When I saw a WIRED piece on my Twitter feed this week emblazoned with the title “Pete Buttigieg Loves God, Beer, and His Electric Mustang,” I assumed that only one of two things could possibly be happening. Either this was a piece of vintage Butti-ganda from circa 2019 that was remaking the rounds, or I had inadvertently bitten into an accursed Proustian madeleine and been swept back in time. But the interview/adulatory write-up on America’s secretary of transportation is indeed, somehow, from the Year of Our Lord 2023.
To call it hagiographic would be something of an undersell. The piece — incidentally penned by someone who in 2016 described Hillary Clinton as “an idea, a world-historical heroine, light itself” — opens with two stanzas that similarly make the former mayor of Indiana’s fourth-largest city sound like a fusion of Jesus Christ and Aristotle:
The curious mind of Pete Buttigieg holds much of its functionality in reserve. Even as he discusses railroads and airlines, down to the pointillist data that is his current stock-in-trade, the US secretary of transportation comes off like a Mensa black card holder who might have a secret Go habit or a three-second Rubik’s Cube solution or a knack for supplying, off the top of his head, the day of the week for a random date in 1404, along with a non-condescending history of the Julian and Gregorian calendars.
As Secretary Buttigieg and I talked in his underfurnished corner office one afternoon in early spring, I slowly became aware that his cabinet job requires only a modest portion of his cognitive powers. Other mental facilities, no kidding, are apportioned to the Iliad, Puritan historiography, and Knausgaard’s Spring — though not in the original Norwegian (slacker). Fortunately, he was willing to devote yet another apse in his cathedral mind to making his ideas about three mighty themes — neoliberalism, masculinity, and Christianity — intelligible to me.
Following the absurd suggestion that the likes of Buttigieg and President Joe Biden may represent a nascent renaissance of “the religious left” (Buttigieg is an Episcopalian and Biden is a Catholic) we get to the interview itself. To give Buttigieg his due, he is better at sounding profound than your average liberal politician. Like Barack Obama, still the undisputed virtuoso of the shtick, he has a knack for communicating bland centrist orthodoxies with a superficial sheen of depth. He is capable of speaking about politics at some level of abstraction. He makes references to history. He refers to concepts like “modernity” and occasionally borrows words from other languages.
Throughout the conversation, most of what Buttigieg actually says is pretty conventional. He has the views and opinions on current events that one would reasonably expect an educated person of his background and class location to hold: liberal democratic capitalism is good; the utopian possibilities of 1990s globalization have failed to realize themselves; the invasion of Ukraine has been disruptive to the world order; traditional conceptions of masculinity are retrograde and conservative. The relevant issue here isn’t whether you agree or disagree, because the substance of the views themselves is almost beside the point. What matters is that Buttigieg exudes the right aura of sophistication and wonkish intelligence.
His act fares a bit less well in the second half of the interview, which is mostly taken up by a discussion of the role of faith in public policy. A few of the exchanges — like this one, in which Buttigieg swings dizzyingly from a reference to Paul the Apostle to a slogan you might associate with a sleazy evangelical salesman trying to hawk a used car — almost defy belief:
Q: Running [the Department of Transportation] seems to suit you. Are there more ways the challenges of transportation speak to your spiritual side?
A: There’s just a lot in the scriptural tradition around journeys, around roads, right? The conversion of Saint Paul happens on the road. I think we are all nearer to our spiritual potential when we’re on the move.
The closest we actually get to a description of how Christian faith informs Buttigieg’s political decision-making comes in the form of cookie-cutter compassion: “When you’re making public policy, you’re often asking yourself, ‘How does this choice help people who would have the least going for them?’ So that’s part of it.”
It’s unclear how the likes of stranded passengers forced to pay larcenous fares by under-regulated corporate airlines or underpaid railworkers being forced back to their jobs without sick pay fits into this pristine moral equation, but it ultimately doesn’t matter. When politics are reduced to pure fan culture, the affectations of intelligence or compassion take on a greater salience than their application in the real world. Politics become something you have rather than something you do. And over the past decade or so, Buttigieg has had as many different political identities as he has fawning profiles referencing his tastes in literature and his socks.
He’s been both a declared champion of quality public services and a corporate consultant pushing for their privatization. He’s unequivocally backed universal health care but also been its fierce opponent. He’s liberalism’s golden boy du jour but courted the Tea Party during his first run for elected office in 2010. A profile or interview that was even remotely interested in interrogating Buttigieg beyond the level of gesture and affect might have thought to probe these shifts at least a little bit.
But again, doing so would ultimately be beside the point. The political and media culture that produces and celebrates figures like Pete Buttigieg isn’t remotely concerned with ideological consistency. Its devotees are not looking for champions of a particular program, legislative agenda, or belief system, but rather mascots who bear the right credentials and cultural signifiers.
What really lies inside the “cathedral mind” of America’s Secretary of Transportation? As mere mortals, it’s not for us to know. He “comes off” like a Mensa black card holder who reads Knausgaard or might cite a random day of the week from 1404 and, evidently, that’s all that really matters.