יום שני, 1 באפריל 2019

Chasten Buttigieg Is Winning the 2020 Spouse Primary

The first same-sex husband of a major-party presidential candidate is a historic figure, but he’s also a surprisingly traditional one.


Maybe the most noteworthy thing about Chasten Buttigieg’s sudden internet fame is that he has a public profile at all. At this stage in a presidential race, most candidates’ spouses are ornamental figures, taken gingerly out of the storage box for major announcements and gauzy videos, then stashed away until the call for the “60 Minutes” sit-down.

By contrast, the husband of South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg is a constant presence, at least on Twitter, where he posts a steady stream of commentary in fluent millennialese. Follow his account — as, at this writing, more than 108,000 people do — and you’ll learn that he is a father of dogs, a Harry Potter fan, a theater geek, an enamored husband with a knack for choosing the right GIF. You’ll also see why, in some circles, he has taken on the status of folk hero. “Pete Buttigieg’s husband Chasten is the Twitter celebrity we deserve,” read a recent headline in Mashable.

Few would have expected that the early stars of the 2020 race would be the gay millennial mayor of a mid-size Midwestern city and his 29-year-old husband. Through his very presence, Chasten Buttigieg is breaking ground. But at the same time, what’s most unexpected about Chasten is how conventional he is. At a time when campaigns are treading cautiously, and spouses are navigating a new set of gender minefields, Buttigieg seems relaxed, unscripted, free to be himself. And that freedom has turned this historic figure, the first same-sex husband of a major-party presidential candidate, into something surprising: the most traditional political spouse in the field.

Being married to a presidential candidate is the most thankless role in politics. It’s a choice that’s generally foisted upon you, a directive to be second fiddle, an expectation that you’ll conform to centuries-old gender stereotypes. The first lady, to this day, is tasked with choosing china patterns, points out Kelly Dittmar, a political science professor at Rutgers University.

For years, there has been acute interest in political spouses who deviate from gender norms. When Elizabeth Warren pointedly noted, in a 2015 Facebook post, that she had proposed to her husband, Bruce Mann, Vanity Fair picked it up. This season, the candidates and their spouses seem especially attuned to presentation. Amy Klobuchar's husband, John Bessler, carried his wife’s binder to the lectern at her campaign rollout event, then quickly slipped away. At Bernie Sanders’ official campaign launch, his wife, Jane, nearly apologized for their relationship: “I feel honored to be his wife, and I know that might not be politically correct to identify myself a ‘wife.’”

Historically, a candidate’s wife—she was always a wife—was expected to do something gender-bound: reflect her husband’s masculinity, underscore that he could handle the work of a masculine job. Hillary Clinton’s 1992 cookie-baking saga—she spoke dismissively of baking cookies, angered American housewives, and was forced to pay penance by presenting a chocolate chip cookie recipe—was proof of how rigid the rules were. For decades, they haven’t changed.

This year, though, feels different. In the cycle after Hillary’s own presidential nomination, in a year filled with multiple women candidates, expectations for a spouse have become more fraught. For a wife, there’s now so much pressure to avoid the traditional role that a slip into gender stereotypes can look like a betrayal. See the uproar over Beto O’Rourke’s campaign announcement video, in which his wife, Amy, stares admiringly at him for three long minutes, mute for the entire time.

For the husband of a female candidate, meanwhile, the urge not to overshadow a spouse leads to greater invisibility. At today’s campaign events, male spouses seem directed to stand behind their wives, not beside them, notes Don Haider-Markel, a political science professor at the University of Kansas whose recent research focuses on LGBTQ politicians.

Heterosexual candidates and their spouses face a host of social expectations. One mark of responsible adulthood is getting married and having kids, so voters might raise questions about a straight candidate who doesn’t fit the norm — say, child-free Rep. Tulsi Gabbard or unmarried Sen. Cory Booker. But for a young gay couple, there are fewer assumptions to meet, Haider-Markel says, which means a guy like Chasten Buttigieg is “not bound by any particular rules about how to behave.”

That leaves him ample room to be himself — and to indulge his innate talent for social media. His Twitter feed is AOC-savvy without the combative edge; light on policy and partisanship, heavy on the personal. He chronicles his life at home while his husband is out on the road. (“Peter: Crushing townhalls in SC,” reads one recent tweet. “Chasten: staring out the window waiting for UberEats.”) He understands, implicitly, what pushes readers’ buttons: pop culture references and dog pics (he runs a separate Twitter feed for the couple’s two rescue dogs). He sparked a frenzy when he announced that he and his husband are both Hufflepuffs. (Of course, they are.) And he artfully pokes fun at his husband’s outsized accomplishments, as he did in a tweet about their first date that managed to both celebrate and mock Mayor Pete’s implausible résumé.

Tweets like these fill a traditional function of a candidate’s spouse: to humanize a candidate who, by the very nature of the process, has to present himself as self-aggrandized and larger than life.

And in a nation that’s still coming to terms with the swiftness of social change and the rapid adoption of same-sex marriage, that humanizing has a broader purpose. Though Chasten’s tweets are largely free of gender politics, they’re also unapologetically affectionate, projecting unswerving support and full-on adoration. In January, when Pete Buttigieg announced his exploratory committee, Chasten tweeted: “I am so proud of my husband … Let’s go show the world why I fell in love with you.” It wouldn’t be surprising if he posted his favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe tomorrow.

The Buttigiegs are practically newlyweds: After meeting on the dating app Hinge, the couple got married in South Bend last June. (Adorable tales of their courtship have been well-chronicled.) Perhaps as a result, Chasten’s feed reflects the kind of fresh, easygoing affection that some candidates work hard to re-create: It’s still hard to unsee that awkward Al-and-Tipper Gore kiss at the 2000 Democratic convention. (Though, had Sen. Sherrod Brown decide to run for president, he and his wife, Connie Schultz, might have given the Buttigiegs a run for their money.)

Voters are moved by compelling life stories and narratives about overcoming; that’s why so many wealthy candidates dig deep into their ancestry to find a blue-collar worker or a coal miner. For gay candidates, a sense of hardship is baked into the contours of life. Both Pete and Chasten have talked publicly about the difficulties of coming out to family and community. “Actually being out and representing themselves as such,” Haider-Markel says, “gives an authenticity that many candidates often struggle to provide.”

Campaigns spend ample amounts of money on image consultants; they hire staffs to develop multifaceted social media strategies and strategize endlessly about publicity stunts. At this early point in the 2020 race, Chasten seems to be lapping other campaigns on all of those fronts, while lounging in slippers in his living room. It all feels a little unfair — like bringing Mozart in to join the high school orchestra.

And his appeal has spread beyond the political arena — he’s been featured in a gushing mini-profile in Marie Claire and lionized in the Twitter feeds of humor columnists. His popularity stems partly from the relief of reading a politically related feed that doesn’t feel like politics, and partly from the mildly subversive glee of imagining that feed someday transferred to official White House accounts. And partly, it’s the function of the narrative itself, which reads like the happy ending of a rom-com. “I love this future first family so much. I am all in,” one Twitter fan recently wrote.

That’s the ultimate purpose of the presidential spouse: to sell the entire package, letting us imagine the family in the White House as a symbol of success, a national ideal. As a potential first husband, Chasten would be historic but also a comforting throwback, someone who took his husband’s last name and unwaveringly supports his ambitions without wondering how they have affected his own. In politics, it’s not hard to find tales of awkward relationships, distant spouses, sidelined destinies, marital betrayal. Everybody really wants a love story. Maybe one that leaves us all a little chastened.

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