At the end of the horror movie The Shining, Jack Torrance, an aspiring writer turned homicidal maniac, freezes to death, lost in a swanky hotel’s hedge maze in the midst of a 1970s winter. For the final shot, the camera pushes in to reveal a detail from a vintage photo on the wall of the hotel ballroom: a dapper Jack pictured in a temporally impossible 1921. The building has absorbed him.
That’s roughly how Greg Abbott came to live in the Governor’s Mansion in 2015: it absorbed him. By that time, he had been in public life for more than twenty years, including twelve as the state’s attorney general, but had left little mark. He had not, and still has not, faced a truly competitive election, nor had he ever had much to do with making policy of any kind. He was nominated for governor because it was his turn. And then, one day, he was just . . . there, running things, though it was no easier to detect what he was actually doing or indeed even what he wanted to do.
Texans have historically liked colorful politicians and disdained colorless ones, but one suspects that preference has always entailed an element of Stockholm syndrome. It wouldn’t be the worst thing for us to date a strong, silent type for once—someone boring enough to bring home to meet Mother. It was possible to imagine, at the outset of Abbott’s administration, that his apparent blandness could be an asset, that it would allow him to push aside the dumb stuff and work on the important bread-and-butter issues that don’t get headlines. He inherited education and health-care and foster-care systems that were among the worst in the nation and a state government built on shortcuts and accounting tricks. There was plenty to do, and he had the means to do it: a healthy legislative majority and billions of dollars to play with.
But Texas got the opposite of that sort of workhorse: a governor who wanted to continue being governor and didn’t seem to care about much else—except, perhaps, for positioning himself for a run at the White House. From the beginning, Abbott was attuned to the 4 percent of Texans who decide Republican primary elections and that group’s many peculiar priorities. The slightest shift in the wind from the right would provoke a change in direction. (Before the 2020 election, when the GOP’s hold on the state House seemed in doubt, he briefly shifted to the middle. After the campaign was over, he swung hard-right once again.) Big, substantive issues seemed to slide to the periphery, and in 2021 the chickens came home to roost. In his sixth year as governor—the twenty-sixth consecutive year his party has held the office—Texas, the energy capital of America, couldn’t even keep the lights on.
This has been a hard year for everyone, and no governor in the U.S. has had it easy. (“At least we don’t have Andrew Cuomo,” Texans could say.) But every step of the way, Abbott has made it harder for nearly everyone, rendering life more difficult, the death tolls higher, and the experience of being a Texan more demoralizing.
The rolling catastrophes started with the blackout in February, which is estimated to have killed hundreds of Texans. No other state that experienced the same blast of cold air was affected the way Texas was—our grid turned out to be uniquely fragile. Who was the responsible party? Two days into the crisis, Abbott took the time to appear on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show and blame renewable energy—a field in which Texas has been a leader, thanks in large part to his Republican predecessors—even though the blackout was caused mostly by problems with the distribution of natural gas. For his in-state audience, Abbott directed fire at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which oversees the grid. Accountability would be had, he vowed.
But Abbott handpicks the members of the Public Utilities Commission, which has oversight of ERCOT, and they’re not likely to stray far from his administration’s wishes. He, not ERCOT’s technicians, was ultimately responsible for the debacle. The governor and his appointees were quite familiar with the warnings, following a similar freeze and power interruption in 2011, that a failure of this type was likely. And they had done nothing to prepare us.
The storm provided some oil and gas executives with a windfall of biblical proportions—according to Bloomberg, more than $11 billion in five days, including some $2.4 billion for Energy Transfer, run by GOP mega-donor Kelcy Warren. In the aftermath of the blackout, Abbott’s PUC head, in a private call with big energy investors, reassured them that he was working hard to safeguard their profits. Three months later, Kelcy Warren cut Abbott a $1 million check for his campaign account.
Abbott could have pushed the Legislature to make sure what happened in February never happens again by forcing gas companies and power generators to immediately winterize, as is typically required in states that safely weathered the storm. He did not. At the end of the session, he declared that the mission had been accomplished and that the grid was safe. But a close look at the laws signed by the governor revealed that little progress was made—and that the measures that did pass contained loopholes big enough to run a pipeline through. For one, natural gas companies could have elected not to winterize if they paid a fee of $150. (Though that loophole was tightened by the Texas Railroad Commission after months of public outcry.)
That wasn’t Abbott’s only life-and-death failure of leadership. In the first year of the pandemic, he placed a higher priority on reopening the economy than did other governors who took more aggressive measures to combat COVID-19. And Abbott’s handling of the situation was comically erratic. He ordered a lockdown and then, under pressure from his right, crusaded to free Texans imprisoned by his lockdown. He gave orders preventing local leaders from enacting their own coronavirus protections but included fine print to allow them to do exactly that. The desire to keep normal life going was, on some level, understandable—the human toll of the shuttered economy was also vast.
But in the second year of the pandemic, as the debate shifted from lockdowns to vaccines, Abbott’s position became much less explicable. As Senator John Cornyn and other Republicans noted, the way to reopen the economy and return to “normal” life was to make sure Texans got vaccinated. Leaders such as the governor, who are respected in communities that are skeptical of the vaccine, could have stepped up and explained why the vaccine was important. It wouldn’t have convinced everyone, but every little bit helps.
Abbott did recommend Texans get the vaccine, receiving one at a photo op and touting its benefits at press conferences. (By the time he got symptomless COVID-19, in August, he’d been fully vaccinated.) But his actions spoke louder. With his executive’s pen, he sided with the antivaxxers, banning vaccine mandates of any kind. Even private employers looking to keep their own workplaces safe were deprived by the governor of the liberty to do so.
This was a bewilderingly inconsistent intrusion of big government. In the early part of the pandemic, Republicans criticized state-enforced lockdowns as an encroachment on the freedom of small-business owners and individual Texans just wanting to live their lives. Abbott’s new orders were an abrupt about-face; a small-business owner with an immunodeficient child suddenly couldn’t be trusted to decide whether her employees had to get vaccinated. Abbott’s stance also meant that the elderly and the sick, who are dependent on others to take precautions, were less free to live their lives. By the end of the year, Texas had roughly as many deaths from the coronavirus as California, a state with 10 million more residents. Meanwhile, compared with other states, we’re doing an average job, at best, of getting shots in arms.
But Abbott had other priorities. With his approval, the Legislature passed voter suppression legislation that rivaled the worst in the country as well as a law placing bounties on the heads of those who help others get abortions. He was busy fund-raising too. At the beginning of the year, Abbott had a mere $38 million in his campaign checking account. By July, he had $55 million; January’s report will no doubt reveal an even more inconceivable sum. (Rick Perry had only $5.8 million on hand the summer before his last reelection.) Primary challengers such as Don Huffines and Allen West were desperately attempting to outflank Abbott on the right, but he hadn’t left much ground for them to take. He seemed—and seems—on track to secure a third term in November.
For all that, it was in the quiet moments that the nature of Abbott’s governorship made itself clearest. When the Legislature passed a bill prohibiting the chaining of dogs outside, Abbott vetoed it on principle, decrying it as the work of the nanny state. Then he realized his veto was unpopular. So he ordered the Lege, in a special session, to pass a slightly altered version of the bill, then he signed it.
In August, one of Abbott’s primary opponents started making noise about a section of the Department of Family and Protective Services’ website that included a suicide prevention hotline for LGBTQ youth. The leadership of the agency, appointed by Abbott, quickly deleted the entire page. This was a very different ethos than we saw at work four years ago, when, during a conversation about the so-called bathroom bill, which would have restricted public rest-room access for transgender Texans, then–House Speaker Joe Straus declared that he wouldn’t let the bill pass, no matter the political consequences, because he didn’t “want the suicide of a single Texan on my hands.” (This gave Abbott cover to publicly support the bill while reassuring business leaders afraid of losing out-of-state convention dollars that it would never pass the House.) Straus’s opponents mocked this as mere preening. But the alternative, it turns out, is a politician willing to countenance the risk of a few suicides in order to obtain a four-hour break from criticism in conservative activist Facebook groups. And perhaps a very slightly increased chance at eventually coming in sixth place instead of seventh in the Iowa caucuses.
Over the course of 2021, Texans learned that Greg Abbott was not so colorless after all—somewhere along the line, he learned to be ruthless.
Best of luck to you and yours this winter. May it be a comfort to you, as you’re fiddling with the generator and piling up firewood, that we’ve named Greg Abbott our Bum Steer of the Year.
This article originally appeared in the January 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Power for Its Own Sake.” Subscribe today.