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Is America Ready for a Fugazi President?

Beto O’Rourke, presidential aspirant and one-time DIY musician, has said that he’s a devotee of legendary punk Ian MacKaye. But how does that ethos fit within American politics in 2019?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

He won’t sit idly by. He’s planning a big surprise. He’s gonna fight for what he wants to be. On Wednesday, Beto O’Rourke announced his 2020 candidacy for president in the most all-American (and least punk rock) way possible: via a Vanity Fair cover story with Denim Jesus photos by Annie Leibovitz and the humbly messianic money quote “I’m just born to do this.” That part wasn’t the big surprise.

Indeed, a Beto presidential run was inevitable from the moment, on election night in November, when he officially lost his upset bid against Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a long-shot crusade that somehow retained an air of triumph even in failure. He is (relatively) young and handsome and inspiring, with a gift for stirring oratory and off-the-cuff viral profundity that for now, at least, helps disguise his (relative) lack of concrete policy ideas amid the increasingly crowded Democratic field. He’s maddeningly vague but charismatic, lightweight but eminently electable. “He has an aura,” is how Vanity Fair’s Joe Hagan puts it. He is, to put it simply, cool. Not Barack Obama cool, of course. But cool in a different, awfully intriguing way. For one thing, Obama never name-dropped Ian MacKaye.

For me, the key moment in Hagan’s epic retelling of Beto’s oft-told origin story starts as follows:

O’Rourke escaped into early computer chat rooms and made two close friends, Arlo Klahr and Mike Stevens. They drew comic books, read underground fanzines, wrote poetry, skateboarded, and, inspired by the Clash, took up guitar and went to local punk-rock shows. They became devotees of the Washington, D.C., label Dischord Records, co-founded by Ian MacKaye, a punk firebrand who influenced a generation of disaffected suburban youth.

The punk rock stuff has long been a crucial aspect of the Beto myth. Perhaps you already knew he that used to play bass in a post-hardcore band called Foss (that’s the Icelandic word for waterfall) and wore a dress on the cover of their first 7-inch. (The Texas GOP’s Twitter account infamously tried to weaponize that against him.) Perhaps you were already hip to his various other groups, from the Sheeps to the Swedes. And if you’ve even heard of three punk bands in your whole entire life, you are doubtless at least vaguely familiar with MacKaye, singer, guitarist, and sociopolitical mouthpiece for several beloved D.C. punk institutions, most notably Minor Threat and Fugazi, both of whose songs often doubled as literal manifestos. But it’s quite striking to discover, in the pages of Vanity Fair, just how thoroughly Beto has incorporated those various manifestos into his own:

“I have so much reverence for him and he means so much to me in my life,” O’Rourke says of MacKaye. “He really did represent this super-ethical way, not just of being in a band, or running a label, or putting on shows, but of just living.” (The punk ethos, Ian MacKaye tells me, is for “people who can’t figure out how they’re supposed to fit into society. And I think in many ways they’re the right people.”

No one American figure—not Obama, not Bernie Sanders, not Bob Dylan, not Beto’s own Texas-politician father—is described as lovingly by this particular man, in this particular venue, announcing this particular campaign. Both culturally and politically, no one man seems to loom larger in Beto’s thinking. The Vanity Fair piece drops enough strategic pop culture references to power a dozen Tinder bios, from music (Nina Simone, Stan Getz, the Clash) to novels (Beto’s eldest son is named after Ulysses) to generational positioning: “Whereas Obama is from the tail end of the baby boom, 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.” But if authenticity over showmanship and a healthy skepticism of the mainstream is your M.O., then MacKaye is your north star, your pope, your democratically elected emperor for life. And Beto is the first mainstream politician to publicly pledge allegiance.

It’s an awkward fit by design. MacKaye cofounded Minor Threat as a teenager and in 1981 graced the world with “Straight Edge,” a 47-second tirade against drugs and alcohol that proved so anthemic it inspired a purity-obsessed subculture that MacKaye is, to this day, at pains to politely distance himself from. “The lyrics of the song reflected my belief in the idea that an individual has the right to choose how to live his or her life,” he told a website called The Small Bow last year in a piece tracing the history of the straight-edge movement. “Hence the disconnect when the idea is packaged and pressed on people.” He is, in short, a guy who tells you what he thinks with such uncommonly vivid force and conviction that plenty of listeners just assume he’s telling them what to think.

Fugazi debuted in 1987, cofronted by MacKaye and fellow singer-guitarist Guy Picciotto, whose old band Rites of Spring, per Vanity Fair, notably supplied young Beto with his high school yearbook quote: “I found a hidden wheel and it rolls to reveal that / I’m the angry son, I’m the angry son.” In a frighteningly transcendent 16-year, seven-album career, the ferocious political content of Fugazi’s songs (topics ranged from sexual assault to abortion rights to gentrification) nonetheless paled in comparison to the pious content of the band’s character. Tickets to most of their shows cost $5. Beyond the records themselves, they refused to sell merch. Thanks to MacKaye’s own Dischord Records, they remained DIY to a militant degree, refusing to “sell out” even after nearly every other beloved ’90s rock band grudgingly did so. Even now, following a 2003 split pointedly described as a “hiatus,” they’ve thus far refused the reunion-tour sellout move, too.

It’s an ideology that, for many, crosses over into outright sanctimony. (As exemplified by MacKaye’s many, many onstage diatribes against stage-divers and crowd-surfers, Fugazi were never a terribly fun or funny band, the “ice-cream-eating motherfucker” incident excepted.) Musically and morally, Fugazi aren’t an ideal to aspire to, but a flaming sword to righteously fall on. You’ll never sound that good or be that pure, let alone both simultaneously. They inspired a movement that now mostly manifests itself as outright paralysis. No subsequent punk band, no matter how self-righteous or self-aggrandizing, has dared publicly aspire to so comically hallowed a mantle.

So what does it mean when a politician tries? Beto’s first few days on the official 2020 campaign trail have kicked up quite the backlash. Is he authentically punk or a mere poseur? Is he a savior or a slacker? Does his perhaps unearned “I’m just born to be in it” cockiness underscore the sexist treatment of far more experienced candidates like Elizabeth Warren? Is he already waffling on health care? Is he just using this campaign as an excuse to stand on a table in every state in the union? Will he someday graduate to hanging upside-down in a basketball hoop? He is widely perceived, at least, as being all style and little substance, which might in fact represent his closest overlap with, uh, Obama’s early stuff. But he’s the first half-serious presidential candidate, in any era, to explicitly emulate Ian MacKaye’s, uh, style.

The Vanity Fair piece underscores how fungible a term “punk rock” can be in this bizarre new context:

When he decided to run for Senate in Texas against Ted Cruz, O’Rourke planned a purist campaign much like Sanders’s—no PAC money, no corporate donations, no pollsters, no negative ads, only a revival-tent optimism focused on an unabashedly left-wing message. He even hired two forward-thinking field strategists from the Sanders campaign. O’Rourke drew inspiration from punk rock, everything stripped of artifice.

However much substance Beto manages to generate in the months ahead, this aura might still overshadow it, this eagerness to wrap himself in the flag of a man who once sang that “flags are such ugly things that they should never touch the ground.” If it’s punk rock you idolize, it’s hard to find a better, or holier, or, sure, cooler idol than Ian MacKaye. But it’s also hard to find a guy more uncomfortable with being idolized, or less compatible in his authenticity with American politics in 2019. There is, as MacKaye himself noted, a profound disconnect when these ideas are packaged and pressed on people—on voters especially. We’re about to find out just how awkward it can get.