The myth of personal responsibility

Every election cycle in recent memory, after the tricolored balloons have descended from the rafters of some swing state convention hall and a candidate has emerged victorious from the nomination process, voters are bombarded with all kinds of inspiring and catchy messages. One of the most enduring of these is the Republican concept of personal responsibility, the notion that any American can achieve the loftiest of goals, as long as that noble citizen works hard and pulls himself up by his bootstraps. It’s an effective pitch, one that convinced a nation still wary of Watergate to grant two landslides to Reagan, basher of “Cadillac-driving Welfare Queens.”

Among the rank-and-file of the GOP, hard work and determination are prized values. Look no further than the 2012 campaign. When President Obama dared to suggest that success often depends on the help of others, or as he put it, “You didn’t build that,” conservatives turned it into one of the bigger scandals of that election—makes you yearn for the civility of 2012, doesn’t it? However, much as they may like to shout slogans or recite anecdotes about hard-working constituents, party elders have remained shockingly unaware of the irony of their message. Going back nearly fifty years, only a handful of Republican presidential nominees have served as true examples of personal responsibility and hard work. In the spirit of the Declaration of Independence, a document so beloved by the GOP, why not follow its structure and list the highlights of hypocrisy to be found among the leaders of the Republican Party?

It makes the most sense to first examine the current Republican presidential nominee, Donald J. Trump. The brash real-estate mogul did not make his own fortune. His father, Fred Trump, was an impressive property developer in his own right, amassing a net worth of $300 million before his death in 1999. In spite of his father’s wealth, Mr. Trump insists that “It has not been easy for me,” citing a “small loan of a million dollars” as his entry fee into the world of business. Never mind that nearly half of Americans don’t have enough money to cover a $400 emergency expense, according to a 2015 Federal Reserve report. Mr. Trump’s lack of self-awareness runs deeper. His statements on the criminal nature of undocumented immigrants, many of whom are trying to escape poverty and drug cartels, are well known. However, Mr. Trump will not tell you that his own grandfather, Frederick Trump, left his native country of Germany as an undocumented immigrant. Gwenda Blair’s book “The Trumps reports that, upon his return, German government officials wrote of him, “there are reasons to examine whether… Trump should not be expelled from the kingdom.”

Mr. Trump is no exception when it comes to inheriting privilege and power. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee, is the son of George Romney, a man who served as both the Governor of Michigan and President of the American Motors Corporation at different points in his career. That said, Mr. Romney is a well-educated and skillful politician, having received business and law degrees from Harvard. However, would he have reached the same plane of success if he’d grown up poor and fatherless on the streets of Flint, Michigan or Camden, New Jersey?

The list goes on. George W. Bush is the son of George H. W. Bush, oil millionaire and president. In addition, the elder Bush is the son of former Connecticut Senator Prescott Bush! Gerald R. Ford practically stumbled into the White House and the party leadership. He was never actually elected either President or Vice President. He is the only Commander-in-Chief with this dubious honor. And then we have Nixon. Unlike previous Republican presidents, Richard M. Nixon really did muscle his way to the Oval Office, with his hard work and determination reflecting his dogged desire to ascend to the presidency. Then came Watergate. This sitting President was so petrified of losing that he turned to spying and wiretapping to win an election. Perhaps this too could be considered a form of hard work—just not an ethical one.

As a young American about to cast my first vote for president, I can’t say I have much direct experience with electoral politics. I’m far closer to secondary school than Secretary of State. Perhaps this is why I’m so wary of the Republican disconnect between message and reality. I’m tired of the schoolmarmish adage “Do as I say, not as I do.” It’s high time for Republican leaders to acknowledge that when it comes to social mobility, for the past half-century, they simply have not walked the walk.

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