The Vacancy And Cynicism At The Heart Of “Mayor Pete”

The new Pete Buttigieg documentary reveals more about the failures of the Democratic Party than it does about the one-time presidential candidate.
The Vacancy And Cynicism At The Heart Of “Mayor Pete”
(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Pete Buttigieg is sitting in an auditorium of South Bend residents who are furious about the recent police killing of a black man named Eric Logan. “We don’t trust you!” somebody screams. A woman listens carefully, her middle finger raised. A man tells Buttigieg, “Do your job just so you can have a moral compass when you leave this place, dawg.”

Buttigieg, who is still their mayor but also running to be the Democratic presidential nominee, looks cold and wooden in comparison. “This is the beginning of the conversation, not the end,” he intones.

CNN commentator and former Barack Obama strategist David Axelrod is not happy with the performance, Buttigieg’s communications director Lis Smith tells her boss afterward. Next, we watch as the campaigns’ comms staff relentlessly preps Buttigieg on how to “connect with people” about the killing. “Try to keep your hands above the podium,” one tells him. They insist on using the grammatically tortured ‘officer-involved shooting.’ In a bizarre inclusion of footage, given the circumstances, one communications guy mocks Bernie’s New York accent.

In this extended sequence from Mayor Pete, the new, much-discussed Amazon documentary on Buttigieg’s campaign, Eric Logan’s death is merely a speed bump on the road to the nomination, a media challenge in which success or failure hinges on pundits’ estimation of your ability to metabolize racism and police violence into a sound bite that TV talking heads believe will be convincing for viewers at home. At the Democratic debate, Buttigieg gets asked about the killing, and answers head-on. Cut to the pundits. Axelrod bestows his approval. Success!

Mayor Pete illuminates close to nothing about its subject or his motivations for wanting to be president. But the documentary does do two things well. It is a realistic, unintentionally cynical window into the campaign cycle, even as it labors under delusions about Buttigieg’s place within it. And it inadvertently illustrates the Democratic Party’s utter failure to apprehend how the identity categories they traffic in might entwine with concrete political desires and frustrations, or why it might want to back candidates who know how to fight for racial and economic justice, instead of just talking about it.

“You Would Break”

At a campaign stop captured in the documentary, Pete is hailed by a middle-aged blonde woman who looks like she’s barely holding herself together. She tells him she’s raising her brother’s children after he fatally overdosed, and starts to ask if he has a plan. “Help is on the way,” Buttigieg says, telling her to take a look at his website. Presumably, there are policy platforms on the site — but there are none detailed in Mayor Pete.

Viewers are assured that Pete possesses top-notch policy chops. Campaign manager Mike Schmuhl says early on of Buttigieg: “Policy and some of that stuff is his sort of natural habitat.”

Buttigieg’s appeal, Lis Smith tells an unseen interlocutor, is “as much about his style and about as much as who he is as a person as it is about, like, policy and all that stuff.” Later, as she advises him on an upcoming debate, Smith tells him: “you could give some, like, baller-ass, wonky answer on North Korea, but no one will give a shit.”

At the very end of the documentary, after his campaign is over, Buttigieg reflects on the people he met on the campaign trail, and the horrifying stories of policy failure they told.

“There’s only so much room when you’re a candidate and you’re encountering multiple people a day who can tell you about losing a loved one because of a policy failure — on opioids or whatever it is — or what they went through with long-term care, or unemployment or racism or whatever they were facing,” he says. "If you actually imbibed all the consequences of that, in all of its emotional meaning, you would break.”

When Buttigieg hugs the woman who lost her brother to an overdose, she breaks down. The filmmakers likely included this interaction to show the candidate’s human side, but Pete’s closing line makes clear exactly how alone she is — how even the politicians who are supposed to be on her side are compartmentalizing so that the same policy failures that have ruined people’s lives don’t keep them up at night. Help is not on the way.

For a documentary that elides policy entirely to focus on affect, viewers get very little of Buttigieg’s personality and inner life. We never see him interact with his mother, or hear him talk about his father, who died in 2019. His dogs are shown frequently, a bizarre attempted shorthand for familial intimacy. The documentary reveals a man who struggles to summon the level of extroversion required for public office, who is most at home typing and thinking — and little more.

Instead, Buttigieg’s husband Chasten is used as a stand-in for the emotionally available subject the filmmakers wish Buttigieg were. Chasten can be refreshingly plain spoken: At one point, he says he doesn’t know anything about politics, but does like talking about himself — a hilarious admission, given that he was granted a Fall 2020 fellowship at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics.

Chasten is the subject who supplies all the humanity in this story: He expresses insecurity and uncertainty, grapples with what it means to be a gay man supporting his husband’s historic presidential bid, and talks about wanting children, which they put off until after the campaign. Buttigieg seems uninterested in these human foibles, if not outright irritated by them.

A Failed Attempt At Kingmaking

Maybe it’s too much to ask that a documentary largely collated from campaign footage, even one that promises “unprecedented intimacy,” would delve too far into the psyche of its subject.

But what about why Buttigieg wants to be president? How does he want to change the United States? Who is he fighting for? What injustices make him angry? Has he ever even felt angry? Or what about his past — did he like studying at Oxford? Is he absolutely sure he knew nothing about bread price fixing at when he worked for McKinsey & Company? Why did he join the U.S. Navy Reserve? What did he do while he was in Afghanistan, and why was he only deployed for seven months? How is it, exactly, that he has come to speak eight languages?

None of these questions are answered! In the absence of emotional interiority or big ideas, we’re left with the grinding vicissitudes of the campaign trail. Buttigieg glad-hands, grills steaks at a fair, goes to Harlem to get Al Sharpton’s blessing. The filmmakers show them praying over their food: Buttigieg with what looks like collard greens and a drumstick, the Reverend with his customary whole-wheat toast. Just outside is a whirling morass of press: cameras, microphones, reporters’ eager faces pressed up against the glass.

Buttigieg’s not responsible for the inane customs of contemporary political campaigns. But watching him jump through the hoops laid out for him is an interesting study in media training. He seems trapped in an iterative, cyborgian process of trying to make himself appear more relatable to voters. At several points, he reminded me eerily of Kendall, the media-conscious scion from Succession, such as when Buttigieg declares, “The other question is, how much more should we do to root this in biography? It’s like: look at this young, Midwestern veteran who’s kind of out there, right?”

And it works — kind of. Buttigieg possesses a mystifying appeal to middle-aged white women: When my father died in 2019, the first thing I noticed upon arriving at his memorial service was the Mayor Pete bumper sticker on my aunt’s car. It was not my happiest moment.

Buttigieg somehow charms crowds. Early in the documentary, when he jokes, “This is the only chance you’ll ever get to vote for a Maltese-American left-handed Episcopalian gay war veteran mayor millennial,” everyone laughs.

But those appeals to identity break down when it comes to race. At one point, a black participant at an inter-faith exchange asks Buttigieg why he thinks the country needs yet another white president. “I guess I’m asking to be judged on more than my race,” Buttigieg says. The man notes afterward that it was a “bullshit answer.”

When it comes to Buttigieg’s attempts to distinguish himself from his fellow Democratic candidates, the filmmakers appear either entirely sold on the mayor’s campaign, or so disinterested in the actual substance of politics that it’s all one big points-scoring game to them.

On the debate stage, Sanders and Michael Bloomberg are dismissed summarily, tarred with the same brush: “Not Democrats.” That one of them is a champion of the working class and the other a billionaire oligarch and former Republican seems to register not at all.

Buttigieg notes that the issues facing the country and his city are broadly the same — and his response to his black constituents in South Bend neatly prefigured the Democratic Party’s reaction to the uprisings the following year: excuses, gestures, and no transformative change to speak of. The whole debacle also neatly undercuts his entire reasoning for why someone with no political experience other than mayor should be president: that “what was happening in the city broadly worked.”

But if Buttigieg is the party’s true standard-bearer, the future looks bleak. The only person who mentions that Buttigieg is polling at 4 percent with non-white voters is the same man who called bullshit on his answer; otherwise, this inarguably disqualifying reality isn’t mentioned.

In another debate, Buttigieg claps back at Elizabeth Warren, who criticized his choice to rub elbows with billionaire donors at a fundraiser in a wine cave: “We need the support of everybody who is committed to helping us defeat Donald Trump.” Wild applause. Take that, Liz! It’s a big tent, and the billionaires pay for it.

Of the frontrunners, only Biden emerges unscathed; a brief interaction leaves Buttigieg whispering in awe: “Such a good guy.” This scene prefigures a moment, several months on, in which Buttigieg will bow out and allow Biden to consolidate the party. He and Chasten watch glumly as the South Carolina returns roll in, go up on stage for the last time, and receive the customary phone calls from Joe, Jill Biden, and Obama — all to the cloying deployment of a song, Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day,” that is simply too good for this documentary. Game Over — until next time, that is.

The ultimate goal of this documentary is not to provide a genuine post-mortem on an unlikely and flawed campaign; it’s a consent factory, prepping voters for another campaign down the road. But in its attempted kingmaking, it accidentally reveals the vacancy and cynicism at the center of Mayor Pete.


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