taxpayers to attend his son’s baseball game.” He let King Abdullah of Jordan treat him and his family to a $30,000 weekend in a posh hotel.
He was blind to how he would come across when, in his speech at the 2012 Republican National Convention, he took such a gaudy star turn that the party’s presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, was reduced to a cameo. Christie bucked traditional manners, all right. He bucked them all the way to jaw-dropping megalomania.
Make no mistake: For all their flamboyant pugnaciousness, the Christies and Trumps of the political world are chasing adulation every bit as much as their peers are — maybe more so. They’re just taking a deliberately muddier route, and if they don’t get there, they’re more likely to wear their failure as a badge of honor and to dig in with a destructive arrogance.
When Christie was asked whether, despite a shutdown of the state government, he would steal away to the manse on the shore that’s a perk of his office, he unabashedly answered yes.
“That’s just the way it goes,” he said. “Run for governor, and you can have a residence.”
Translation: I’m governor and you’re not. Where have we heard a formulation like that before?
Trump and Christie somehow decided that you have to govern by middle finger if you want to avoid governing by pinkie finger. But there’s a digit in between: a middle ground. It’s where real leadership and true effectiveness lie.
Christie’s disrepute and dashed ambitions confirm as much. So does the ongoing insult of Trump’s presidency. They show that if you embrace a politician who talks too frequently and proudly about not caring what anyone thinks, you’ll wind up in the clutch of a politician whose last refuge is not caring what anyone thinks. That’s a dangerous place to be.
Frank Bruni is a syndicated columnist for the New York Times.