The 1992 movie Singles is a Gen-X touchstone. In it, the character of Steve (played by Campbell Scott) approaches Linda (Kyra Sedgwick) at a loud, crowded bar. Steve tells Linda he would like to talk to her, but he doesn’t “have an act.” Linda responds that not only does he have an act, she tells him “not having an act is your act.”
In last week’s Vanity Fair launch profile of Beto O’Rourke, readers were told that the Generation X wunderkind lives by the code of realness ascribed to members of his generation.
“Beto O’Rourke is quintessentially Generation X, weaned on Star Wars and punk rock and priding himself on authenticity over showmanship and a healthy skepticism of the mainstream,” Vanity Fair’s Joe Hagan explained.
In Hagan’s piece we learn, for instance, that every speech O’Rourke gives is, for him, a “mystical experience.” Beto doesn’t prepare speeches, he says. Instead, he is simply filled by them.
“Every word was pulled out of me,” O’Rourke tells Hagan. “Like, by some greater force, which was just the people there. Everything that I said, I was, like, watching myself, being like, How am I saying this stuff? Where is this coming from?”
In short, not having an act is O’Rourke’s act.
Beto O’Rourke is an Ivy League educated millionaire who was recently friendly with a (gasp!) Republican colleague, worried about government spending, and was supported by local business interests. He is a radically-authentic progressive icon who is so real that he Instagrammed his last visit to the dentist.
He’s a former congressman, but before that he was the guy in college who would tell girls that his favorite book is “The Odyssey.” And before that belonged to a “hacktivist” group and his username was “Psychedelic Warlord.”
Beto is the Irish guy with the Latino nickname (which probably didn’t hurt his cause while seeking votes in his heavily Hispanic congressional district). His most notable accomplishment is having spent $80 million to lose a Senate election to Democratic arch-enemy Ted Cruz.
And the truth is that his intense, aggressive speaking style might be electric and inspiring or might make you feel as though you just agreed to invest in Entertainment 720.
O’Rourke has even had trouble running a unique campaign. During the Vanity Fair interview, he eagerly mentioned his pre-candidacy meeting with Barack Obama, as if a mere discussion suggested some sort of endorsement.
And yet the former three-term congressman is attempting to claim the Obama persona as his own. His optimistic rhetorical style is straight out of Hope & Change, Inc. This week, the Onion ran the headline “Beto O’Rourke Announces He’s Starting Obama Cover Campaign.”
Ultimately, O’Rourke’s act will probably grow thin with Democrats, who have heretofore been unable to pin him down on many policy positions. Sure, he wants to ban “assault weapons” and impeach President Donald Trump. (Which he has no power to do, because he isn’t in Congress anymore.) But O’Rourke is also likely to find himself in a sour spot since he’s also described himself as a “capitalist” and hasn’t fully embraced the Green New Deal or Medicare for All.
For many voters on the left, support for these unrealistic programs are the true test of authenticity. Yet O’Rourke has only expressed a deep-seated conviction that he should be allowed to tell you what he thinks about these programs later.
The two greatest cultural phenomena Generation X ever produced were Winona Ryder and a healthy skepticism of symbolic, over-heated political movements.
If Beto’s fellow Gen-Xers are supposed to fall for his act, he’s going to have to do better.