Buttigieg, like Barack Obama before him, speaks in orderly paragraphs that seem to exist primarily to advertise a calm, deliberate temperament. But as his campaign has become an unexpected obstacle to the left’s favored candidates, these deliberate paragraphs have become reliable rage objects. Excoriating Buttigieg’s comments, a Vice headline cried that “Buttigieg’s Version of America Is Basically a Caste System.” Days later, addressing students at Grinnell College, Buttigieg was assailed for his higher-education plan and accused of “spreading lies.” Activists unfurled banners reading “Wall Street Pete” and “Youth to Pete: You will kill us.” (“ ‘You will kill us’?” Buttigieg said. “That’s really mean.”)
The front-runner of the month always gets kicked around, but what has been interesting about the criticism Buttigieg faces is the way it always seems to be about the totality of Mayor Pete, in all his best-and-brightest-ness — how, in the absence of much of a record to scrutinize, he has been cast as a human indictment of the system that would deliver a precocious mayor without much of a record to the top tier of a presidential primary. “College was always for a kid like Peter,” the political commentator Krystal Ball said — “he and the other special flowers who get tracked onto the smart-kid path, which so often just happens to coincide with being white and being affluent.”
But that would describe many of Buttigieg’s critics, too. The Buttigieg backlash, just like this spring’s first flush of Buttigieg mania, has a dorm-room atmosphere about it; it is most intense within his own cohort of young, mostly white, college-educated liberals, who are torn between a mounting discomfort with their own privilege and an instinctive comfort with their own class. Buttigieg is his demographic’s most natural avatar in the 2020 race, and that is precisely his problem.