What Texas May Tell Us About the Future of American Politics

A conversation with the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Lawrence Wright about the Lone Star state at a crossroads

Credit: Tommaso Boddi/Getty

For a brief period in the summer of 2016, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were polling about even in Texas. Few actually believed Clinton would be able to carry the state come November, but she was spending money there, and many began to wonder if one of the reddest states in America had the potential to turn purple, or even blue, at some point in the future. Texas' cities are among the fastest growing in America, its Hispanic population is increasing and the state’s hardline social conservatives aren’t getting any younger. A liberal future is not inconceivable. According to Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Lawrence Wright, it's inevitable.

The political past, present and future of the Lone Star State is a topic thoroughly explored in Wright’s new book, God Save Texas. In it, the longtime Austin resident seeks to dispel preconceived notions about the state in which he’s lived most of his life – chief among them that it is an impregnable conservative stronghold. If the state does eventually turn blue, it’s almost certainly going to bring the rest of the country along for the ride. As Wright's 2017 New Yorker article that inspired the book was titled, "America's Future Is Texas."

Rolling Stone spoke with Wright – who had recently returned to Austin from a promotional tour in England – about Texas' political future, its obsession with guns and the emergence of perhaps its most compelling political figure in ages.

The book deals a lot with popular conceptions of Texas. Did you come across anything while putting it together that led you to change your own perception of the state? 
I knew that Austin was "the blueberry in the tomato soup" and that sort of thing. But the truth is that all of the cities in Texas are blue. When I grew up in Dallas it was rabidly right-wing. They went for Obama both times. They elected Lupe Valdez sheriff. We used to look down on Houston. That was our perch in Dallas. Houston is now considered the most diverse city in America and, by some measures, has the highest standard of living. The cities counter not only the stereotypes outsiders have of Texas, but my own view of it has changed a lot by looking more deeply into the nature of our state.

I just spoke with [Houston Police Chief] Art Acevedo and he and [Mayor] Sylvester Turner really seem to be pushing the city in a progressive direction. 
There are some real great leaders in that town. Art used to be the police chief here in Austin. I'm sorry we lost him. Houston gives him a bigger palate to work with. He's a very charismatic and caring leader, beyond what you would expect in a police chief.

You mentioned Lupe Valdez. She’s a Hispanic lesbian and just won the runoff for the Democratic nomination for governor— 
In the lowest turnout for the Democratic primary in 100 years.

That’s exactly the statistic I was about to bring up. 
In general, Texas is always at the very bottom or right next to it in terms of voter turnout. When you start looking at who does not vote in Texas, people always label the Hispanics as being the non-voters. It's true that Hispanics vote at a much lower rate, but if you take the question of ethnicity out of it, the people who don't vote are the young, the poor and the poorly educated. Hispanics fill a lot of those slots. I think what has been the problem with motivating Hispanic voters in Texas – who comprise 40 percent of the state's population, just like California, where they do vote – is the absence of charismatic candidates who speak to the condition that the Hispanic voters in Texas face.

We have a lesbian Latina from Dallas who might be able to garner some of that Hispanic vote, but it's a problematic candidacy. She's proved to be a weak candidate, who has a lot of trouble with the issues in the campaign. Our governor, Greg Abbott, is just having sport with her. There's one candidate on the ticket, Beto O'Rourke, who's really running a remarkable campaign, but it's all him. The party is too weak to add any strength to the race, and there's nobody else on the ticket that brings him a tremendous amount of support.

What would it mean for Texas politics if O'Rourke is able to beat Ted Cruz in November? 
I think Beto is the most talented new political figure on the scene in my memory, and he'll be a factor in state politics for some time regardless of if he wins. If he does get elected, he'd be a lion slayer. But it's all him. People aren't giving to the party because of Beto, they're giving to Beto. The state demographically is ready to turn purple or even blue if appealing candidates come along, but the party itself is not going to be much of a factor in making that happen. They haven't been able to recruit attractive candidates, or fund them. The Republican party has been doing that for years in this state.

I met him a couple of weeks ago in a green room of Fox television in Dallas at 7:00 in the morning. I was out promoting my book and we were chatting a little bit. He was interviewed first and I was standing beside the cameraman. The anchor went over to interview him and said, “Wow, you're really handsome, and you’re really tall, and you're really charismatic.” I don't recall that Beto had even said anything up to that point. This was a Fox anchor in Dallas. I thought that maybe there was more to this candidate than I gave him credit for.

Say you had to bet your life on it: Is he going to win? 
I think he could win. There’s a level of enthusiasm for him. He is running against a candidate who is not extremely popular, but who does have a constituency. They're not as devoted to him as Beto's followers are, and if it's a narrow race, as it seems right now to be, then enthusiasm is going to make a difference.

Texas has been in the news for an unfortunate reason, the shooting that left 10 dead at Santa Fe High School. A distressing number of mass shooting seem to occur in Texas, including the first one, at the University of Texas clock tower back in 1966. Outside of the state's size, is there anything you attribute this to? 
Texas gets a lot more attention for its guns than it probably deserves. Every western state except for California has very lenient gun laws. Texas has become more lenient in the last few years, and it's interesting that California and Texas have about the same murder rate. In effect, it hasn't made a tremendous amount of difference. Gun laws haven't helped California or hurt Texas that much. Texas gun laws are now much more liberal, but they're not as open-handed as Vermont, for instance, which has constitutional carry, meaning anybody can carry a gun. Bernie Sanders was notably quiet about guns in the presidential race.

On the other hand, there's this adolescent adoration of weaponry by our political leaders, who seem to try to make a point of going out to shooting ranges and showing off their marksmanship – or like Ted Cruz, cooking bacon around the barrel of a semi-automatic. It's puerile. It also fosters this idea that somebody is going to take away their guns. That's not going to happen, but stirring up that kind of fear is what these political leaders are doing, and it's a terrible disservice for the state. The governor just held a three-day roundtable on school violence. I'm sure some sensible things were proposed, like having more counselors and getting students themselves more involved. But I don't think you're going to see anything coming out about universal background checks or raising the age limit to being able to acquire a weapon. Those things would make a real difference.

You’ve studied and written about terrorism for a long time. Do you see any correlation between this recent rash of domestic terrorism and the foreign terrorism we associate with 9/11?
I do think that terrorism, whether foreign or domestic, has similar roots. One of the frustrations in studying terrorism is that there's no single cause of it. You look at all the things that you think are related to terrorism, and things that are tangentially related to terrorism like poverty, poor education, gender apartheid, lack of employment, tyranny. There's a whole long list of probably causes, but if you isolate each one of them they don't show that much of a correlation with terrorism. I link them all together with despair. I see them as being all tributaries in this river of despair, which flows through the Muslim world, but also flows through all societies, including our own. Young and disempowered men, for the most part, who feel ignored and despairing and futureless, and who are not very different from those young men going into Al Qaeda or ISIS. They like the idea of getting their name in the history books, even though it doesn't really last for more a few days.

It seems like most of Texas politics revolves almost exclusively around guns and other social issues. How did it get so bad? At what point did things shift away from economic conservatism? 
I think [Dan] Patrick getting elected lieutenant governor was a big turning point. When he first got elected to the state senate people saw him as a crank and a shock jock from Houston. He was those things, but he is a very talented politician and I certainly give him credit for that. The tremendous amount of support that he's been able to drum up in the Tea Party and with the evangelicals marked a change and pulled the Republican party away from its traditional business conservative days and into the social activist net. Business conservatives had been in power in Texas for such a long time that their agenda has now been pretty much fully enacted. What remained on the conservative calendar were the social issues. They're divisive and only endorsed by a minority of Texans, and yet these are the people who have been able to seize power. Not enough power, for instance, to pass the bathroom bill, but very restrictive social legislation has been passed.

What I think will be a very divisive element is the amendment that added the "show me your papers" provision, which stigmatizes 40 percent of the population. The 40 percent who would be asked to show their papers are the Hispanic citizens of the state. By antagonizing that minority, as well as gay and transgender Texans, it alienates not just that population, but young people who have really moved past all that. In a state convention of the Republican party recently they refused to allow a booth for the Log Cabin Republicans, the gay Republicans. It's just transparent intolerance. A party that represents that just doesn't have a future in the state.

To what extent are these far right leaders aware that the tide is changing? Is there a sense that they're cramming all this stuff through now because they see the writing on the wall, or are they delusional about the future of the state? 
The Republican party in Texas right now is really the white people's party. When you're talking about identity politics you're mainly talking about Democrats, but the Republicans are just as much an identity party as the Democrats. It's a shrinking pool of older voters. In the primary in March, Republican voters over 70 outnumbered Republican voters under 50. It's a retreating minority that is trying to defend its interests and consolidate as much power as they can in the face of what is inevitable change. It's a losing strategy. What Dan Patrick has said before, and what I think is an accurate observation, is that if Texas goes blue, there's no way the Republicans can recapture the White House for the foreseeable future. There's no mathematical formula I can envision where California, New York, Texas and probably Florida go blue [and a Republican presidential candidate still wins].

How optimistic are you really that this is going to happen? You kind of take on a defeatist tone when you talk and write about the future of Texas, and the book's title implies that it's going to take a miracle for the state to right itself. 
I think it's inevitable that Texas will turn blue. Right now the demographics of the state are far more progressive than you would guess from the state's elected representatives, who are far more conservative than the people themselves. The cities are the growth centers and they're blue. The suburbs are growing incredibly fast. The smaller cities are growing. These are places that have been quite red for a long time, but immigrants come with different traditions. It happened in the '50s and '60s when immigrants like my own family moved into Texas. My dad was an Eisenhower Republican and Dallas was the first of the cities in Texas to turn red. Now, in all those suburbs and smaller cities, immigrants are dis-aggregating that redness. That is another indication the state is going to turn, inevitably.

But what it takes is compelling, charismatic, visionary candidates. They could use a strong and imaginative party structure to help them. Not just Democrats, but Republicans as well. The Tea Party has been running away with the Republican party. I really count them as two different parties. In this recent primary and especially in the runoff, the empowered Texans candidates, the far right Tea Party, the social conservatives, did very poorly. The Joe Strauss-backed business oriented conservatives did well. So I think there's some hope in that. If the Republican party can right the boat a little and not be so tipped over in the social direction, and if the Democratic party can regain some footing in the state, then Texas has a good chance to turn purple, and then eventually blue. What I'd like for it to be is in that bipartisan middle level, where most people feel like their voices have been heard and considered.

In the book you compare the isolationism, militarism and corporate fascism of Dallas before JFK to what's going on in America today. You do this right after explaining how the Kennedy assassination was ultimately a good thing for Dallas because of the humbling effect it had on the city. Do you think it's going to take some sort of cataclysmic event to save America? Could we be living through that event now? 
I didn't ever expect that Trump would be elected, so I've proved to be a poor prognosticator. I think people all across the spectrum have been aroused to try to get their voices heard. One of the dismaying things is what some of those voices are saying. I do think that Trump is a disruptive figure in our history. Even absent catastrophic war or depression, there is for a long time going to be a Before Trump and After Trump. People need to be preparing for what they want After Trump to look like. Just as in Texas where there is an enfeebled Democratic party – or any kind of opposition at all – that's true nationally as well. Texas is a microcosm of the political scene in the United States in that the entire government is totally controlled by Republicans.

There is going to be an accounting, especially nationally, for the results of that kind of monopoly of power. Right now, in some ways, the Republicans are benefiting. The economy is doing great. Unemployment is almost historically low. The stock market is doing very well. Trump may wind up with the Nobel Peace Prize. We may be watching a historic moment in a way that most people don't expect. On the other hand, the worst fears that many people have about this administration could come true. Both of these things are lively possibilities. The one lesson Americans should take away from this last presidential election is that you never can tell how things are going to turn out.