To make bastard use of the Lionel Trilling phrase, Beto O’Rourke’s bid for the White House has been but a series of “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.”
O’Rourke’s campaign has wandered about the political wilderness in pursuit of some transcendent “moment,” one that might elevate it above that which it most plainly is: an ego trip for Robert Francis O’Rourke, who will not be the Democratic nominee, and never, in truth, was anything more than an heir to the Jon Ossoff–mania that so exercised a certain sort of MSNBC viewer. The Blue Wave has come and gone, but Beto O’Rourke has not.
Beto went on CNN on Sunday desperate for a viral moment, one that might energize his campaign. It came while discussing the spate of mass shootings, when O’Rourke casually dropped the F-bomb mid-sentence, delivered with a certitude that captured the very essence of his candidacy — a caricature of authenticity. The vulgarity is shorthand meant to show that Beto is really serious, serious in a way you might not divine from his profligate use of a skateboard or insistence that the public watch him at the dentist. If you’re unconvinced, consider that in the immediate aftermath of the CNN interview, O’Rourke’s website started selling— what else? – profanity-laden t-shirts in honor of the episode.
He is so serious.
O’Rourke uses profanity as shorthand for seriousness. He skateboards as a crude stand-in for verve. His tabletop jeremiads beg for an energy from the audience that he does not and will never inspire. Clunky Spanish sentences delivered without a hint of affect are recited as though it they were genuine outreach. His trite bumper stickers are pathetic simulacra of the thoughtful, if misguided, policy solutions offered by some of his peers.
The flashes of emotion and patented stop-start cadence belie O’Rourke’s capacity to pursue that most elusive — and demanding! — task: to traffic in the realm of ideas rather than mimetic innuendo. The CNN F-bomb is not merely a distillation of the O’Rourke campaign. It is the O’Rourke campaign: glorified performance art, laden with that most noxious pretense that voters will fall for it. Thus far, to their credit, they haven’t.