The Morning Jolt


Beto O’Rourke Is More of a Slacker than a Saint

Beto O’Rourke delivers a campaign speech atop a counter at The Beancounter Coffeehouse & Drinkery in Burlington, Iowa, March 14, 2019. (Daniel Acker/Reuters)

Before I go any further, this is it — your last chance to register for the National Review Institute Ideas Summit, like a spring concert festival for conservatives, libertarians, populists, Republicans, Trump fans, Trump critics from the Right. And what a lineup: Pompeo, DeVos, Pai, Hassett, Rollins, Rubio, Crenshaw, Bruce, Buckley, Carlson, Carolla, Continetti, Leo, Yoo — and that’s beyond the whole NR gang.

Extra-big Morning Jolt today, just too much to cover: a horrific terrorist attack overseas, some big questions about why we see intense cults of personality springing up in our politics more often, what you ought to know about John Hickenlooper, and a once-revered institution faces ironic allegations of scandal.

A Self-Described ‘Fascist’ Terrorist Attack in Christchurch, New Zealand

Remember a few years ago, when you heard about a terrible terrorist attack overseas, and you figured it was Islamists?  The world’s not so simple anymore. Muslim-haters have pulled off their own atrocity, killing at least 49 at a pair of mosques in New Zealand. Mass shootings, explosives strapped to bodies, multiple attackers, video clips posted to social media, a manifesto demanding sweeping changes to society — it’s the same jihadist playbook, directed at innocent Muslim families by perpetrators with an agenda that they themselves described as fascist.

It’s as bad as it gets.

Are We Being Gaslit About the Endless Charm and Appeal of Beto O’Rourke?

Michelle Goldberg of the New York Times, writing in October:

Like Obama, O’Rourke is running on hope over fear; he exudes compassion and speaks about “power and joy.” Christine Allison, a Republican-turned-independent, is president of the company that publishes D Magazine, a city magazine for Dallas, and one of O’Rourke’s ardent supporters. “He listens,” she told me, saying that he has what Christians sometimes call a “servant-leader approach to politics.”

Quartz magazine, mid-October:

He’s transformed Democratic regulars into fervent volunteers, and the politically neutral into committed voters. “He gave me hope,” said Lauren Thompson, a 22-year-old recent college graduate who sat out the 2016 presidential election and is determined to show up for the midterms. O’Rourke is even turning some Republicans. Dianne Martin, a 70-year-old retired high-school Latin teacher who said she once felt conflicted about Barack Obama because of his race, told me now she wants to be “on the right side of history.”

typical Facebook comment: “Beto’s speeches are so inspirational & gives us hope!”

Around the same time, Britt Daniel, the lead singer of the venerable indie band Spoon, describing the  stickers and t-shirts for Beto O’Rourke he was seeing around New York City: “Maybe they just see him as someone who has a future for the party, a future in politics, or maybe they’re just genuinely inspired by him.”

Last year and this year we’re witnessing Beto-mania, just a few years after different groups of America embraced Trump-mania, eight years after another group of Americans embraced Obama-mania . . . (Let’s face it, there never was much Romney-mania.)

Are our politics more driven by cults of personality than in the past?

I’m not just talking about enthusiasm for the candidate; that’s always existed. I mean the weirdly over-the-top reverence exhibited by the O’Rourke devotees, seemingly inspired by the most mundane things — he plays guitar! He skateboards! He swears! — and the repeated references that he “brings people hope,” and personal testimonials from fans that he restored their hope for the country.

He’s . . .  just some guy. He was in Congress for six years and nobody noticed. He hasn’t done much in his life — no wartime heroics, no remarkable entrepreneurship, no inspiring tale of overcoming adversity or discrimination or long odds to success. For his first 30 years, he’s something of a slacker screwup. In these profiles, he keeps driving around with a reporter, using the F-bomb, getting fast food, talking wistfully of Ciudad Juarez and the correspondents freak out like they’ve hanging out with the Rolling Stones.

What’s so exciting and inspiring about him?

It’s easy to see what got people excited about Barack Obama. He’s a classic American success story. Biracial, absent father, often absent mother, a name that marks him as an outsider from day one. Whatever you think of Obama, you can see that it would not have taken many wrong turns for him to end up on a much worse path in life. He pulled himself together from his “choom gang” days and made his way up a difficult path; he figured out what it took to climb the ladder all the way to the top and he did it. A lot of people saw themselves in Obama because he was the guy who wasn’t born with all the advantages, the guy who was ignored, dismissed, counted out, underestimated — “slept on and stepped on,” as Pitbull says. If Obama can make it to the top with all of his challenges and disadvantages, so can you. Plus, it’s easy to understand the excitement and hopes surrounding the election of the first black president. You can’t begrudge people for believing that event would make some sort of turning point for the better in American history.

Just because I’m inoculated against the appeal of Trump doesn’t mean I don’t see its roots. Trump’s the millionaire who became a billionaire, the guy who has “to hell with you” money and isn’t afraid to say “to hell with you” to anybody. He refuses to play by anyone else’s rules, and people feel a sense of vicarious liberation in that. He’s famous for saying, “You’re fired,” not out of cruelty but out of a need to enforce accountability. Critics charge he’s a fearmonger, but he sometimes articulates genuine, valid fears that a lot of other figures ignored or downplayed. “If you don’t have borders, you don’t have a country.” “I think Islam hates us.” “Washington flourished but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered but the jobs left, and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country.”

But with Beto O’Rourke? I don’t see it with this guy. I don’t see much of anything with this guy, and it feels like the emperor’s new clothes. I can’t tell if I’ve become too cynical to relate to “normal Americans” or whether someone is gaslighting the rest of us.

There’s a little bit of evidence that it might be the latter.  Last night Marc Ambinder, who’s moved on from his old political reporting, tweeted:

So here’s an observation from having spent a week in DC with students and reconnecting with lots of political, [national security] folks, and old friends.  The Dems know they have to pretend to like Beto O’Rourke…. Those who’ve met her and him separately tend to love her and realize they have to pretend to find him cool.

No doubt, some people genuinely love O’Rourke and find him a breath of fresh air, fun, relatable, authentic, and unpretentious. Where I see an Owen Wilson character waiting to happen — the guy trying too hard to be cool — they see a Matthew McConaughey role, the earnest, plainspoken former congressman with his eyes on the horizon and a dream to revive the American spirit.

But watching this trend — Obamamania, Trumpmania, Betomania — one can’t help but wonder if the modern world has left Americans with a hunger for heroes that is so unmet that we’re shoehorning politicians into this role in our lives. We used to know the names of brave soldiers, astronauts, inventors.

Or is it that as we become a less religious society, we need to find another inspirational figure who promises deliverance to believe in?

What You Need to Know About John Hickenlooper

If you absolutely had to vote for a Democrat, you could do a lot worse than former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper.

Which is not really an endorsement; he signed a lot of bills into law that conservatives vehemently opposed. But he’s a let’s-build-infrastructure kind of Democrat, not a turn-to-page-138-of-Pedagogy-of-the-Oppressed-to-understand-the-Marxist-analysis-of-the-legacy-of-colonialism-in-our-society kind of Democrat.

Hickenlooper is one of the most unusual figures in the 2020 Democratic field, but he would probably stand out as one of the most unusual figures in any group. His life story is full of unexpected twists and turns — geologist-turned-restauranteur-turned-stadium-renaming-activist-turned-mayor. He’s got a goofy sense of humor, enjoys silly stunts to get attention (the running of the pigs, skydiving in commercials) and makes fun of himself constantly. When you’ve written “Twenty Things” profiles about a bunch of Democratic senators running for president, the unpredictable, amiable, weirdo Hickenlooper is a hoot.

Not too long ago — say, the 1990s or 2000s — Hickenlooper’s resume would be the sort of thing that catapulted him to frontrunner status — two-term mayor of Denver, two-term governor of Colorado. He signed a lot of bills into law and the city and state largely thrived while he was in office. A lot of Colorado Republicans kind of like him, even if they disagree with him. Now Colorado looks pretty blue, his preference for building bipartisan consensus looks soft to the progressive grassroots, and his corny optimism is far from the mood of the perpetually outraged Democratic activists.

Hickenlooper’s lone shot at the Democratic nomination is if everyone else is chasing the progressive mantle and turns into a ten-car pileup, and he more or less alone consolidates Democratic primary voters who still like the idea of a sort-of-centrist, non-combative, cheerful nominee.

Gentlemen, You Can’t Discriminate in Here, We’re an Anti-Discrimination Group!

Few organizations have seen their reputation change as quickly as that of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Once a reliable monitor of indisputable hate groups, the SPLC kept expanding its definition of “hate groups” to include organizations like the Family Research Center, a Christian-conservative policy research and advocacy group.

Even the Washington Post was stirred to write a long article about claims the SPLC painted with too broad a brush and unfairly tarred organizations with the “hate group” label, asking whether advocates like the FRC, or proponents of less immigration like the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or conservative legal stalwarts like the Alliance Defending Freedom, really have so much in common with neo-Nazis and the Klan that they belong in the same bucket of shame.” The SPLC listed Ben Carson as an extremist. It labeled anti-Islamism groups “anti-Islam.” Organizations on the SPLC’s hate group list said that members’ decades-old quotes were taken out of context to portray them as extremist and dangerous. Despite all of these complaints and sketchy accusations, a lot of other institutions and media organizations treated labels from the SPLC with as much authority as if they were handed down on stone tablets by Moses.

And now, it turns out that the SPLC might have some discrimination problems of its own:

The Southern Poverty Law Center has fired its famed co-founder, Morris Dees, over unspecified misconduct, the nonprofit announced Thursday, a stunning development at an organization that became a bedrock of anti-extremism research and activism under nearly half a century of Dees’ leadership.

The Times has also learned that the organization, whose leadership is predominantly white, has been wrestling with complaints of workplace mistreatment of women and people of color. It was not immediately clear whether those issues were connected to the firing of Dees, who is 82.

Also Thursday, employees sent correspondence to management demanding reforms, expressing concerns about the resignation last week of a highly respected black attorney at the organization and criticizing the organization’s work culture.

A letter signed by about two dozen employees — and sent to management and the board of directors before news broke of Dees’ firing — said they were concerned that internal “allegations of mistreatment, sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and racism threaten the moral authority of this organization and our integrity along with it.”

In light of this controversy, does anyone at the Southern Poverty Leadership Center now think that maybe some accusations of racism or discrimination might be a little more complicated than they first appeared? Does anybody over there now grasp why you might want to be wary about accusations without proof?

ADDENDUM: If you’re not listening to The Editors podcast, you’re missing a lot. Where else are you going to hear Charlie Cooke and Michael Brendan Dougherty arguing about breaking up Big Tech? (National Review editors disagree a lot and debate each other a lot; the assertion that conservatives march in lockstep like drones is a sure sign that the speaker doesn’t know what he’s talking about.)

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