Let’s, for the purposes of argument, assume that everything Pete Buttigieg is on paper, he is in real life.
He went to Harvard, attended Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, worked at McKinsey, returned home to improve his community, served in the military, got married; he is responsible, pragmatic, affable, service-oriented, conversant in ideas, an intellectual, but not one prone to getting lost in the dream. If Pete Buttigieg, 37, elevates himself into the top tier of presidential candidates, the media will scrutinize every moment of his life, and since you gotta be on the look out for scam all the time now, it’s possible the preceding perception does not match reality — but otherwise, Mayor Pete is the model millennial.
Obviously, there are different kinds of model millennial (fill in your preferred archetype here). But if you’re a millennial from one of those places they always talk about as wealthy yet meritocratic — a Bethesda, Maryland, a Menlo Park, California — this is what you’re supposed to be! As actual virtues, these hold up: People with gifts and privileges should reorient those gifts and privileges to serve others or create something of value for them.
But you know who’s a millennial from one of those places? Elizabeth Holmes.
Holmes grew up in Northern Virginia and Houston, went to and dropped out of Stanford, then burst forth into the wild Theranos story that we all know and love, leaving a billion dollars and staggering near-miss health catastrophes in her wake. For a moment, long ago, Holmes was the model millennial, until she wasn’t, until she really wasn’t. She isn’t alone, though, as Amanda Hess pointed out: The scams that have captivated America (Theranos, Fyre Festival, Anna Delvey) share millennial antiheroes and a pursuit of not just wealth, but status. The college admissions scam teens are postmillennial, but they fit within this framework too — and besides, we all suspect that whatever allegedly happened in 2017 was also going on in 2007. Art, tech, Caribbean music festivals, going to Stanford: These are the high-brow millennial scam pursuits.
In turn, these scams undermine ideas about meritocratic systems and what that status actually meant in the first place — the world is much wider for affluent teens. Advantages flow through academics, of course, but also in everything from test practice to music lessons to competitive athletics to volunteer work, and the kind of parental time and resources and mysterious soft knowledge required to shuttle teens to these activities that send them onto college.
This is, again, a wildly unequal system, but it also entails a lot of...work. Even for the wealthy, it can be a real pain to get into Stanford, a pursuit that spans every day of every quarter of every school year, balancing all the demands upon your time to produce the correct package.
That work, or its absence, is central to many of these scams and our fascination with them: If someone has all the means and privileges conferred, why weren’t they willing to do the work? Can the silent ways of forming connections in business be achieved without the work?
This is part of Mayor Pete’s appeal. Pete Buttigieg is the antidote to the Endless Summer of Scam. He’s full of the elite qualifications that you might rightly suspect (and grew up as the son of Notre Dame professors), but provides depth in real time before you. He went to Afghanistan, but hasn’t made himself out to be a war hero. He fluently draws parallels between Ulysses and American politics. He learned Norwegian to read a book. He learned Norwegian to read a book.
He has a lot of sober, curveball theories about millennials and generational change. He argued to the New Yorker’s Ben Wallace-Wells that millennials are essentially pragmatic, but that can render in unexpected ways. “It is very pragmatic to look around and say, well, the countries that do this tend to be better than the countries that don’t,” he said of single-payer health care. “The system we have isn’t working very well; we ought to try this other system. Politically, it’s never been possible, because it’s been considered socialism, and socialism was a kill switch. Our generation did not live through the Cold War in the same way.”
This is a 37-year-old mayor. In any normal situation, we probably would not be talking about him in context of being president of the United States. But in the season of scam, the subtle appeal of Mayor Pete is that, maybe, at the very least, he’s done the work of being who he purports to be.