Sunday, August 14, 2022

Notes on a Texas Sojourn

Last week I went down to Amarillo, Texas, to visit an old friend. Beyond having a good time, I also took the time to take the political temperature. My trip coincided with news revealing why authorities searched Mar-a-Lago, as well as a deranged Trumper attacking an FBI building. 

I knew from talking to my friend that I was in a very conservative corner of a very conservative state. (I spent three years in East Texas, so I have some lived experience with Texas politics.) Therefore, what I saw surprised me a little. We took many walks around various neighborhoods, and during that time I noticed a few Beto signs. I never saw a single Greg Abbott sign. 

I am well aware that this doesn't say much about the election's probable outcome. Abbott will win handily in Amarillo. He got 71% of the vote in PotterCounty in 2018, and 81% in Randall County. (Amarillo straddles the county line.) However, the signage I saw in Amarillo points to a certain political mood. 

I did see expressions of conservative political sentiment, but they were mostly few and on the extreme end. For example, while driving by a strip mall I saw a tricked-out pickup truck parked to be a sign that had "Murder all Molesters" painted on it. (I assumed this was some kind of QAnon thing.) At the local minor league baseball game a guy was sitting in front of me wearing camo shorts and a "Let's Go Brandon" shirt with lots of firearms on it. I saw two political billboards, one promoting House Republican representative Ronnie Jackson, the other for failed radical conservative gubernatorial candidate Don Huffines.  

My theory about all of this is that the most extreme conservatives feel very motivated, but normie conservatives are ambivalent. I am sure they will come vote in November and give Abbott another four years as governor, but more out of obligation than conviction. The January 6 hearings and the FBI search of Trump's home have undermined his support among the kind of Republicans who voted for him with reservations back in 2016. Once taking the presidency, Trump won enthusiasm from those voters by effectively hurting the people they wanted to hurt. Now that he's out of office, it's easier for the old doubts to come through.

I also wonder if the repeal of Roe has anything to do with this. Texas now has draconian abortion laws, laws which I would bet would be defeated if they were put up for a referendum in the state. While walking downtown I noticed flyers for a past abortion rights rally. (A crisis pregnancy center advertised at the baseball game, though.) This surprised me, considering my assumptions about the city's conservatism. My friend also told me about the city's well-attended Pride event, and took me to a curiosity store carrying a whole rack of 'zines, including one called "Queer Werewolves Defeat Capitalism." Even in the extremely conservative Texas Panhandle there seemed to be a strong and vibrant community of people challenging the dominant politics and culture.

Of course, these are merely anecdotal impressions, but they add up well with other experiences I have had in recent weeks.  While radical conservative politicians have been calling for "war" in response to the FBI search, less extreme conservatives have disengaged. The reality of the new abortion laws has also exposed the reality of the radical conservative agenda writ large. It was easy to support when it was immigrants getting smacked around by the state, it's different when it's you or people you care about getting a taste.

Back in 2016, I thought that the Republican Party establishment reluctantly supported Trump because they knew they were unpopular and needed him to win the White House. They made a blood pact with each other: Trump would push their priorities, they would shield him from legal prosecution. Trump's success in meeting the demands of the Republican base allowed him to become a metonym for the party itself. Up until now, I assumed this relationship was permanent. If Republicans would defend Trump's attempt to steal the election, what could possibly cause them to turn on him? The last tumultuous week has tested the blood pact. The politicians have stayed loyal, but many of the voters seem to be withdrawing their enthusiasm. Time will tell if this is just another blip, like McConnell's immediate response to 1/6, or a long-awaited chink in the Republican Party's commitment to Trump. Up until now I didn't think such a thing was even possible, but I also know the folly of assuming the status quo will be permanent.

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