Not his inability to act with any consistency on the subject of Donald Trump. Not his ill-timed spasms of political gamesmanship (as when he gave a 21-hour speech on the Senate floor against Obamacare). Not even his uncanny resemblance to Count Chocula. No, Ted Cruz’s worst offense against the American body politic has been his failure, thus far, to crush the senatorial hopes of one Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke. As of this writing, the Democrat’s campaign to replace Cruz as the junior senator from Texas remains within striking distance of victory.
Alas, this means that we probably have to listen to the man.
Observers who were meeting that obligation last Wednesday may have witnessed O’Rourke’s appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, a typical progressive cheerleading session that would have been unworthy of comment had it not produced from the candidate the kind of head-spinning sound bite that makes one wonder if we’re all living on the same planet. Discussing the ongoing NFL anthem protests — and what else could trouble the thoughts of a candidate for national office in 2018? — O’Rourke lamented that the kneelers’ actions are controversial. But he then reminded the studio audience that “it’s hard to think of a major . . . change that we’ve made as a country that wasn’t painful, that didn’t require these difficult conversations, these unguarded moments with one another.” Obeying Ellen’s prompting (and, let’s face it, an off-screen wrangler with an applause sign), the crowd duly went wild. Yet I can’t help wondering whether anyone was actually paying attention.
“Unguarded moments”? That’s what the Left wants?
On a purely rhetorical level, the phrase makes no sense in the context in which O’Rourke used it. Who, exactly, has been “unguarded” — the protesters staging their dissent? their political opponents? the millions of Americans who don’t give a damn? Moreover, it’s difficult to conceive of anything less probable than widespread unguardedness in an age when progressives have defined “intolerance” down to the molecular level, weaponized it, and trained the resulting laser beam on any conservative who dares to express dissent. “Please,” one can almost imagine O’Rourke thinking, “tell us exactly how you feel about the day’s pressing social concerns. Better still, why not email your thoughts directly to your boss, your co-workers, your professors, or your potential romantic partners?”
“Unguarded moments,” you say? No, I’ll be keeping my guard up, thank you.
Looked at a certain way, O’Rourke’s yearning for open dialogue between the nation’s opposing political camps is, of course, a noble impulse. And while it’s banal to say that honesty is the highest form of intimacy — Google that phrase to find a lovely assortment of inspirational posters — it is nevertheless true that Americans could benefit from a freer exchange of ideas, and that a society in which half of the population is terrified of offending the other half is probably not in good shape.
Yet the Left’s war on “unguarded moments” has been so successful that I would be less careful on a jailhouse telephone line than I regularly am during conversations with progressives — especially (though life has largely spared me this indignity) with progressives who have the power to ruin me. There’s a reason why “shy Toryism” (in which Britons vote for Conservatives while telling pollsters they do not) is a measurable phenomenon, or why Trump’s 2016 victory shocked prognosticators so much. If you’ve decided to vote that way, you’ve probably learned by now that it’s best, in certain circumstances, to keep quiet about it. To be, in other words, a little guarded.
Whether as a future senator (if God gives us what we deserve) or a future unelected MSNBC personality (if the Almighty waits until 2020 to punish us for Trump), Beto O’Rourke is likely to endure as a political “brand” for some time, so irresistible are his boyish affect, reliably progressive voting record, and — give the man his due — ability to speak in complete sentences of better-than-average grammatical proficiency. What the man actually is, however, is at once simpler and more dispiriting than his fans imagine: yet another Democrat who talks bipartisan peace but studies war, unable to divine the link between his party’s fanaticism and a populist Right that is brittle, angry, suspicious, and scared.
If I were a member of the Cruz campaign (and let the record show that I like the guy and proudly voted for him in my state’s primary), I’d be tempted to take the Ellen clip and rub O’Rourke’s face in it. Yet even if I did so, I’d be unlikely to peel off any of the candidate’s supporters. Political hypocrisy is, after all, a particularly devastating form of blindness. If you’ve got it, everyone knows. Everyone else, that is.
A few days ago, I had the displeasure of reading the New York Times’ most recent “Modern Love” column, in which a young woman by the name of Courtney Sender bemoaned her hook-up’s obsession with securing — repeatedly and with unromantic zeal — her “consent.” Her date’s behavior “made me uneasy,” she wrote. “It seemed legalistic and self-protective, imported more from the courtroom than from a true sense of caretaking.”
What that young woman wanted — what we all want — was an unguarded moment of her own. Unsurprisingly, her date simply wouldn’t give her one.
Of course he wouldn’t. He’s been far too well trained.