As presidential hopeful Beto O'Rourke took the stage for the first of this week's debates, he was skewered by the Twitter account @PixelatedBoat for one of his recurring talking points. "I may not have talent or credentials," the Twitter user wrote on top of a screengrab of O'Rourke. "But what I do have is a simple message that resonates with voters in the heartland: I should get to be president because I was in an unsuccessful band with Cedric Bixler-Zavala."
While his stance on healthcare may be hard to parse, and his overall messaging tends to be a bit vague and populist, this post highlights one thing that is clear about O'Rourke: he puts a lot of value in the time he spent traveling in vans across Texas with Foss, his post-hardcore band with At the Drive-In and Mars Volta singer Bixler-Zavala, playing shows in, like, churches, warehouses, and crowded basements. Recently, as Mashable points out, his team updated the "Meet Beto" page on his campaign website, with a video that features him talking about that period of his life at length. Titled "Beto's Punk Years," it features the candidate talking discovering the Clash in the 8th grade, spending his youth trading tapes and records. He suggests that spending time in a community of "misfits and fuckups and weirdos" inspired a DIY ethic that he's able to apply to his campaign for president. He's not afraid to get in a van and pound the pavement—to drum up support by going to the people, or whatever.
It's a compelling talking point if you take it at face value—grassroots organizing is at the heart of both DIY music scenes and in large-scale political upheaval—but as @PixelatedBoat's post gestures at, it's something he's really harped on a lot over the last few years, first in his losing campaign for Ted Cruz's senate seat and now as he fights for an even bigger role on the national stage. Dating back as far as 2017, he's been bringing his punk history up every chance he gets.
In 2017, O'Rourke did an interview with Spin specifically about his time in Foss, in which he waxed rhapsodic over his days ordering records out of the legendary punk zine Maximum Rock 'n' Roll. Last August, after the Texas GOP Twitter account attempted to own him for his time in Foss, O'Rourke did an interview with Rolling Stone about the project and shared one of the lost singles from that band, a wheezy lo-fi track called "Rise." Since then, he's appeared on Late Night With Seth Meyers talking about the Clash. He even made a playlist for VICE News of his favorite punk bands, which included The Exploding Hearts and Flamin' Groovies. It's an important enough theme for him that in the big Vanity Fair cover in which he announced his presidential campaign, he expounded on the ways that he's been inspired by D.C. punk legends Minor Threat and Fugazi.
“I have so much reverence for him and he means so much to me in my life,” O’Rourke said of Fugazi frontman Ian 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.”
Close readers of his proposed policies (and his past) have already pointed out some of the ways his ideologies might not always hold up to these supposed punk ethics. What would Ian MacKaye have to say, for example, of his battles with unions when he was a member of the El Paso City Council? Which raises some questions, if he's not going to live up to the standards that his punk ethos theoretically represents, what's the point of bringing it up so much? Is the idea that we're supposed to vote for a guy just because he's got a vinyl copy of Milo Goes to College?
Anyway, policing what "punk" means is pretty boring, especially in 2019, when it's really hard to not have your music-listening mediated through a tech mega-corp. But can we at least agree that there's hardly anything less punk than running for president?