No matter the eventual outcome of the already miserable 2020 presidential election, Pete Buttigieg has cemented his place in history. As the sort-of winner of the Iowa caucus and after netting a very close second-place finish in New Hampshire, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana has become the first openly gay, actually viable presidential candidate in American history. It matters not if this storied campaign will eventually falter as a result of the fact that Buttigieg’s support is relegated mainly to White folks of the higher-earning sort — it’s a historical moment of immense significance all the same.
Yet, for the life of me, I have not managed to muster a single damn about this man, who I find to be as endearing as fraud on your credit report.
Evidently, I’m not alone. Others have pointed to an almost eerie quietness to this queer history being made in real time. Even cable news hosts and other pundits have noticed that an unprecedented political story is being treated as an afterthought. Some have attributed it to the messy aftermath of the Iowa caucus results, which has recently resulted in the resignation of the Iowa Democratic Party state director. Others have pointed to the noticeable apathy about Buttigieg from many within the queer community; if they’re not debating whether or not he’s “gay enough,” they still want to know whether he is merely “an old politician in a young man’s body, a straight politician in a gay man’s body,” as Masha Gessen describes him in the New Yorker.
For the first in my informed but cynical life, Obama gave me a little bit of hope. It’s Buttigieg’s obsession with trying to recreate those moments, to induce similar allegiance in others, that enrages me.
Each of these arguments is valid. But all of them, much like the candidacy of Buttigieg itself, overlook the perspectives of Black queer men — the ones capable of offering a much-needed perspective about Buttigieg. After all, he’s modeling his entire campaign around someone who looks more like us than any of them. Nowhere in this litany of think pieces and takes do you hear how we feel about someone whose entire political campaign amounts to him shooting his shot as the vanilla latte version of former President Barack Obama.
Notice how Buttigieg tries to mimic Obama’s cadences, as he most recently did in New Hampshire on the night of the state’s primary. Your ears are not deceiving you if you thought Buttigieg was doing another Obama impersonation during the Democratic debate the week prior. I heard it, too, and yeah, bless his lil’ heart. That walking throwback to triangulation wishes.
My past writing may not suggest it, but I have tried to see the usefulness in Buttigieg. I have tried to see beyond myself, to see what value others may find in him. To consider the symbolism of his candidacy, and what its early victories signify. How, for so many queer people of every age, hearing a gay politician thank his husband after exceeding expectations in the first primary must mean something. Especially in light of Rush Limbaugh — a bigot who doesn’t deserve spit as a salad topping, much less the Presidential Media of Freedom — making truly tired homophobic jokes about Mayor Buttigieg.
In doing so, I revisited all the feelings I had back in 2008 about Obama’s initially implausible, but ultimately historic run for the presidency. The excitement I had when I read his first memoir, attended my first Obama rally, gave what little money I had, again and again, to his campaign. For the first time in my informed but cynical life, he gave me a little bit of hope that things had gotten so bad that a Black dude with the middle name Hussein talking all types of progressive shit might fuck around and actually do it.
But it’s Buttigieg’s obsession with trying to recreate those moments, to induce similar allegiance in others, that actually enrages me.
I understand that for many White voters, Obama whispering sweet nothings about how there is no blue or red America but the United States of America tickled their fancies, but for many of the rest of us, he was promising hope as much as he was change — and it was the latter that we found more inspirational.
And while one can never discount the Obama presidency and its achievements, he campaigned the first time like a progressive, only to select the likes of the despicable Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff. Again, Blacks who love them some Barry, that does not negate the accomplishments of the Obama administration or deny that he faced historic levels of obstruction as a direct result of his race. Nor, though, does it absolve him of long-standing criticism of both his policies and approach — especially when it comes to how he spoke to Black people during and after his presidency.
This doesn’t mean I don’t still love the Obama family, appreciate what they meant and mean to many, and like their cute pictures on Instagram. On the other hand, when I weigh where Black people were by the end of the Obama administration and consider where we are now, I see the limits of symbolism.
Buttigieg may claim not to have “set out to be the gay president,” but that’s chapter one of Political Banter for Dummies. No one with an ideology as elastic as Buttigieg’s is so naively genuine. He is very much aware of what he’s doing, and it’s clearly based on his interpretation of the Obama template. And honestly, if all Buttigieg wants to do is feed White America another bedtime story about how progressive this country is despite all signs to the contrary, may his campaign end sooner rather than later.
Black people, queer and trans people, and queer and trans people that happen to be Black do not need a symbol. We need help. Homelessness; wage stagnation; lack of access to affordable healthcare; mass incarceration; inequitable access to HIV/AIDS prevention medication between White queer men and nonwhite queer men; police brutality; increase into anti-LGBTQ violence: That’s what we need help with.
Not whatever this empty bullshit is that Buttigieg is offering.
What real value can be found in a person whose own values seem to shift in the direction of not only the highest bidder but whatever direction benefits his careerist goals? Who speaks at length but manages to somehow never say anything? I may not agree with everything Obama said, but he always said it well. Buttigieg speaks like a bot that happens to have a coding defect around race relations.
So what is the value in placing virtue in someone whose success is majorly shaped by the benefits that come with being a White man, no matter your sexuality? Amy Klobuchar isn’t exactly my kind of politician, given how she often speaks about Midwestern voters as if Black people are a figment of my imagination, but she was correct when she said if a woman running for president had Buttigieg’s same level of limited political experience, she wouldn’t be treated the same way. I continue to believe all Buttigieg did was walk into the cushy narrative the media had built for Beto O’Rourke before the rangy Texan blew it.
It’s not that Buttigieg is uniquely talented — it’s that he’s the right White guy at the right, White moment.
No wonder I can’t get excited about his performance, even if he’s breaking barriers along the way. Not only do I have no need for a gay remix of Obama’s centrist leanings, I don’t want it in the form of the political equivalent of a boiled, unseasoned chicken breast I imagine can only be served on a silver platter for the wealthy and well-connected. If you can get excited about it for the sake of the rainbow, so be it, but as far as the many of us go, we want something more. We deserve something more.
Buttigieg is another empty politician with no conviction saying whatever to whomever with money for the sake of his own come up. Perhaps the novelty of that coming in a gay packaging warrants some wider attention — but when you refuse to be a sucker, sometimes history just needs to be met with shrugs.