More than any other presidential candidate of the past half century, Rick Perry exemplifies the frontier style. Will it play in Peoria?
During his first campaign for president, in 1999, Governor George W. Bush had a favorite line to describe the differences between himself and his famous father. Explaining to reporters that his dad had grown up amid the gracious green comforts of Connecticut, while he had been raised on the rugged plains of the Permian Basin, Bush would say, “I went to Sam Houston Elementary School in Midland and he went to Greenwich Country Day.” The contrast served him well until this past summer, when Bush’s successor in the Governor’s Mansion, Rick Perry, launched his own presidential campaign. Faced with a similar line of questioning, about the difference between himself and his predecessor, Perry came up with a similar retort. “I went to Texas A&M,” Perry replied. “He went to Yale.”
This was meant to correct the misperception that the two governors, despite sharing a swagger and a smirk, inhabit the same Texan persona. Bush, for all his legendary brush-clearing, was essentially a modern managerial type, a creature of the boardroom and golf course whose colleagues could be found on the membership rolls of the more exclusive clubs in Houston and Dallas. This is a legitimate Texan persona (though it did not exist until the mid–twentieth century), but it is decidedly not Perry’s. Perry, to an almost pitch-perfect degree, typifies the frontier style.
It has been a long time since the country has experienced a major candidate with a true frontier style. The mode derives from our defining experience—the bloody, multigenerational westward expansion of (mostly) Anglo-American settlers across a vast and violent continent. The leading edge of this expansion, that ragged line of white society, was naturally more rough, more optimistic, and less restrained than anything to be found in the drawing rooms of Virginia, and it supplied the young country with a powerful sense of identity. Writing in 1893 (three years after the U.S. census had declared the country settled and the frontier closed), the historian Frederick Jackson Turner set forth his famous “Frontier Thesis,” arguing that “American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character.”
The value in being able to channel these forces has not been lost on our politicians. The first to claim the frontier mantle was Andrew Jackson, who was elected to the White House in 1828, when his home state of Tennessee was still considered the West. Jackson represented a sharp departure from the previous six presidents, all of whom shared the aristocratic sensibility that the country should be run by an elite handful of men with leisure and money. Jackson, orphaned by fourteen, had neither, so he headed west from his native South Carolina and made his name on the frontier. His triumphant return to the Eastern Seaboard unleashed a raucous new strain in American politics. At his inauguration, he opened the White House to the general public, who trashed the place.
Jackson’s biography established a backwoods persona that has beckoned to many presidents since, despite the fact that few, if any, have had as legitimate a claim to it. From William Henry Harrison, the “log cabin and hard cider” president, to Teddy Roosevelt, who out-pioneered them all, to Ronald Reagan, who knew well the allure of a man on horseback in a pearl-snap shirt, an association with the frontier has provided a durable source of political identity—and ideology. Jackson favored limited government, debt reduction, states’ rights, and the abolition of the national bank (sound familiar?). Frontier-style politics owes much to his model, and to the harsh reality of a place where only the strong, the capable, and the resilient survived. The weak and unprepared were quickly sorted out—if they even showed up. This attracted a certain kind of settler, one who wanted to be left more or less alone and was willing to pay for this solitude with his blood.
That was especially true along the frontier in Texas, which wasn’t even part of the United States when Anglo-American settlers arrived. In a slim but pugnacious 1983 volume titled Seven Keys to Texas, historian T. R. Fehrenbach describes the people drawn to this unforgiving region as follows:
The early Texans descended from clans and families, heavily Scotch Irish, who deserted the panoply of Europe, despising its hierarchies and social organism, who also spurned the tidewaters of eighteenth-century British America with its governments, tithes, and taxes, and who plunged into the wilderness. These folk sought land and opportunity, surely—but they were also consciously fleeing something: a vision of the world in which community or state transcended the individual family and its personal good.
This is the basic idea of the frontier style: every man is more or less for himself, a good neighbor is one who needs no help, and efforts by the government to interfere are not to be trusted.
In Perry this line of thinking has found its natural vessel, more perfect even than Reagan (born in an apartment in Tampico, Illinois) and certainly Bush, whose “compassionate conservatism,” from a frontier perspective, has one too many words. Unlike either man, Perry can make a credible biographical claim to the frontier style. His great-great-grandfather D. H. Hamilton was a Confederate soldier and state legislator from East Texas who moved in the late 1800’s to Haskell County, which had been created by the legislature in 1858 but stayed unsettled for two decades due to the fear of Indian attacks.
Perry, born in 1950, is not a child of the frontier, of course, but he is a child of the mythology of the frontier, which may be even more powerful. “The old society is gone, but its imagery, mentality, and mythology live on,” Fehrenbach notes. “The residue still shows in a hard pragmatism and absence of ideology, a worship of action and accomplishment, a disdain for weakness or incompetence, and a thread of belligerence.” As governor, Perry has pursued, by and large, a frontier style. He has presided over more executions than any governor in U.S. history. He has shown a hunger for population increase—always welcome on the sparsely settled frontier—and a knack for attracting new industry that calls to mind the pioneer recruitments of Stephen F. Austin. He has shot a coyote with a pistol. He has threatened the federal government. And this past legislative session, the budget he wanted—and got—included massive cuts to education and health care that will overwhelmingly affect the poor and burdensome.
Now that Perry is theirs to scrutinize, the national media have been wrestling with his record and his rhetoric, asking if he’s “dumb” (Politico), remarking on his “pheromonal can-do-ness” (Washington Post), and worrying about his “fringe” associations (Daily Beast), all of which is in keeping with the kind of reception the frontier style usually provokes. Yet apart from a rash of stories describing Perry’s Jacksonian comment about Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke as an example of “frontier justice,” few have seen the connecting thread. Announcing that as president he would make Washington, D.C., “as inconsequential in your life as I can”? That’s Fehrenbach’s frontier folk talking. Declaring Social Security a Ponzi scheme? Pure frontier. Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne nearly stumbled onto it when he mused on NPR, “There is a radical individualism that Rick Perry is selling that I think is very different from traditional American individualism, which accepts that we want our personal freedoms, but we accept that there are things we do in common better.”
That “radical individualism” is the frontier style, and Dionne is right to put it in opposition to a more moderate “American individualism.” It is, to some extent, the difference between the rest of the United States and Texas, where the mythology of the frontier is more alive and well than anywhere else. Consider this passage from Fehrenbach: “Over most of the United States ‘independence’ has a fine sound . . . but it is something celebrated on July Fourth and forgotten the rest of the year. It is a wishful ideal, perhaps the last heritage of the old frontier.”
Perry’s hope is that the country will turn to this heritage in search of renewal, as it has during so many times of doubt and crisis. If early polling is any indication, this is a good bet. But Perry’s other hope is that in turning westward the country will settle on his version of the frontier. Because there is another. Even a nostalgist like Turner conceded that “the individualism of the Kentucky pioneer of 1796 [gave] way to the Populism of the Kansas pioneer of 1896.” The frontier was tough, but there was more variation in the settlers’ response to it than the frontier style would have you believe. For proof we need look no further than another Texan: Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Johnson was born in 1908 in Gillespie County, so he lived far closer in time to the actual frontier than Perry. Yet the politics he took from his hardscrabble Hill Country upbringing were essentially communitarian. Johnson—whose grandmother had hidden under the house during an Indian raid and whose family knew well the promise and heartbreak of pioneer life—was a devout believer in the power of government to improve the lives of its citizens. So as we prepare for a long campaign in the frontier style, we would do well to recall that the towns and forts of the westward expansion were not monolithic in their politics and that “radical individualism” was not always held by all as the highest value. Were he alive today, Johnson might describe the difference between himself and Perry this way: “He went to A&M and I went to Southwest Texas State Teachers College.”