THE WEEK IN GREED #5: The Willy Loman Vote

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A few weeks ago I was in an airport and I did that dumb thing I so often do in airports, which is to retrieve a stray section of USA Today out of a fancy airport trashcan. This led me to an article about the revival of Arthur Miller’s 1949 play, Death of a Salesman, which led to this unfortunate assertion by the author of the piece, a reporter named Adam Shell: “If Willy Loman were alive today, he would be one of the ‘99%,’ a modern-day middle-class working man wondering if it’s still possible to get ahead. Willy would probably be protesting across the land, picket sign in hand, clamoring for a bigger piece of the economic pie, a better job, a fatter paycheck and a fairer shot at realizing the American Dream.”

I certainly don’t mean to pick on Adam Shell, but I’m not sure he’s reading the same play I am.

The Willy Loman in my head is a 63-year-old white man in a state of angry dependence (on both his boss and his best friend), a guy who worships the free market system that has crushed him, and who retreats into grandiose delusion rather than face his circumstance. Were he around today I suspect Willy would be ripe for the aggrieved pageantry of the Tea Party, not that grubby populism of Occupy Wall Street.

It’s a dopey argument, I guess. Joyce Carol Oates is right: Willy Loman is all of us. We all fail in our quest for the heroic. We spurn the rescue offered by those who love us. We expect more of people than we should. We’re all lonely nomads “way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine.”

***

I can’t read that line, in particular, without thinking about Mitt Romney, your GOP nominee at last. Mitt having to travel around and pretend to give a shit about cheesy grits, trying to quote lyrics from an ancient rap song so as to “connect” with the young African-Americans awkwardly huddled around him for a photo op. Why make him do this? Why make him pretend?

But we’re a country of salesmen, so when the time comes to choose our leader we put our would-bes through this ritual humiliation. The ones who grew up poor—your Clintons and Reagans and Obamas—come to it naturally. They’re used to having to sell themselves. And there are a few wealthy outliers, folks like JFK and FDR and even Dubya, who recognize that charisma resides in a genuine desire to commune with the masses.

Romney, who inherited and enlarged a fortune, does not possess such gifts. He’s handsome and has a talent for lying without sounding defensive about it. But the main thing he has going for him is a shaky economy. It may be enough. Ask Herbert Hoover. Ask Bush the Elder.

***

Romney’s real job for the next six months is to get people to buy into a form of capitalism that is stacked against them. He might be pretty good at it. Think about all those workers at the factories he acquired. He had to convince them to get with the program, even when the program called for them to kiss their jobs or pensions goodbye. Why? So he and his board of directors could flip the business for a profit.

It’s not against the law. On the contrary, it’s the law of the jungle.

Romney needs to convince us that jungle law can make us all rich. And for this to happen he needs to awaken our inner Willy Lomans, so we’ll look upon him as Willy looks upon his older brother Ben:

Willy: Boy! Boys! Listen to this. This is your Uncle Ben, a great man! Tell my boys, Ben!           

Ben: Why, boys, when I was seventeen I walked into jungle and when I was twenty-one I walked out. [He laughs] and by God I was rich! 

           

Willy [To the boys]: You see what I been talking about? The greatest things can happen!

***

Radical naivete in the service of the ego. Romney is going to have to push this dope. He’s going to be that handsome, well-dressed boss who pays a visit to your failing branch for a pep talk. You won’t remember what he said, but you will remember the cut of his suit, the sheen of his hair.

It’s important to pay attention to what he says, though, because he is, in his own way, telling us the truth. His first formal attack on President Obama as the GOP nominee was an open defense of privilege. He began by noting, with a straight face (which is, if you’re Mitt Romney, the kind of face you’re pretty much stuck with) that America under Obama has “effectively ceased to be a free enterprise economy.[1]

What he said next was truly fascinating:

“We’ve already seen where this path leads. It erodes freedom. It deadens the entrepreneurial spirit. And it hurts the very people it’s supposed to help. Those who promise to spread the wealth around only ever succeed in spreading poverty.”

***

Translated from Romney into Proletarian:

“The people who promise to concentrate enormous wealth in the hands of the few are the only ones who can cure poverty.”

***

We’re properly in the territory of Orwell here. But the pitch aims straight for Willy Loman. Remember: he’s the guy who turns down the job his friend Charley offers because, after all, that’s a handout. He wants a golden dream to chase into ruin.

The greatest things can happen!

***

People tend to forget that “Death of a Salesman” was written in 1949, at the dawn of America’s post-war boom. The government’s official policy back then was “spread wealth around!” There were banners and everything.

The tax rate on the Mitts of the day was 90 percent. New Deal reforms had shackled Wall Street. Labor unions represented a third of the workforce. The GI bill made college and housing affordable. The man who oversaw all this Communism was General Dwight Eisenhower.

And here’s what happened: a broad American middle class emerged. Rich people did just fine. (Spoiler alert: rich people always do fine.) But everyone else prospered, too.

***

So how, then, do we explain Willy Loman? How did he miss the boat? He missed the boat because there are always people who miss the boat when it comes to our hallowed free enterprise system. Even in the good times, people fail.

Arthur Miller was writing about (among other things) the anxiety of capitalism, what it’s like to live in a nation where success and failure is measured in material rather than moral terms. How the slavish pursuit of wealth impoverishes your soul.

Mitt and his industrial allies are going to throw billions into portraying Obama as a Stalinist Black Panther with secret Muslim loyalties. That’s the playbook when your actual policies are wildly unpopular. But Mitt as a candidate is only going to resonate if enough voters still think and feel like Willy Loman, if they look upon the tycoon as a sign of American vitality, rather than a symptom of our spiritual sickness.

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[1]Two things. First, speaking as America’s only openly socialist pundit, let me just say: wouldn’t that be awesome? If Obama just went Teddy-Roosevelt-style nuts and dismantled our country’s consolidated engines of greed? If he issued executive orders nationalizing our energy sector? If he slapped a luxury tax on the sickening excess of the swells? Shit. I’m getting hard just thinking about it.

Second, should Romney ever expose himself to a question from someone not employed by Roger Aisles, I am hereby begging that person to ask Romney to explain, precisely, what Obama has done to end free enterprise. Maybe he can offer me some hope.


Steve Almond is the author of eight books, including Letters from People Who Hate Me. You can order his new collection of stories, "God Bless America," here. More from this author →