The Worst People in America: Chris Hughes and Sean Eldridge

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To celebrate July 4th, the Weeklings Editorial Board brings you an in-depth look at the least acceptable among us. Although only living figures were considered, space was limited and deliberations were intense. In the end, there were fifteen good men (and women, but mostly men) chosen. God bless this great land.

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TOWARD THE END of 2014, a dapper young fellow named Chris Hughes, who had purchased The New Republic a couple years earlier, fired the beloved editor of that magazine, Franklin Foer. In fact, Chris had fired Foer’s predecessor Richard Just shortly after buying the magazine, even though Just had helped him buy the magazine. Upon learning that Foer—who is one of the magical Foer brothers, princelings of American letters—had been given the heave ho, the majority of the editorial staff resigned, en masse, in protest.

Two years earlier, Hughes bought the then 98-year-old magazine, and the consensus was that this was a pseudo-philanthropic gesture—it appeared he aimed to save (i.e. subsidize indefinitely) the magazine, which was losing all sorts of money. Maybe he’d let the magazine keep its integrity, make it so they didn’t have to chase dollars so avidly that they ended up being yet another click-bait machine brimming with Kardashians. TNR’s founding mission, after all, had been to “bring sufficient enlightenment to the problems of the nation.”

Sufficient for what? I’m not sure, but I think we’ll know it when we see it.

The same day his editorial staff walked out, Hughes announced that that TNR was going to publish half as many issues a year, and that the magazine would be reinvented as a “vertically integrated digital-media company.”

Vertically integrated digital media? That’s what I asked Santa to bring me last Christmas, but he gave me a weird book by someone named Virginia Woolf (who, as it happens, was an early contributor to the magazine).

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Worst-ness squared, in the form of a bad + bad couple, is a special form of worst-ness. At least Sarah Palin has her husband, who is merely an inanimate object with eyes drawn on it. George W. Bush had Laura, that gentle librarian at his side who had been traumatized—sincerely, I think—by her experience as the at-fault teenage driver in a fatal car accident. Even Bernie Madoff has Mrs. Bernie Madoff, who was a total boob before he was arrested, but is now a rather tragic figure carting around that disgraced name, a toughened lady with a dead son and a ring of tender skin where her outsized diamond necklace once rested.

But what if both people in a relationship are various forms of awfulness at once? This is extremely rare, indeed.

Enter Chris Hughes and Sean Eldridge, a kind of vanilla layer cake of badness It’s an attractive cake, yes, it photographs well, but if you eat it your soul will curdle.

I have to acknowledge that one of the first ingredients in this cake is envy—specifically my own envy. Chris and Sean are young and handsome and rich and ivy-league educated, and of course they are also outrageously well-connected. And I am none of those things.

I would argue that being a reasonable target for widespread envy is a good starting place for almost anyone on a Worst People in America list.

But being enviable is not enough. It is not difficult for me to think of hundreds of people I envy who would have no place on a Worst People In America list (I keep tabs on people I envy). But these two—and the fact that there are two of them—it amplifies, it is much greater than the sum of its parts.

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To begin with, the vast wealth in question was acquired by LITERALLY being in the right place at the right time. Rich person lightning. Before he was wrecking venerable magazines, Hughes was roommate to one Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard, a university in Boston. Anyone with rudimentary human social skills who drew that lottery ticket and became Zuckerberg’s roommate would have ended up with half a billion dollars in their pocket. What Hughes lacked in hard skills, he made up for with proximity. I picture it like this: Chris is doing crunches, while the nerds on the far side of their stately quarters huddle around a computer designing Facebook, and he pauses, and goes, “If you need to talk to anyone about this idea, you should send me. I’m not as socially repellent as you are.”

Hughes’ husband Sean Eldridge, meanwhile, went to Deep Springs College, a two-year institution that is so exclusive that it aims to have 26 students, in toto. The Wikipedia page for this little overachiever-incubator features an interminable list of notable alumni. Basically, everyone who goes gets to be notable. Take a look. It’ll make you projectile vomit across the room…but then you’ll have to go over and mop up your own puke, because you are a worthless peasant and you can’t afford a butler.

After Deep Springs, Sean popped over to Brown University, and then he enrolled in Columbia Law School, but he didn’t finish because he was impatient to get into politics (he was 23 years old!). Today, Sean is the 28-year-old president of Hudson River Ventures, an investment fund. And he considers himself a politician, although no one else seems to agree with him about that (more on that later). And I know he can’t control how he looks, and I don’t want to press the point too much, but he does look rather like a Ken doll.

Mind-boggling privilege and crazy good luck in itself does not make for a worst person, though, of course. The real issue here is that they have both totally torpedoed the good things that they have aimed to champion.

The New Republic? That was a nice magazine until Chris flattened it. He wanted to apply his “expertise” from Silicon Valley to this magazine. Because whatever makes money on the Internet must be a “winning” formula for a magazine, right?

Sidebar: For more in the annals of whims of the wealthy, check out what Bill Gates has done with education, trying for several years to twist the whole system on his premise that the things he learned at Microsoft will apply in classrooms (although he has not taught, has never studied pedagogy, and basically has no idea what he’s talking about). Indeed, he apparently got his ideas for education reform from listening to those “great courses” tapes on the treadmill (how so many great ideas are born). Gates finally realized that his entire philosophy was upside-down, and he started throwing his weight in a different direction last year. Educators watch him in terror, wondering where his hunch will send him next, and what effect his impulse will have on the lives of them and their students.

Okay, back to Sean Eldridge. After dropping out of law school, he decided to become a congressperson. They bought a $5 million house in a lonely electoral district in upstate New York, but alas another gay Democrat snatched up that district in 2012, so they decided to try for the next district over, New York’s 19th, in the Hudson Valley. They bought a $2 million home in the 19th, which looked ripe for an electoral victory by a Democrat (Obama handily won in the district twice). Sean outspent his Republican opponent by almost 3-to-1, and still lost by a full 30 points.

These young squires have been carried around on the shoulders of the New York establishment for most of their adult years, have been feted and applauded, although neither one of them has ever actually accomplished anything. They have damaged things, yes, but that’s all.

Their wondrous Soho loft is the place to be—Salman Rushdie is asleep on the sofa right now, and Bill Clinton is rifling through their fridge. Astonishingly, they have been sought out by actual leaders for advice. Advice! Andrew Sullivan wrote a fawning profile of Hughes, which is absolutely mortifying in retrospect (real quote: “We’ve only met a couple of times in coffee shops and, despite my 20 years on him, I felt as if I were a kid talking with a grown-up.”).

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This brings me to the reversal in this tale, which is brought to you by that most German of words: schadenfreude—the sweet, sweet pleasure derived from the misfortune of others. It is this feeling that sweeps the legs out from envy-fueled righteous indignation. At this point, I actually feel bad for them. They have also fallen so far, so hard, that I can’t help wince.

 

About Peter Mountford

Peter Mountford's debut novel A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism won a 2012 Washington State Book Award, and his second novel The Dismal Science, out in 2014 from Tin House Books, was a New York Times editor's choice. His work has appeared in Boston Review, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Southern Review, Granta, Best New American Voices 2008, and elsewhere. He's currently on faculty at Sierra Nevada College's MFA program, and he's the events curator at Hugo House, Seattle's writing center.
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