Jonah Goldberg: Beto-mania a prime example of cult-of-personality politics
Robert “Beto” O’Rourke’s biggest fans and supporters insist he is a forward-thinking, future-oriented visionary, but no contender for the Democratic nomination feels more familiar than the former three-term congressman from El Paso.
That’s because he has the highest combined score in both deja vu and nostalgia, which are two different things. Deja vu is the unsettling sense that you are repeating a specific experience. Nostalgia is a kind of sentimentality, a homesickness for the past.
Of the other straight white men officially or presumably vying for the nomination, only Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and former Vice President Joe Biden can compete with O’Rourke on these fronts.
There’s a lot of deja vu to the Sanders campaign, because it feels like it never really went away. When he announced for 2020, it was a here-we-go-again moment.
Sanders has been a thorn in the Democratic Party’s side for decades. His success at pulling the party to the socialist left in just a few years is too politically fresh to be a nostalgic appeal.
Meanwhile, there’s a lot of nostalgia to Biden, but not much deja vu, because he’s never run for president when voters actually took him seriously.
Biden conjures memories of several bygone eras. For some, he’s a reminder of the Obama years, when progressives were never more sure history was on their side. For others, he’s an icon of the old days when patronizing old white men were still the face of big-government liberalism.
But in the combined category, O’Rourke wins the nostalgia-deja vu biathlon by a mile.
The constant refrain that he’s this generation’s Robert F. Kennedy is an interesting play on the time-tested effort by Democratic candidates to claim the Kennedy mantle, thought usually it’s John F. Kennedy, not RFK. Then again, it makes sense given that RFK moved left of JFK — and so has the Democratic Party.
There’s also a shared authentic inauthenticity to O’Rourke. Joe Kennedy groomed his boys for the presidency from an early age. O’Rourke’s dad assigned his son the nickname Beto almost from birth, because he thought it would help win votes in El Paso.
Like a 1960s Kennedy, O’Rourke is an old person’s idea of what a young person is supposed to be like, albeit with a Gen X spin: skateboarding, membership in a punk band, etc. Sure, O’Rourke was born the same year that Biden and Sanders first ran for the Senate, as a Democrat and social democrat, respectively. (Biden won.) But that only makes him young compared with those guys.
Then there’s the deja vu. O’Rourke’s candidacy feels like a rerun, and not merely because the media covered his recently concluded Senate race against Ted Cruz as if it were a presidential contest. (A race, it’s worth nothing, that O’Rourke lost despite having raised more money than any Senate candidate ever, and despite the fact that his opponent was wildly unpopular).
No, the real queasy feeling I get from the O’Rourke candidacy is that this feels like the new normal: A charismatic candidate develops a cult of personality, then uses the party apparatus as a platform not for any ideas, but rather to promote a celebrity brand.
Jonah Goldberg is a columnist for the Tribune Content Agency.
Jonah Goldberg is the author of "Suicide of the West."