On a broiling late afternoon this September, as I stroll down Main Street in Bedford, a venerable redbrick county seat town in southern Virginia, my eyes veer toward the blaring red-white-and-blue bunting that beckons GOP residents here to swing the state to Mitt Romney’s column. I’m exploring this Blue Ridge country after attending a Knight conference on poverty journalism, and feel compelled to duck inside for a quick dose of Romneyland.
Perhaps what I encounter next shouldn’t shock me, but it does. The views that spill forth inside this swing-state Romney office plunge far deeper into the right-wing abyss than the so-called moderate stances trotted out by the Romney campaign. Like the much-traveled Mother Jones video where Romney derides the “47 percent” of America that “is dependent upon government,” and “doesn’t work,” our chat unmasks the decidedly uglier side of the GOP.
I’m greeted wholesomely by Clifford Russell, a smooth-faced, silver-haired stocky gentleman in khakis and pinstripe shirt, who offers a firm handshake. “Well hello there, good afternoon to you – come on in,” he says, with Southern hospitality in full force. It’s quiet in the Romney office. There is just a senior couple at a table folding papers, who turn out to be transplants from Walnut Creek, California.
I don’t expect much time to go by before I’m invited to leave (I’ve already disclosed my Californian status, a blaring red—or blue—flag), so I snare some glossy Romney literature and a handmade Xeroxed flyer titled “After three years of Obama…Here’s your change!” blaming Obama for a host of distressing economic indicators ranging from soybean prices to poverty and black unemployment—despite the GOP’s dogged insistence on decimating any supports to alleviate these situations.
“Things are looking good, as long as we get our people out,” he tells me. “People are done with Obama, and ready for Romney. We can win if our people come out, it’s all about turnout.”
I stand there quietly absorbing as much Romney talk as I can, until my patience and soul begin to wilt. I fully expect what I get at first: the standard mantras about Obama’s economic and social policy failings. The deficit, “out-of-control spending,” and the great GOP boogeyman, “Obamacare,” which Clifford calls “the final vestige of socialism.” Here he gets more full-throated: “That healthcare socialism was the final straw, more big government telling us how to live our lives, just controlling everything.”
I ask him to elaborate and he complies, vigorously.
“What’s killing us is all these entitlements, we’ve got to get rid of all of them. All this welfare, food stamps, Medicare, and then big government health care on top of it, it’s all just too much! When do we say enough is enough?”
What do you mean, exactly, I ask him. You say people are suffering under Obama, don’t they need some help?
“No. No more help, enough is enough. People have to pick themselves up, take some responsibility. Why should we be paying for people’s mistakes and bad choices? All these illegitimate families just adding to the population, making all these bad decisions, then asking us to pay for it? It’s time to cut them off.”
I ask for some clarification: what do you mean, just starve them out? What if people can’t find work? Let them starve?
“Look, there’s always something you can do. You telling me people can’t make a choice for a better life? We have to help all of them? No. I’ll tell you what really need to do with these illegitimate families on welfare—give all the kids up for adoption and execute the parents.”
I stare at him and blink in a glaze of shock.
Just to be sure I heard him right, I ask him to repeat it, twice.
“Yes, I mean it. Get rid of all of them, give the kids up for adoption, execute the parents, and you get rid of the problem.” (When I call him back to revisit the issue, he elaborates: “put the children up for adoption and execute the parents, and word would get out soon” that poor people shouldn’t have kids.)
I inform Clifford that people who are poor actually work extremely hard to just barely survive. He tells me if they were smarter, like Romney, they would earn more money. “Obama got all his money through his charisma, Romney got his because of his brains,” he says. “Some people are just smarter than others, and not everyone is equal—but everyone has to pull their own weight and stop making excuses for being poor. Get up and do something. Some people just don’t want to work.”