The first characters to appear were pipe players. They wore black berets and red kilts and thick black socks that rose to their knees. There were ten of them, mostly men, with their faces hunkered over their instruments so their chins folded in two. They formed a horseshoe on the stage and played “Amazing Grace,” their bagpipes filling the arena with a melodic bellowing that teetered on dissonance.
Their music competed with the din of voices coming from the delegates that by now were filtering in and scanning the rows of seats for the section assigned to their district. That Texas’ is the country’s largest Republican state convention was a fact asserted often during those days in Fort Worth. Looking around the arena, you’d find no reason to doubt that statement. The attendees — 8,996 delegates, plus alternates — packed the folding chairs pitched on the convention floor and spilled into the tiers of the stadium seating that rose all around. As it would in a baseball game, a camera panned over the audience and displayed their faces on the large screen that hung behind the stage. Nothing about these delegates identified them as such, save their badges and certain articles of clothing: a hat shaped like an elephant, a sundress patterned like the Texas flag, a T-shirt that showed support for Ted Cruz or David Dewhurst.
Eventually the pipe players left the stage. The large screen now showed a timer that counted down to the start of the convention proper. As the numbers dipped below a minute, the spotlights that hung from the ceiling shot beams of purple, yellow, and blue into the crowd below. The fiddle music that played over the speakers grew faster, and as “0:01” became “0:00” the audience erupted into a cheer.
An announcer then told us to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. This being Texas, it was an understood part of the narrative that the pledge to the American flag would be followed by a pledge to the Texan flag, and so after the echo of the first came the words to the sec- ond: “Honor the Texas flag; I pledge allegiance to thee, Texas, one state under God, one and indivisible.”
Why the Republican Party of Texas would gather in Fort Worth, with the party’s nomination already settled and the state’s votes all but already cast, was a question I asked often at the convention. The question was in fact idiotic, but only one delegate called me on it, his answer to the effect of: because it has to.
State conventions are a matter of procedure. The Texas Election Code mandates that, in years of presidential contests, each party holds a state convention to select delegates to the national convention, where these delegates will cast votes for a presidential nominee. In the past, before primaries decided the nominee, the selection of delegates at the state convention might have been an exercise of some consequence, but by the time the 155 delegates from Texas arrived in Tampa for the Republican National Convention in late August, their nomination votes had been predetermined by the primary election in May.
The second purpose of the convention, beyond the selection of delegates, is the drafting of a platform, the outlining of principles, or “planks,” held by the Texas Republican Party. In theory this platform would inform deliberations in the national convention, but reality plays out differently. Consider, for example, that the 2012 platform of the Texas Republican Party contains a plank dedicat- ed to the enforcement of the 2012 platform of the Texas Republican Party. That the document must assert its immediacy suggests, I think, a lack thereof.
In fact the procedural aspects of the state convention — the selection of candidates, the drafting of the platform — are rituals of symbolic value. The entire exercise is meant to set the tone and put forth the narrative that will culminate in November, nothing more. There is no material consequence to any of it, but politics, like literature, is a realm of the symbolic.
The task of setting the tone fell on Steve Munisteri, Chairman of the Texas Republican Party, who came on stage after the bagpipes and the Pledge of Allegiance. The narrative he presented was the siege of that principle dear to the Republican Party: liberty. “Our freedoms are under attack,” he said. The aggressors went by many names: “those on the left”; “the Democratic Party”; “the most left-leaning, socialistic administration in the history of the United States of America.” Munisteri’s speech was a call to arms, a rallying cry meant to coalesce the party against these aggressors. Quoting Ronald Reagan, Munisteri called on delegates to proclaim “in bold colors and not pale pastels that we’re the defenders of liberty … We must come out of this convention unified.”
The boldest colors were not in the arena but in the exhibition hall, a high- ceilinged room in the middle of the convention center with a square footage that must have neared six figures. It housed some 70 booths, the cost of which started at $1,000 and stretched to $6,000. Willing to disburse for a few square feet of exhibition space were activist organizations, such as Texas Right to Life; multiple political campaigns, including David Dewhurst’s and Ted Cruz’s; and assorted vendors, like the Blingy Boutique, the Arizona Cap Company, and the Patri- otic Shop, Inc., which peddled buttons and bumper stickers and everyday items adorned with flags and eagles and elephants. There were earrings shaped like teapots and ice buckets colored red, white, and blue. On sale for $299.95 was a clutch purse bedazzled with the American flag. Regular price: $338.50.
The entire production — the bagpipes, the bedazzled clutch — brought to my mind the 2008 election cycle, when Republicans labeled Barack Obama a showman. The to-be President, they said then, was more flair than substance.
The difference, I was told by a Tea Party activist, was one not of style but of content. “The Obama administration’s lights and P.R. and big glitz were about one man,” she said. “What’s happening here — the lights and the glitter — is about the American people. It’s red, white, and blue. It’s patriotic. It’s about the people and not the man.” The people being, in this case, defenders of liberty.
There were, in the press section, questions as to whether the people in the audience had shouted “boo” or “Cruz” when Rick Perry mentioned Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst. Perry himself later told reporters that the audience had said “Dew,” but this struck me as wishful thinking.
That we were pondering this question was an accident of timing. It so happened that five months before the convention, Kay Bailey Hutchinson announced she would retire at end of her term, ced- ing the senate seat she’d occupied for nearly two decades. It so happened that she chose to do so in 2012, a year when the fissures between grassroots voters and the Republican establishment have grown so large that Tea Party darling Ted Cruz, running in the primary against Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, managed to force a runoff election. And it so happened that this runoff election was scheduled for late July, meaning that the state convention, happening in June, became a battleground for the contest between the two men.
The jeering came after Rick Perry, speaking on the first day of the convention, said there was a need for more “Texas conservatives in Washington,” including “my friend David Dewhurst.” The audience disagreed, loudly. “Texas works,” Perry said twice, trying to sooth their scorn, but the jeering drowned out his next three or four sentences.
Dewhurst himself spoke twice at the convention, once as Lieutenant Gover- nor and again as a senatorial candidate. Well over six feet tall, he is a man of pro- portions that are awkward but fit well on the stage, where the podium was tall enough that he only had to hunch slightly to mouth his words into the mi- crophone. His voice is low and deep and mostly monotone, but occasionally it cracks, and in those moments his words stumble, as though he were bracing against tears. Not until later did I learn that this manner of speaking is a trace of the stuttering he acquired as a child after his father, an Air Force veteran of World War II, was killed by a drunk driver.
It was not too long ago that Dewhurst would have appealed to Texas Republicans. After his father died, his mother took two jobs to keep food on the table. Dewhurst joined the high school debate team to overcome his stutter, and later followed his father’s footsteps into the Air Force as a volunteer in Vietnam. He spent time in Bolivia as a CIA operative before returning to his native Houston, where he made a fortune as an oil-and- gas investor. (The company he founded, Falcon Seaboard, also owned a number of ranches, allowing Dewhurst to moonlight as a cattle raiser and horse rider.) He launched his political career in 1999 as Land Commissioner of Texas, and in 2003 he was sworn in as Lieutenant Governor.
That none of this — neither his childhood nor his career nor his service to his country — deterred delegates from jeering at his name warrants an explanation. Their contempt was not grounded in issues. Dewhurst and his opponent, Ted Cruz, professed identical stances on every topic of import to Texas Republicans: both griped about taxes, both supported tough border controls, and both had pledged to repeal Barack Obama’s healthcare reform. The two men fought their battles not over issues but, as Dewhurst said in a later debate, over “the only thing you can judge: character.”
He meant “character” as a synonym for “repute,” but the literary definition of the word is also apt. When I first saw Cruz at the convention, he was a guest on an online radio show hosted in the exhibition hall. He had a headset wrapped around his face and was explaining why he had rebuffed Dewhurst’s challenge to a debate in Spanish (a language the Lieutenant Governor learned in Bolivia). To understand why Cruz declined this debate, you need to know two things about his character. First: Ted Cruz grew up speaking Spanglish because his father migrated to the United States from Cuba (“with $100 sewn into his underwear,” a detail insisted upon by the campaign), but Cruz never mastered proper Spanish. Second: Ted Cruz was a debating champion at Princeton and, after graduating Harvard Law, was Solicitor General of Texas, arguing cases before the Supreme Court, in English, and winning.
All of this is to say that Cruz refused to debate in Spanish because, though he could embarrass his opponent in English, he stood little chance if the two men were to engage in another language. This, of course, was not the explanation he gave to the radio host. “The voters in Texas speak English, and we need to debate in English,” he said instead. He went on: there’s a reason Dewhurst “made this challenge. In the course of the primary, the Lieutenant Governor … hid from the conservative grassroots voters of Texas, so he desperately wants to have a debate in a language Texans don’t speak.” Cruz then declined, preemptively, debates in French, German, and Swahili.
By “conservative grassroots voters” he meant the Tea Partiers of Texas. That a Harvard-educated lawyer of Cuban descent managed to win the support of these far-right Republicans is a testament to his ability to speak their language, to craft a character suitable to their understanding of the plot. Dewhurst’s inferi- ority in this regard went on full display at the end of the Lieutenant Governor’s first speech, when, trying to rouse the audience, he cried, “Together, we won’t stop fighting until we send Barack Obama back to Chicago.”
Applause burst from the audience, and as it faded someone shouted, “To Kenya.” Dewhurst seemed confused, so others chimed in, repeating the word, enunciating each syllable: “Ken-eea.”
“Oh, Kenya,” Dewhurst said and made to resume his speech, but by then the audience had begun to laugh. Words seemed to have left him. So great was the gap between the Lieutenant Governor and grassroots voters that he failed to adopt a common construction of the Tea Party language: Barack Obama comes from Africa. The best he could muster, when he finally spoke, was, “Wherever he wants to go, that’s fine.”
I don’t mean to imply, by contrast, that Ted Cruz pandered explicitly to birther theories, but he is a former debating champion and Solicitor General of Texas. Such a résumé endows him with a certain set of skills, among these the ability to adapt to an audience, to speak their language, and to present himself as a compelling character. Consider the speech Cruz delivered in late July, after winning the runoff election against Dewhurst: “We’re witnessing a great awakening. Millions of Texans — millions of Americans — are rising up to defend our country and to restore the constitution,” he said. “Together, we will stand up and preserve that shining city on a hill that is the United States of America,” the shining city on a hill, in this narrative, being under siege.
It wasn’t on purpose, I don’t think, that the press section had been blacked out from the convention map. We were on a strip of seats that looked onto the stage from a hard left, so an unusual number of my notes refer to the speakers’ ears: Rick Perry’s, crumpled and folded against his head; Ted Cruz’s, narrow and somewhat elfish; David Dewhurst’s, rounded at the top and anatomically exemplary; and Ron Paul’s, large and protruding far from his skull.
The convention lasted from Thursday to Saturday. Mostly I wandered the exhibition hall, occasionally walking to the Starbucks across the street to use the Internet because Wi-Fi at the convention center cost $99.95 a day. I’d been sent to Fort Worth by a Dallas magazine to write blog posts, which I uploaded when I went home at night, but journalists with deadlines during the day either footed the Wi-Fi bill or used personal USB modems in the media room.
Access to that room was allegedly granted only to those who wore the gray badges issued to the press. In truth, Room 111, “the media room,” lay behind an unmarked door at the end of a seemingly unending hallway, so far removed from the arena and the exhibition hall that access was regulated by sheer isolation. The room was furnished with four or five long tables, one of which offered Goldfish and granola bars. There was an iced tea tub, empty when I checked, and there was no coffee, so every morning I shelled out money at either Starbucks or the convention center’s concession stands, which sold Starbucks coffee at a markup. I visited the media room twice, once to work on a post, and once to steal a bag of Goldfish.
I spent a lot of time interviewing attendees, and mostly the people I met were nice. I mention this because their niceness surprised me. I was, after all, a member of the press, which according to many Republicans is symptomatic of a particular type of idiocy. In the exhibition hall there was a booth promoting “Accuracy in Media,” which sold ironic buttons that read, “Trust me, I’m a reporter.” That the press section had been blacked out and the media room relegated to the far end of the building were probably coincidences, but they didn’t make me feel particularly welcome. And yet the people were nice. As it turns out, the ease with which some Republicans deride the media does not apply when that derision is targeted at someone whose media affiliation is only evident from the gray badge they wear around their neck.
The most poignant manifestation of this phenomenon came after Ron Paul’s speech, when a columnist from San Antonio interviewed Ronald Gjemre, a Paul supporter. Gjemre, who also went by Ronnie Reeferseed, was in his fifties but looked younger, and he wore plaid shorts and a tattered shirt from one of Paul’s congressional campaigns. He’d come in late and installed himself in the press section, holding up a sign that obstructed my view of Paul’s ear, and when a pause came in the speech Gjemre shouted, “I love you.”
It was from him that I first heard the term “presstitute.” During the interview, he told the San Antonio columnist that he believed Paul could still win the nomination in Tampa. When the columnist pressed, Gjemre blamed the media for Paul’s unpopularity, saying they’d stopped reporting on the congressman because they (like Mitt Romney and Barack Obama) were in the pockets of special interests. They were, in one word, presstitutes.
Note I say “they,” which was the pronoun chosen by Gjemre. He was speaking to a journalist, a member of the press, so the second person “you” would have been appropriate, but he chose, instead, the third person plural, “they.” It’s possible he did so to avoid confrontation, but I don’t think that was the case. It was, I think, a case of a discrepancy between the narrative and reality. Gjemre said “they” because neither I, nor the columnist, nor any of the other journalists who now packed their notebooks were, in his eyes, members of the large and abstract collective he called “the media.”
The narrative of siege has become popular within the Texas Republican Party. The enemies are many: the media, socialists, environmentalists, gays, Iranians, feminists, im- migrants, special interests, abortionists, the government. Consider the platform that came out of the convention in Fort Worth: the longest plank, on immigration, weighs in at 389 words and features one of the document’s only three exclamation marks. It comes in the sentence, “The U.S. Border must be secured immediately!” this being crucial to ensure “safety and security for all Americans.”
I find it curious that “immigrants” appears not once among those 389 words. The plank refers, instead, to “the immigration issue” and “undocumented individuals.” I should note that the words are relatively level-headed about these “undocumented individuals,” pronouncing their mass deportation “neither equitable nor practical,” but the plank’s language is emblematic of a practice common in contemporary Republican rhetoric: the tendency to pit party and land against a disembodied collective. When Texas Republicans speak of immigration, immigrants serve a purely grammatical function. They are objects and subjects of sentences, around which come the verbs that call for their deportation, or blame them for joblessness, or complain about their inability to learn English. From these verbs comes meaning. The noun is nothing but a placeholder. When Texas Republicans speak of immigrants — when they speak of any of the many forces that threaten their shining city on a hill — they are talking not about people but about abstract collectives around which coalesce their sentiments. Remember: during those days in Fort Worth, I was not the presstitute; “they” were the presstitutes.
The reverse is also true. The besieged thing in this narrative is no more concrete than the disembodied collec- tive against which it must be defended. When Munisteri speaks of the defenders of liberty, when Cruz speaks of a great awakening, their words lack personal meaning. They conjure a plot in which a unified Republican Party will rise, united, against its enemies, and which fails to acknowledge the fissures between the Tea Party, the establishment, and folks like Gjemre. A consequence of this nar- rative is the illusion that the Republican Party is, in fact, one.
It’s decorum to place the right hand over one’s heart during the Pledge of Allegiance, both to the United States and the state of Texas. I have, in my notes from the first day of the convention, a line about this pledge, which suggests my right hand was not over my heart but holding a pen. It’s also unlikely I ever spoke the words, not because I don’t know them, but because I can’t write and speak at the same time.
The pledge is in fact etched in my memory. Every morning during high school, we took a minute to recite it. I failed to see, at that time, why the words insist on the oneness of the state.