Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Beto Wants to Be Our First Punk President

Problem is, he's more flimsy 90's nostalgia than authentic Gen X rebellion.
Beto O'Rourke

Beto O’Rourke’s announcement that he’ll seek the 2020 Democratic nomination for president elicited a greater variety of reactions than someone like Beto O’Rourke probably deserved. But then Beto might be one of those moments when the responses are more interesting than what is being responded to. The negative ones have been especially potent: consensus-starved liberals were bewildered and frustrated, ideological purists got sardonic, the opposition checked his privilege. Yet responding to the people who actually like Beto seems like part of the deal, his most ardent constituency being the “blue checks” of Twitter, that ridiculous chimera of Tracy Flick, Biff Tannen, and every suspicious boyfriend from the Scream franchise. The source of their admiration is abstract at best and very, very concrete at worst.

In an ideal world, it would be left at that. Humanity is not wanting in glamorous ciphers. But one corner of Beto’s support gave me pause because I had to take it seriously.

In the weeks leading up to Election Day 2018, former Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon posted a photo of herself on Instagram wearing a T-shirt that read “BETO FOR TEXAS” and letting her 200,000 followers know that “early voting is open!” She did so again on Halloween.

At the time, I found it peculiar that the bicoastal Gordon was lending her cultural weight to a Texas Senate hopeful whom most of the nation had never heard of. But in hindsight, and especially in light of the latest media push in Beto’s favor, the gesture not only makes sense but was prophetic.

Thirty years earlier, Sonic Youth released its landmark album Daydream Nation. Its opening song, the jangly but relentless seven-minute “Teen Age Riot,” depicts an alternate America governed by Dinosaur Jr.’s famously taciturn guitarist J Mascis, whom Gordon’s bandmate and ex-husband Thurston Moore described as “our de facto alternative dream president.” The song is justly revered as one of the great rock anthems of its own or any generation. Its working title was “Rock n’ Roll for President.”

Beto was the bassist of a not very good band, and he seems to do nothing but talk. Yet the specter of his punk cred is one his fans have been trying to conjure up in the hope of giving him greater dimension. His recent Vanity Fair cover feature lays out his admiration for Ian MacKaye, his zine-making, his skateboarding, his rebelling against his dad, his high ideals, and his pursuit of “authenticity.” Beto is thus more than a decent haircut. He “is quintessentially Generation X, weaned on Star Wars and punk rock and priding himself on authenticity over showmanship and a healthy skepticism of the mainstream.” He is a culminating figure; he is the hope and promise of a generation that is supposed to have disclaimed both hope and promise. Beto is poised to become America’s first punk president.

If one were to ask whether the country was ready for this, the answer might be unequivocally no. Punk’s relationship with power is long and complicated. Many are apt to think of Rock ‘N’ Roll High School, the Roger Corman-produced teen film (originally pitched as Disco High), where students rebel against an authoritarian principle and burn down their school with the help of The Ramones. They might also think of the militaristic drug-, sex-, and meat-and-dairy-free straight edge movement.

The most menacing example may be Darby Crash, the Germs frontman who made up for his lack of musical talent with unrivaled personal charisma. “Whatever it is people like that have in them that enables them to attract a following, he had it in him,” Germs guitarist Pat Smear said. “I’m talking about some guy coming from a log cabin and ending up being president of the USA.” Crash was obsessed with fascism, L. Ron Hubbard, and subverting power to establish his own. His fans, known collectively as “Circle One,” implemented “Germ burns,” cigarette burns which could only be transferred by someone who already had one. “Darby Crash completely resocialized me,” F-Word singer Rik L. Rik said. “He taught me to question everything and how to make up my own mind by evaluating reality and drawing my own conclusions. …He did this for everybody he came in contact with. It was a whole retraining program.” Little seemed to stand in Darby’s way save a total lack of work ethic (he never held a job and the Germs never toured) and his dying of a heroin overdose at 22.

Punk always seems to the workaday American as a self-defeating power ideal. And yet, taking it at its core definition of challenging and overturning the status quo, he is not unfamiliar with the concept.

American history has long functioned on a cycle of disruption and stagnation. Every few generations, a new movement, represented by a single leader, arises to break apart a social milieu that had long ossified. Andrew Jackson ushered in both populism and centralized government out of a deep—and personal—hatred of elitist figures like John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun. His veto of the national bank charter was called a “manifesto for anarchy” and started the Panic of 1837. Abraham Lincoln broke the planter elite, ended slavery, imposed a radically egalitarian reading of America’s founding principles, and transformed the country physically, politically, and psychically. And how punk rock is destroying two cities and hundreds of thousands of people to usher in an era of global dominance? One might be tempted to say very.

But the trouble for Beto supporters is less in his being the first punk president than in not knowing whether he will be one at all.

Beto O’Rourke is not so much the punk candidate as he is the ‘90s nostalgia candidate: more Rock the Vote than rock ‘n’ roll. From a marketing perspective, it’s not a bad position, amid shows like Everything Sucks and PEN15, the return of grunge fashion among college students and teens, Bikini Kill’s reunion tour, and the depressingly approaching 25th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death. For many, Beto reminds us of a simpler, more idealistic time, before the internet, when the political situation seemed (relatively) less cynical, the economy more stable, and the cultural weirdness more contained.

The dream of the ‘90s is alive in Beto. But rather than solving his lack of substance problem, it just restates it. America is like Ethan Hawke in First Reformed, and the solution is to elect…Ethan Hawke in Reality Bites?

Chris R. Morgan writes from New Jersey. He has been published in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Lapham’s Quarterly, and The WeekFollow him at his blog and on Twitter @CR_Morgan.