I’ll admit that a couple of O’Rourke’s Senate campaign speeches and his general charisma flushed me with uncharacteristic feelings of generosity. His “garage band” style of campaign against Cruz, in which he rejected corporate money, avoided negative attacks and refused to employ pollsters or consultants, as my colleague Tim Alberta put it, impressed me as genuine. His willingness to defend the kneeling NFL players counted for something, too. It wasn’t until I read transcripts of his speeches in which he made incessant references to trusting one another, listening to one another and working together that I started to doubt his rhetorical radiance. Like most pop lyrics divorced from the music, O’Rourke’s speeches—given in that weirdly hypnotic poetry-reading voice—die when read on the page. His words inspire best when performed, a similarity he shares with Donald Trump—and with Barack Obama, whose hope and change platitudes filled the 2008 campaign skies with rainbows.
Like your garden-variety demagogue, O’Rourke projects himself as one of the masses who seeks only to do their bidding. Top-heavy with the words “we” and “us,” his speeches make constant common cause with his listeners. But it’s hard to imagine him channeling demagogic rage into the connection he has crafted. Nor could anyone envisage O’Rourke violating societal norms in pursuit of power or accusing his foes of imagined crimes or shouting vulgarities. A deliberate gentleman, he rarely took off the gloves against Cruz. When asked at a debate what he admired about Cruz, O’Rourke cited his opponent’s “sacrifice” and “public service.” Cruz sent dittos back to O’Rourke, but proceeded to compare him to Bernie Sanders, saying O’Rourke believes “in expanding government and higher taxes.” O’Rourke’s meek counter shot was, “True to form.”