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When You Grow Up to Become the Suit You Always Hated

Beto O'Rourke may skateboard and dig a couple of old punk bands. It's still not proof that he's going to solve anything

Beto O’Rourke’s teen angst (sort of) has a body count.

The punk who would be president was in a hacktivist group in the 1990s called the Cult of the Dead Cow. He wrote screeds online from 1987 to 1989 under the name Psychedelic Warlord. Some of them, to his embarrassment, still exist online. In one, he imagines a society without class or money (how to achieve this? Anarchy!). In another, he writes about a dream in which he mows down children. But he reserves his strongest vitriol for poseurs — specifically, the women who only want to fuck guys in bands who sound like the Sex Pistols or act like Sid Vicious. In rants that read an awful lot like a modern-day incel forum, Beto calls those traitors “Ultra Trendies.” To get rid of the Ultra Trendies, he suggests telling people they have AIDS and telling women they are ugly without makeup. To add insult to injury, he suggests everyone become a punk rock dictator and force them all to them listen to real punk bands such as Government Issue and Youth Brigade.

O’Rourke admitted recently that he now finds his teen self’s misogynist musings mortifying. But if we went back and found angry hacker teen Beto, he’d probably tell us he finds present-day politician Beto, the lanky suit who’s better known for standing on countertops than standing for actual policy ideas, even more embarrassing. Is there anything less punk rock than being a centrist politician?

Beto attempts to make his punk rock bona fides work for him. He skateboards, though not very well. He tells Vanity Fair about punk godfather Ian MacKaye, frontman of Minor Threat and Fugazi and founder of Dischord Records. MacKaye was notable for insisting on keeping all shows all-ages and cheap, and helping to spark a male-feminist streak in punk rock when he railed against sexual assault at concerts. “I have so much reverence for him and he means so much to me in my life,” O’Rourke told Vanity Fair about MacKaye. “He really did represent this super-ethical way, not just of being in a band, or running a label, or putting on shows, but of just living.” “He really gives a fuck,” said his old bandmate Cedric Bixler-Zavala, who went on to play in Mars Volta and At the Drive-In. “I truly believe Beto to be the answer.”

It’s all a grasp at youthful authenticity. “Beto’s constant references to punk serve a simple purpose, aside from gift-wrapping political reporters and feature writers a narrative,” writes former punk bandmember Paul Blest at Splinter. “It’s supposed to show that O’Rourke can connect with the grassroots and move people to completely buy in to his campaign.”

But are we really to believe that Beto might run the country like MacKaye ran Dischord — with hardcore ethics, a low cover for entry into America, room for women and minorities and a chill-ass approach to, well, everything?

Given that Beto’s voting record is fairly conservative, even more so than about three quarters of Democrats, probably not. For someone so “radical,” he’s more image than action so far. While MacKaye’s brand of punk focused on people outside the margins, Beto’s strategy — “I’m not big on labels. I’m for everyone” — sounds more like this:

And it’s increasingly unclear what President O’Rourke would actually, well, do.

Blest writes:

He’s already flip-flopping on a key issue that would make access to healthcare easier for pretty much everyone (which doesn’t bode well for the vague support he’s given to the Green New Deal) … [It] raises questions about how serious he is about challenging the status quo in American politics.

Beto has gone on to completely embrace an on-the-grid lifestyle, getting married, having three kids, entering politics, chilling out, and here he is, running for president, raising millions of dollars. He recently agreed to stop saying “fuck.” Punk rock, indeed. And that’s fine! That’s normal. The Vanity Fair profile paints a portrait of a man who moves on from youthful idealism to figure out how to fit into the world however he can while still retaining the most of whoever he once was. That’s pretty common for most people, even punks, and that’s nothing to sneer at on its face. It’s just not very punk, and it’s unclear why we seem to need to so badly to call it punk. Hell, read this roundup of how former punks have dealt with fatherhood, from 2011 documentary The Other F Word. Punk dads chill out, stop touring and even attend some father-daughter dances.

Punk is a young person’s game. The movement, defined by nihilistic rage and disaffected marginalization, does not usually find its climax in legit politics, but rather by its adherents getting on with the world as it is. (Satirical punk site the Hard Times recently joked, “Punk Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Novel Somehow Always Ends in 9-to-5 Office Job.”) Anarchy is cool and all until you figure out that the government is good for some things, like paved roads and getting your mail.

There’s nothing punk about politics, unless you’re actively disrupting a toxic system — and the jury’s still out on Beto. Politicians consciously choose a profession that demands a cartoonish level of contortion that contradicts any devotion to a singular, rant-able idea as punk demands. That’s how it goes. So it’s not that Beto O’Rourke can’t make a perfectly successful go of it in politics. It’s that we shouldn’t cling to the fact that he likes a couple of old punk bands as proof that he’s going to solve anything.

That doesn’t make Beto a bad guy, per se, it just makes him more like those Ultra Trendies than he realized: Like most people, he figured out how to fit into society just fine after all, by leaving pretty much everything about the punk ethos behind a long time ago, except the bands and the T-shirts.

Welcome to the rest of the world, you poseur.