The entire dilemma faced by the national Republican Party – all of it, top to bottom, start to finish – can be explained through the prism of one small news item: Former Texas Governor Rick Perry will appear on the upcoming season of the television show Dancing with the Stars.
The GOP’s real problem, the thing that has the Bushes on the bench and Trump at quarterback, is the conflict between conservatism and class. Guess which one Perry has.
For decades, at least since Lee Atwater went to work for Reagan in 1984, the old WASP establishment that owned the party has actively recruited the conservative lower classes (lower than themselves) to swell Republican ranks at the polls. But they also sneered at them, because … well, you know. Aristocrats don't know when they are sneering.
The conservative lower classes were not quick students. It took a third of a century for them to figure out that those were not smiles they saw on the faces of the WASPs, exactly. But now the snobby aristocrats have been tossed out of Republican Downton Abbey, and the chauffeurs – people like Trump and Perry – have taken over the joint.
Couldn’t happen to a nicer crowd, and let me say at the top that I personally identify more with Perry and Trump than the Bushes. I even kind of like Perry sometimes when I’m really tired, precisely because of his lack of class.
I don’t happen to share any of Perry’s ultra-conservative political values. Well, and maybe a few other things. For example, a very important element in Perry’s shooting-star arc as a Republican was how good-looking he was as a young man and well into middle age.
Let me tell you. I saw it in action. When Perry was still in his early 40s, any woman under 80 could get whiplash just watching him walk into an office. And then get whiplash again when he walked out. Literally.
In 1990 when he ran for his first statewide office as Texas agriculture commissioner, Perry came to see us on the editorial board of the Dallas Times Herald, a daily that no longer exists. After the interview I followed him out of the conference room and through the open area where all the executive assistants, all young women, sat in a line of desks in front of their bosses’ glass-walled offices. As soon as Perry was out the front door, the women all motioned me over to them with arm waves like Navy semaphore.
“What?” I asked.
“Who was that man?” they asked, in unison like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
“Some guy named Rick Perry, running for ag commissioner,” I said. “Not gonna win.”
Silence. Staring at the door like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Finally one of them said, “Well, I don’t know what an ag commissioner is, but I would vote for that man for anything.”
And they did. And he won, not the first time I got it wrong on Perry politically.
Make a long story short, the Bushes picked him up when George W. ran for governor in 1995. In a youthful run for Congress in West Texas 17 years earlier, Bush had gotten himself whipped good by Kent Hance, who had outed him as a New England WASP preppy, which, frankly, was kind of like outing a Frenchman as a known oenophile. Anyway, Bush famously swore he would never be out-Texaned again.
By sticking Perry on the ticket in 1995 as a candidate for lieutenant governor, the Bushes hoped some of Perry’s jen-you-wine hick would rub off on George W. and maybe it did, kinda sorta. The really, really good-looking thing didn’t hurt the ticket, either.
The point is that Perry’s cowboy swagger, which was real, always rubbed the WASPs the wrong way, because it was real. Perry was tolerated by the WASPS, never embraced, for the obvious reason. He wasn’t of their ilk.
That’s just how ilks are. It’s in the nature of ilks to be uncomfortable with the interloper, the hungry cuckoo in the nest. He might be a great guy to drink and shoot with, but what if he wanted to date your sister?
And to be a little bit fair (the most I can manage), it wasn’t all mere snobbery. In fact it wasn’t only WASPs who got the heeby-jeebies about Perry sometimes. His Seven Point Plan for reforming the state’s top universities put the fear of God in the Chamber of Commerce types, too, because it sounded like a resuscitation of ancient hoary rural purges of all them pointy-headed perfessers down at the college.
Perry’s ideas there may have been misinterpreted. Keven Carey, a think tank person in Washington, wrote a piece for The Atlantic in 2011 saying the Perry plan to put more emphasis on teaching and less on research was student-friendly and ought to be embraced by liberals. It was not.
Nor was it embraced by the Bush Republicans, who believed they had rebuilt the Texas economy after its disastrous collapse in the late 1980s by diversifying it, largely on the back of university-sponsored research. Their inclination was to let the professors do whatever they wanted as long as the Texas startup economy kept cranking.
The sheets finally were torn over that idea, as well as Perry’s ill-fated plan for a trans-Texas transportation corridor and other failed adventures, all of which looked like Perry’s poor attempts to be taken seriously by history. His problem within the party was that the WASPs thought they owned history, and all they wanted out of Perry was for him to look pretty, get votes and do what they told him.
The divorce happened in 2010. The WASPs came to Perry, thanked him for his service and told him they were taking the governor’s mansion away from him and giving it to then U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, who was tired of Washington and deigned to come home to be governor.
That was it for Perry. He finally grew a pair. He signed up with a Rasputin-like pollster from the backwoods of New Hampshire who helped him dive all the way hard right populist. He threatened, for example, to militarily invade Mexico, which, by the way, still makes Trump look like a pussy (footer). And he did to Hutchison at the polls what Kent Hance had done to George W. Bush in 1978 – kicked her ass.
Then I don’t know what happened. In August 2011, Perry shot to the top of the list of GOP presidential contenders. After that, it almost looked like the WASPs had kidnapped him again. Then — and again when he ran in 2016 — he tried to wear perfesser glasses and come across as snooty, which was deeply embarrassing for us all.
Trump, of course, was the one who seemed to get it in 2016, even though he almost certainly never got anything in his life. He just was.
He just was tacky. Trump just was without class. Trump just did resonate with the disrespected non-WASP cannon fodder of the GOP because he was one of them, really, as unmistakably and indelibly as Perry had been a hick, really, until he got those glasses.
Until the glasses, Perry, like Trump, had been metamodern, a personality beyond the realm of invention and strategy. He offered his red-meat followers that one quality they valued above all else, above credentials, knowledge, track record, competence or honesty itself. He offered the quality of being “real.” Like them. And he threw it all away for a pair of glasses.
Tuesday Ken Herman, the metro columnist in The Austin American-Statesman, had a piece in the paper calling Perry a loser and a has-been for going on Dancing with the Stars, saying the name of the show should be changed to “Dancing With People Desperately Trying to Remain Relevant.”
But he buried the lede. Down in the piece, Herman told me something I had never heard about Perry before – that he’s something of a talented drummer and singer. So he’s musical. So he’s got rhythm. So probably he can dance.
Then let me ask this. If the man can dance – and he’s still pretty good-looking for a guy 65 years old – what’s the big reason he shouldn’t go on Dancing with the Stars? What’s wrong with it?
I know what’s wrong with it in some minds. So do you, maybe. But let’s see if we can flesh it out a little by thinking of all the people who would never go on Dancing with the Stars.
Top of my list, John Kerry. Number Two, Jeb Bush. Number Three, William Kristol. I think I’d have to put Laura Bush somewhere on my list. Hillary? I could go on. But if we limit the Never-On-Dancing-With-the-Stars-Even-If-Hell-Freezes-Over list to Republicans only, then we begin to see what a useful rubric it becomes for understanding what has happened to the party.
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This is all about the old WASPy Republican Party, full of its own stiff-spined snobby dignity, versus the people who have taken over the party, for whom the only important thing is being real. You could make a chart.
The Republican Party is neatly divided between people who would never go on Dancing with the Stars even if hell freezes over and those who would rather be on that show than be president.
And here’s the thing. Whose guy is head of the party now? Hmm? If Trump wins, I could see him and his entire cabinet on Dancing with the Stars and all the WASP blue-blooded Republicans against the walls sucking on lemons.
I have to say I’d watch. I think I would really enjoy that show and find a lot of personal vindication in it. Then I would make good my midnight escape to Ukraine.