Ever since America elected Donald Trump, Democrats have fantasised about removing him from power. They’ve dreamed of impeaching him; of declaring him insane; of arresting him and parking tanks on the White House lawn. They’ve even thought about assassinating him. If you think that is an exaggeration, look up Kathy Griffin, the feminist comedian, who held up a severed Trump head, Isis-style. She wasn’t joking.
The latest fantasy is more democratic in spirit. It takes the form of Texan congressman Beto O’Rourke, a skinny former punk-rock guitarist who oozes star appeal. Progressive America is going wild for him. Beto is now widely talked about as the man to beat Trump in 2020.
In the midterms, he lost a close Senate race against Ted Cruz in Texas, but nobody seems to hold that against him. American politics revolves around looks and money; Beto looks good and attracts lots of money. For his fight against Cruz, he raised $70 million. This week, he came third in a presidential primary poll among Democratic voters, behind former vice president Joe Biden and senator Bernie Sanders. Biden is 76, Bernie 77, whereas Beto is 46, roughly the same age as Barack Obama when he ran for president.
‘Betomania’ is reminiscent of Obama-mania in the late Noughties; the men have the same initials, too. Like Obama, O’Rourke excels at what Sarah Palin called ‘that hopey-changey stuff’. He’s energetic and positive. He has lots of irritatingly upbeat young fans. Celebrities fell over themselves to endorse him in his midterm race: Beyoncé, LeBron James, Eva Longoria, Ellen DeGeneres and more.
‘He’s Obama, but white,’ said one Democratic operative this week. ‘All the guy would have to do is send out one email to his fundraising base and he raises $30 million… It completely changes the game if Beto runs. And he should run.’
Unlike Obama in 2008, however, the Beto hype of 2018 feels laboured, even needy — a desperate crush for progressives who have lost faith in the democratic progress. Women and gay men compete to express their lust for him, as if he were in a boy band. After Beto posted a video of himself cooking a meal, social media went berserk. ‘Beto O’Rourke is cutting up flank steak over on Instagram in case anyone asks how it is I got pregnant,’ tweeted a man called Evan Ross Katz. Most other responses are too filthy for these pages; all seem contrived.
O’Rourke is more than a bit phoney, too — all hat and no cattle, as Texans say. Take the name Beto. It’s an Hispanic abbreviation of Robert, though O’Rourke is of Irish descent. A Ted Cruz campaign jingle mocked him for it: ‘I remember reading stories, liberal Robert wanted to fit in / So he changed his name to Beto and hid it with a grin.’ A curious irony there: Ted’s real name, Rafael, is Hispanic, but he too wanted to fit in.
Texas may have been deep-red Republican for a long time, but huge Hispanic immigration has helped make the Democrats far more competitive in the state. It’s arguable, then, that O’Rourke didn’t achieve all that much in pushing Cruz so close (he lost 48 per cent to 51), especially considering his enormous campaign funds. Cruz is notoriously unlovable and unloved. ‘If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody would convict you,’ his fellow Republican senator Lindsey Graham once said. Yet Beto couldn’t beat him.
It’s journalists, more than voters, who seem smitten. In the run-up to the midterms, Beto was the subject of hundreds of adoring profile pieces. Most emphasised his man-of-the-people credentials, and skimmed over the more elite details of his background, such as the fact that he’s the son of a judge. He’s also married to the only daughter of a real-estate magnate — a juicy biographical detail that somehow eluded every media outlet until it emerged that he had upset El Paso residents by backing a controversial housing scheme in which his father-in-law was involved.
For all his cool endorsements and skater boy past, Beto is a bit of a dork. In the hours after his defeat on 6 November, he posted a cringe-inducing stream-of-consciousness blog about going for a run in Washington: ‘I passed another runner. He yelled out “Hey Beto!” And I turned around and approached him and we shook hands. He apologetically told me that he was from Massachusetts and said: ‘But thank you for being you.” I said: “That’s OK, we love Massachusetts too!”’ Was this a clever hint to the world that he intends to run in 2020? Perhaps, but it’s more likely he simply wanted to tell the world how charming and fit he is. He’s Bobby Kennedy for gym bunnies — Camelot in Nikes.
Will he run? ‘I will not be a candidate for president in 2020,’ said Beto on 5 November, but presidential candidates always say they aren’t standing until they are — and, with all the clamouring around him, Beto may find it hard to stop himself. Within a year, he could be favourite to win the Democratic nomination and take down Trump.
A more intriguing question is why the Democratic machine seems to be falling for a man who has only been a congressman for five years, and who just lost the only major battle he has fought. The answer might be that his party, like almost all established parties, is in deep crisis. They need a hero; they’ve found a Beto.
The Democrats should be feeling confident. They may not have crippled Trump
in the midterms, but they wounded him. The party won 37 seats in the House, and several governorships. The Democratic contingent in Congress is now more female and ethnically diverse than ever before. Yes, they can, and so on. But the party is increasingly split between its established, centre-left leadership — centre-right by European standards — and a growing left-wing fringe which could give Jeremy Corbyn a run for his tax money.
The Corbynite analogy is apt; the Democratic grassroots are increasingly radical and dismissive of the old hierarchy. The younger Democrats now stand accused of anti-Semitism. ‘Israel has hypnotised the world,’ said Ilhan Omar, the newly elected Somali-American representative from Minnesota. ‘May Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel,’ she added.
The face of the new American left is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the photogenic new congresswoman from New York, who is only 29. She embraces socialism and universal healthcare, and has a huge internet fan base. AOC, as she is known, is urging her fellow radicals to challenge more conservative Democratic incumbents in party primaries, under a new slogan, ‘#OurTime’. This revolt terrifies the Democratic grandees and money men. Hillary Clinton managed to fend off Bernie Sanders’s rebellion in 2016, but the grassroots left has grown only stronger. Now, the Ocasio-Cortez faction, which is widely thought to be way too far to the left of Middle America to win a national election, threatens to tear the party apart.
Beto, by contrast, strikes the party leader-ship as a unifying figure, at once progressive and elite. Like the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, he’s handsome and safe. He ticks all the right lefty boxes — gun control, higher taxes, abortion rights, legalised marijuana. Yet he wouldn’t say anything that might upset the Clinton family or the Davos World Economic Forum. So what if he’s lightweight? The man can run.