If a presidential candidate is the sum of his or her experiences, identity, policies and track record, then Beto O’Rourke looks like a pretty regular middle-aged white guy with slightly left-of-center policies, a respectable amount of experience in office, a nice (but not too nice) house, a lovely family and a photogenic dog. But so far, the early drafts of Brand Beto are less about who O’Rourke is now than how he was formed by his youthful interests and experiences. And those all tell one story: Beto O’Rourke is a very familiar kind of Generation X white dude.
O’Rourke was a skater (sort of); he was in a punk band called Foss; he was, we learned recently, part of a hacker collective called the Cult of the Dead Cow, where he ran a bulletin board called TacoLand. You know this type: Home decor dominated by vinyl. Wore eyeliner every day for three months in the mid-’90s. Still talks about that Joseph Campbell book that really made him think. I’ve never met O’Rourke, but I wouldn’t be surprised to read next that he once considered naming a pet or a child after Stephen Malkmus, the frontman for Pavement.
I don’t object to this, personally. I’m a Gen Xer, too — born in December 1976 — and I’ve been imprinted with many of the standard Xer cultural markers. I know that Powell Peralta is not a law firm; that in global thermonuclear war, the only winning move is not to play; that selling out is a moral failure and not a desirable state in which customers have purchased all your inventory. I think Fugazi is a reasonable name for a cat, and if I’m being ruthless in my self-interrogation, I have to admit that high school freshman me would have probably had a crush on high school senior Beto.
But O’Rourke so completely — and hilariously — embodies the stereotype of a white male Xer that if someone wrote him into a dystopian fantasy about a youthful 40-something ex-punk-rocker dropped into politics (reluctantly and with some conflictedness, of course) to save America from a selfish boomer narcissist who failed upward into the presidency despite a history of corruption and incompetency, the character would be way too on the nose.
Reading about O’Rourke’s past is like revisiting “Reality Bites ” or the 1991 Douglas Coupland novel that popularized the term “Generation X” in the first place — or the many disappointed magazine articles about our generation by people older than we were. We were thought to be apathetic slackers who would never turn into fully formed adults, because we were born during a period of American economic prosperity and raised by the supposedly self-absorbed Me Generation, which would invariably turn us into lazy, unmotivated nihilists.
None of that really happened, in part because the boom economy didn’t last. And even if we did feel pessimistic about what institutions could offer us and whether what we did mattered, we still had to put our pants on and go to work every morning and find out. Some of us still have Peter Pan-ish consumption habits left over from our formative teenage years, which explains the demand for toddler-size Thrasher T-shirts and children’s books titled “What Is Punk?,” the better to inflict our own neuroses on our offspring with (a sign, of course, that Gen X isn’t so nontraditional). But for the most part, we grew up, started 401(k)s and put away our childish things. We had far more debt and less job security than our parents, so we didn’t have much choice.
And that means O’Rourke’s present, and the arc he took to get here, also fits the generation’s stereotypes. He spent some time in his 20s trying to make art and drifting between random jobs, and then he returned to Texas and began his political career. (And, presumably, his retirement savings.) But he’s still wrapped in Gen X signifiers. He can’t help himself.
Since he declared that he was running for president, O’Rourke has spent a lot of time standing on things. Not because he needs to; he’s 6-foot-4, but he still often climbs atop furniture to talk to crowds. Or he climbs up and then perches kneeling to address a specific potential constituent, while emanating something akin to a cool camp counselor vibe that says: I’m here to listen to you and fix your problems. And I also maybe have a pot stash everyone knows about that I’ll consider sharing because you seem cool, and I know you won’t narc on me. The posture is a little subversive — diner counters are not for standing on! — but not too much so. O’Rourke isn’t taking a baseball bat to the counter, he’s just demonstrating that he’s not hemmed in by restrictive traditional notions of where people should stand. And because he’s charismatic and maybe a little emo, he can pull it off without seeming horribly awkward. It works for O’Rourke partly because it feels like a generational affect and thus of a piece with the rest of his persona.
But it also works for him because Gen X affectations don’t have much downside for straight white men. Having a problem with authority is more about being appealingly subversive than having experienced real oppression at the hands of people who abuse authority. It’s much easier to stick it to the man when, for all intents and purposes, you could be the man, pending a few alternate life choices. There are even some Xers, such as Elon Musk, who manage to enthusiastically exploit their authority while radiating a sense that they’re contravening it.
And as Gen X found out when we all grew up, it’s easier to project a willingness to subvert norms than to actually subvert them. When O’Rourke tried to make a self-deprecating joke on the campaign trail about his role as a father, noting that he “sometimes” pitched in to help his wife, Amy, he unintentionally signaled that his marriage conforms to a more traditional division of labor, where domestic work and child-rearing are largely the domain of women. (That doesn’t necessarily mean he believes they are, of course.) But he may get the benefit of the doubt from a lot of voters on that issue because his superficial edginess cloaks a kind of traditionalism.
For now, his popularity seems heavily propelled by his charm, good looks and charisma, along with the nostalgia he induces in people who see a younger version of Beto in themselves: a sometimes lost, arty type, skeptical of institutions and playfully rebellious, but not antisocial. (I should note here that I work as a political consultant for Democrats, but my firm isn’t working for any 2020 presidential candidates.)
Xers value aesthetics, sometimes too much, and occasionally at the expense of fundamentally desirable outcomes — and this may end up being a weakness of O’Rourke’s. When Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high,” she wasn’t talking about the altitude of one’s brow. She was talking about navigating the moral and ethical topography of political life. In his Senate race in Texas last year, O’Rourke chose not to run negative ads against Republican Ted Cruz because he wanted to maintain an upbeat positivity. But it may have backfired to the extent that he didn’t give voters a good enough reason to fire their incumbent senator. If O’Rourke wasn’t going to educate Texans about Cruz’s flaws, who was? And was the decision to avoid negative messaging really a moral one or just an aesthetic one?
Ultimately, O’Rourke plays against type by going into politics at all. In a way, running for office is the antithesis of a Gen X Thing to Do. It’s hard to distrust the state, even performatively, and then actively try to participate in it. And swaying the electorate isn’t an act of defiant isolated individualism; it’s a matter of building large coalitions around common values. It is the opposite of the obscure, exclusive experience Xers ostensibly value on the assumption that scarcity is indicative of quality. You cannot cultivate mystery and esoteric preferences to win; you have to be Taylor Swift. You need the numbers.
So far, O’Rourke’s early fundraising — a record $6.1 million in the first 24 hours, more than any other declared Democratic candidate — shows that whatever else comes, he does have the numbers. It’s an early indicator of something else Xers are supposed to hate: mass appeal.
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