Then-Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Tex.), second from left, and four other Democratic members of Congress speak with reporters after touring the Tornillo international port of entry east of El Paso, Tex., on Dec. 15, 2018. (Rudy Gutierrez/The El Paso Times via AP)
Opinion writer

Beto O’Rourke hasn’t yet entered the 2020 presidential race. He doesn’t have a stump speech. He does, however, have a sense of timing and a tremendous facility for social media. Politico reports:

O’Rourke filmed himself on Facebook Live for about 75 minutes, visiting friends’ homes and sharing scenic views of the El Paso and Juárez, Mexico, skylines.

“The president using fear and anecdote to try to instill an anxiety and paranoia to build the political will to construct this wall that would cost $30 billion and take private property and cause death and suffering as more asylum seekers are pushed to ever more hostile stretches of the U.S.-Mexico border — that was what we heard from the Oval Office,” O’Rourke said. “And we need to meet that fear with the truth, with our ambition, with the best traditions of this country, a country of immigrants, and with the example of El Paso and Juárez.”

O’Rourke’s ease, which allows voters to follow along with him as if we are old friends tagging along for the day, is a talent unmatched by other candidates, especially those who are veteran politicians and/or a generation or half-generation older. Social media creates a false sense of intimacy, but a powerful one.

O’Rourke also displayed his signature message — optimistic, unifying. He smartly avoids demonizing Trump supporters even as he slams President Trump:

“I think [Trump] has seized this emotional language very effectively, completely irresponsibly, not tethered to the truth,” O’Rourke said. “But if I don’t live in El Paso, if I haven’t had the experience that we’ve had, if I live in Michigan, Iowa, Oregon, the northern border, I don’t … I may not know any better, and ‘Shit, the president of the United States just said that there are rapists and criminals and murderers who will chop your head off coming to get us. Fuck yeah, build a wall.’ And so … I can see responding that way.”

O’Rourke said he was filming the Facebook Live video — and asking friends about their families’ immigration stories — in an effort to counter such rhetoric. He noted El Paso’s low crime rate and research indicating immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than native-born populations.

It is an open question whether casual profanity is now de rigueur and evidence of authenticity. My view is enough people find it objectionable that it undercuts O’Rourke’s plea for civility and respect. That said, his skill for persuasion — “here I will show you what’s real” — is effective, if only because Trump’s fearmongering rhetoric is so far removed from reality that he could never appear with unscripted people who aren’t members of the Trump cult. Ironically, for a reality-TV-show star, Trump needs the security of a patsy interviewer (hence, his affection for toadies such as Sean Hannity), a teleprompter (although his cadence is stilted) and/or an adoring crowd that does not pose any threat of criticism or objection.

Certainly, O’Rourke is as much a feel-good candidate as Trump is a dystopia president. (“Turning his camera to the skylines of El Paso and Juárez, O’Rourke — sporting a new beard — said, ‘It’s one of the most peaceful, one of the most beautiful communities on the planet.’”) He sure isn’t an angry man in the mold of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

The campaign will tell us whether Democratic primary voters want someone to channel their anger and/or attack their foes (e.g., special interests, lobbyists, “the system”) or provide hope and uplift. If it is the latter, few do it better than O’Rourke.

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