Fear and Loathing in the Lone Star State

When asked by Law & Liberty if I would be interested in reviewing Lawrence Wright’s new book, God Save Texas, I had mixed feelings. I greatly enjoyed two of Wright’s previous books, The Looming Tower (2006) and Going Clear (2013), both deeply-researched and impressively-reported works of nonfiction. Wright’s journalism also inspired the acclaimed documentary Three Identical Strangers (2018), which fascinated me. Wright is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and longtime staff writer for The New Yorker, who happens to live in Austin, Texas (as I do), the state capital and the home of the flagship campus of the University of Texas.  Wright is unquestionably a talented writer knowledgeable about his (and my) adopted state.

At the same time, I was aware that Wright is a liberal Democrat deeply disenchanted with the state’s political orientation in recent decades. Wright’s latest book, subtitled A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State, consists of an extended (and self-referential) meditation on the history, culture, and politics of Texas. It is also a literary memoir of sorts, as well as a recycling—somewhat disjointedly and repetitively—of some past Texas-themed articles.

I have grown familiar with the smug contempt with which many Austin progressives regard the state’s conservative elected officials (and, by implication, the “unenlightened” provincial voters who support them). The scorn is reciprocated; former Texas Gov. Rick Perry used to describe Austin as “a blueberry floating in a bowl of tomato soup,” and conservatives in Texas often deride the state capital as “The People’s Republic of Austin.” Texas Monthly, the Austin-based, left-leaning magazine where Wright used to work, has adopted a tone of snide condescension as its official editorial position toward ordinary Texans. Of course, many liberals in Texas reside outside of Austin as well, but dating back to the early 1960s—Billy Lee Brammer’s roman a clef of political intrigue, The Gay Place, was published in 1961—Austin has served as the intellectual nucleus for the state’s progressives. Austin has long aspired to be the Berkeley of Texas, and as Wright himself concedes, Austin “sees itself as standing apart from the vulgar political culture of the rest of Texas, like Rome surrounded by the Goths.”

My instinct, therefore, was that Wright’s latest book would be marred by this one-sided—and narrowly-parochial—ideological perspective. My trepidation was reinforced by Kevin Williamson’s brutal review of God Save Texas in the Claremont Review of Books, entitled “Austin City Limits.” (Williamson is a native of the Texas Panhandle and a UT alumnus.) Well, it turns out that my instincts were correct. God Save Texas, although undeniably well-written, is full of sanctimonious disdain for the Lone Star State—save music, food, bike riding, wildflowers, bird-watching, Big Bend National Park, and Austin itself. Wright acknowledges early on that he “could [not] have lasted in Texas if it were the same place [he] grew up in,” and has considered leaving since re-settling here in 1980, as if the state should be grateful that he deigned to stay. But the changes are not all good, either.

Wright bemoans “ugly” suburban sprawl, endless “cruddy” strip malls, and truck stops (especially the Buc-ee’s chain), as though these things are unique to Texas, and maintains a book-length sneer at the Lone Star State: “Texas has nurtured an immature political culture that has done terrible damage to the state and to the nation”; the 1960 movie The Alamo, starring John Wayne, was “our creation myth”; the Texas Revolution, which led to independence from Mexico in 1836, was marred by the “original sin” of slavery; fracking, which has made the U.S. the world’s leading oil producer, is a “dark bounty”; the state legislature “is slavishly devoted to the oil-and-gas industry”; the state’s boom-and-bust economy is “a civilization built on greed and impermanence”; and the legacy of the Confederacy is “shameful.” Austin liberals forever pine after one-term Governor Ann Richards and the spiteful partisan “humorist” Molly Ivins (both departed); Wright predictably follows suit.

The trite, mean-spirited clichés continue: Wright presumes that racism accounts for the differing fortunes of major league pitchers Nolan Ryan and J.R. Richard, briefly teammates on the Houston Astros; the state’s political leadership “is far more right wing than the general population”; opposition to the climate change agenda is due to “abject submission to the oil and gas industry”; rugged individualism is a “myth”; Wright compares Texas’s lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, whom he openly loathes, to Infowars conspiracy maven Alex Jones, and claims, on purely partisan grounds, that “the Texas Patrick seeks to create is one of exclusion.” Wright falsely maintains that Dallas at the time of JFK’s assassination in 1963 was a city “where there were scarcely any Democrats,” even though the mayor at the time was a Democrat (as were virtually all elected officials in Texas, including the then-governor, John Connally).

Wright continues in this partisan vein, mocking Republican elected officials while blowing kisses to his liberal heroes (nearly all Democratic pols qualify as such). Conservatives are referred to as “ultraconservative” or “right-wing.” Voter ID laws, pro-life legislation, and opposition to same-sex marriage and illegal immigration “fortify the political strength of white evangelicals who feel threatened by rising minorities and changing social mores.” Conservative policies are described as “heartless,” “callous,” and “stiff-necked political philosophy.” Wright compares opponents of sanctuary cities to “a mob of flesh-eating zombies.” The election of Donald Trump “unleashed prejudices.” Declining state funding for public schools may be due to “racism,” he speculates.

Wright reserves his most caustic vitriol, however, for Lt. Gov. Patrick’s advocacy of a bill that would have restricted access to government-operated bathrooms, locker rooms, and shower facilities to those of the designated biological sex, in order to protect the privacy and security of their users (including public school students). The bill, S.B. 6, “embodied the meanness and intolerance that people tend to associate with Texas.”

In contrast, throughout the book Wright treats liberal subjects with kid gloves: a leftist law professor is described as “erudite”; the vulgar LBJ was “the most progressive president since Franklin Roosevelt”; a failed gubernatorial candidate, Wendy Davis, was “a glamorous blonde”; and Wright adoringly recalls Richards, the last Democrat to serve as governor of Texas (whom George W. Bush defeated in 1994) as “the most memorable” governor in his lifetime, who was “incredibly vivid,” with a “blinding pompadour,” a “switchblade sense of humor,” “a wonderful smile,”  “icy blue eyes,” and “the most amazing drawl.” Wright smears Republican officials who were charged or convicted of crimes even when they were ultimately vindicated as the victims of partisan, baseless prosecutions, and then mocks them for appearing on Dancing with the Stars. Wright unfairly demeans Gov. Greg Abbott, a high school track star who was grievously injured—and paralyzed—by a falling tree after he graduated from law school, suggesting that it was hypocritical for Abbott to recover damages from the property owner and, years later, to support civil justice reform.

The only Republican politician Wright depicts in a flattering light is former House Speaker Joe Straus, a political moderate who rose to power with the support of Democratic House members and thereafter used his leadership role consistently to foil conservative policy initiatives. Several chapters read like a self-serving Straus press release, evening the score with his conservative nemeses.  

Wright, who speaks fondly of California, laments that “as a Texan I sometimes bridle at the elite disdain and raw contempt that Californians express toward my state,” but this rings hollow, or at least lacks self-awareness. God Save Texas reeks of “elite disdain” and “raw contempt.” Wright could be describing his own ambivalent sentiments toward the Lone Star State, which he calls a “gringo colossus.” For reasons that seem inexplicable, Wright looks forward to being buried in the Texas state cemetery in Austin, alongside many notable Texans he reviles, as well as 2,000 Confederate soldiers. “Nothing says commitment like a burial plot,” he quips. His initial application to be interred in the state cemetery was rejected by then-Gov. Rick Perry; Wright had to re-apply.

The book ends with an encomium to the Texas Tribune, a progressive political advocacy platform that masquerades as a news organization: “no other state needs it more,” he remarks, never missing a beat. Wright, alas, is still “that pitiable figure” he says he used to be—“a self-hating Texan.” Wright recalls that one of his editors at The New Yorker asked him to “explain Texas,” because he couldn’t understand why Wright lived there. Wright claims that he wrote God Save Texas to answer that question. As a friendly reviewer in Texas Monthly noted, Wright’s book reads like diary entries from “inside a troubled marriage,” leading “a reasonable person to wonder just why it is that Wright has stayed wedded to Texas all these years.”  Readers will scratch their heads in puzzlement, as I did. By trash-talking his home state, Wright only diminishes himself.

Reader Discussion

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on April 22, 2019 at 09:06:00 am

Don't hold back, Mark. Tell us what you really think. :-)
Seriously, though, you've saved me time that I might have spent at least scanning the book.

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Image of David R. Henderson
David R. Henderson
on April 22, 2019 at 12:27:04 pm

Another strange book on Texas that I came across recently at a book sale is Justice William O. Douglas' "Farewell to Texas: a Vanishing Wilderness" about wildlife and the environment in Texas. That a Supreme Court justice, not even a Texan, would write such a book was surprising to me, though given the bizarre things he wrote as a Judge, not much surprises me about him

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Image of CJ Wolfe
CJ Wolfe
on April 22, 2019 at 12:51:35 pm

What Trump seems to have brought into the open is the foaming-at-the-mouth hatred of liberals for us deplorables and for pre-LBJ America.

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Edward Carter
on April 22, 2019 at 13:39:30 pm

I'm disappointed in Wright. He's an insightful writer. His articles on Saudi Arabia alone demonstrate this.
I moved to Texas in 2012 and I love it. Immigrants love it. He could have at least explored why that is. He doesn't seem to understand what is going on under his very nose.

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Image of Michael J. Ard
Michael J. Ard
on April 22, 2019 at 14:33:52 pm

As a native Texan with the deepest family roots there but who has lived most of his life elsewhere, I continue to be amazed at the apparently irremediable desire of both natives and immigrants alike to recreate in Texas the very conditions of other States that led the immigrants to remove themselves from those States to Texas in the first place. That repetition of other States' history in Texas will indeed, as Marx foretold, be tragic.

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Image of QET
on April 22, 2019 at 15:12:08 pm

I suggest that the Great state of texas (as well as others) impose a condition upon all who wish to immigrate into that State. A promise that they will not vote for delusional Democrats.

Hey, Texans HAVE created and NEED to MAINTAIN a SAFE SPACE!

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gargamel rules smurfs
on April 23, 2019 at 11:47:56 am

The results of having a liberal "explain Texas" are much less interesting than having a conservative "explain California"; James Q. Wilson did that in an excellent article back in 1967. It helped that he was actually fair minded!

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CJ Wolfe
on April 23, 2019 at 13:08:08 pm

James Q. Wilson was a treasure.

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Image of Mark Pulliam
Mark Pulliam
on April 24, 2019 at 16:22:34 pm

Speaking as a Texian, I'm happy you like the place. We have always done our best to attract qualified immigrants. Originally we offered cheap land and a debtors' haven (Gone to Texas). Now we have low-cost housing and lots of good jobs. Wright and his critic are two sides of the same coin and equally estimable.

Best of luck. Once you embrace the hot and flat, you have it made.

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Image of Loran Tritter
Loran Tritter
on April 24, 2019 at 16:43:29 pm

"The scorn is reciprocated; former Texas Gov. Rick Perry used to describe Austin as 'a blueberry floating in a bowl of tomato soup,' and conservatives in Texas often deride the state capital as 'The People’s Republic of Austin.' I always felt warning signs should be posted as you enter Austin: "Now Entering A Logic-Free Zone."

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Everett Ross
on April 24, 2019 at 17:39:40 pm

Note to Mr. Pulliam, when you complain that a book unfairly depicts Texas conservatives as narrow and parochial, ranting in a "by G_d anyone attacks Texas I'll rip 'em a new one" way might make some readers think that Mr. Wright has a point. i.e. your rant argues against itself.

Texas has its faults, just like any other place. A fairer review would have acknowledged Mr. Wright's more solid suggestions for how Texas might improve.

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Image of Paul
on April 24, 2019 at 18:39:09 pm

My impression of Texas? Any locality that has allowed Ann Richards, the Bushes, the lawfare we followed over Rick Perry and Tom DeLay (and allowing Tom DeLay, for that matter), the horrific and high handed professional licensing requirements promulgated from that state, the flooding and rebuilding of Dallas at more federal expense, and municipal government run riot to prevail, is no longer a virgin conservative scion of America. I've been there, and think of the place as an extension of irascible farmers from the Plains States, up in arms about raising less wheat and more hell, except that Texas has more oil, more money, more silverfish, and more cockiness. Yet you will hardly ever meet an authentic Texican anymore with a long drawl and Southern charm. Looks more like Elizabeth NJ by the day.

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Image of kalendjay
on April 24, 2019 at 19:23:24 pm

So what?

I imagine that a California or New York based conservative would say many of the same types of things about his home state. It's not a book written for conservatives - it's written for left-leaners and liberals like Wright.

As a born & raised Texan liberal - I take some offense at Austin being characterized as the only place in Texas that has liberals. Beto O'Rourke got 4.05 million votes in 2018. Only 360 thousand of those votes came from Travis county. The entire Austin metro area contributed about 500k of those 4 million.Yes, there is a high concentration of liberals to conservatives there by Texas standards... but we are all over the Great State of Texas.

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Image of Aaron
on April 24, 2019 at 19:58:01 pm

Thanks Mark. Saved me the trouble of bothering with it. Life's too short. And frankly, the state'll improve when Wright is buried in a Texas cemetery, here or anywhere else. I can recommend some plots in California that should suit him.

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Mark Landsbaum
on April 24, 2019 at 20:02:24 pm
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Mark Landsbaum
on April 24, 2019 at 20:04:50 pm

Great piece. I enjoyed it. Thank you.

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Petey Kay
on April 24, 2019 at 22:05:12 pm

It is refreshing to see the author describe transplanted Evan Smith’s playground, The Texas Tribune, perfectly. Texas Monthy began its downward spiral under Smith’s leadership or lack of same. Texans need to recognize the TT and author Wright for what they are, hypocritical carpetbaggers.

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Shrader Greg
on April 27, 2019 at 07:55:56 am

What are you, a liberal or something?-Texas #MAGA

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Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.