For more than a decade, the Texas borderlands have served an essential purpose in the lives of elected officials: as a stage for politicians to strut their stuff. Trips to the Texas-Mexico border, cameras in tow, are now so commonplace that it’s easy to forget that putting on quasi-military garb and gazing seriously into the Rio Grande wasn’t always a prerequisite for being a GOP politician. (Democrats go to South Texas too, for different reasons, but the issue of border security and immigration is trickier and less politically salient for most liberals.)

Thanks to the pioneering efforts of former governor Rick Perry and others, border cosplay has become part of the Texas political calendar. Appearances wax and wane depending on the season, the priorities of right-wing media, and the degree of crisis—real and perceived. But as sure as the sun rises in Brownsville and sets in El Paso, a Republican with ambitions will sooner or later be seen in the proximity of razor wire and border walls, preferably with Fox News filming. 

Over time, a certain set of clothing, backdrops, props, and poses has developed. There’s a look, a set of expectations and clichés, to embrace or allude to. It’s like any subculture—the early pioneers laid down the fundamentals, and now the new generation is building upon that foundation. Border theater is now firmly in its buying-a-Ramones-T-shirt-at-the-mall phase. That does not mean all do it equally as well.

So who wears it best? Which politician pulls off the cosplay without looking like they are playing a part? We rank nine Republicans and one Democrat on just how good they are at this essential genre of American politics.

Rick Perry

The border trip by which all others are measured. The sine qua non. The urtext. El mero mero. In whatever language you prefer, this is our Mona Lisa. 

In 2014 then-governor Rick Perry took Fox News personality Sean Hannity on an “investigation” of the Texas-Mexico border. They rode in a helicopter together. They cruised around in one of those ubiquitous DPS gunboats—the one with three outboards and the .30 machine guns. Standard stuff. But that’s the point. It looks standard now because these guys set the standard. Just look at them! Two bros in backward baseball caps, wraparound shades, and flak jackets: it’s a border “beach off.” (I give the nod to Perry; he is somehow both campier and also more convincing; he looks like he might know how to handle the machine gun, or at least pretend to.) 

There are practical reasons for the fashion accessories—those DPS gunboats boast nine hundred horsepower, enough speed-generating power to send your hat sailing and force tears from your eyes—but the overall effect is one of vague macho menace. In images from the trip, Perry is peering into the camera with the grimace of Benicio del Toro in Sicario—as if daring the Gulf Cartel to mess with him.

Cosplay Rating: 10/10

Ken Paxton

See 1:08 of this video:

The year 2021 was a good one for Ken Paxton. He was gearing up for a reelection bid in which he’d eventually cruise to victory. He was in the midst of a $3.5 million property-buying spree across four states (despite drawing a modest $153,750 annual salary as attorney general). Impeachment hearings in the bloodred Texas House seemed a downright impossibility. And he got to take trips to border towns, including Laredo, to ride cool gunboats with a tactical vest and wraparound shades, his hair blowing carefree in the wind. Paxton didn’t feel the need to go overboard when he visited the border that year—that’s just a standard white oxford-cloth button-down under the vest, but the outfit displays the sort of confidence with his station that has defined the Ken Paxton era of Texas politics. Whom do you have to impress when you’ve been under indictment for your entire tenure as the state’s top law enforcement official, after all? Ken owns the look. 

Alas, as Paxton awaits the outcome of his impeachment trial in the Senate and cools his heels while an acting AG sits at his desk, those halcyon days are in the past. He looks like he had fun, though.

Cosplay Rating: 6/10

Greg Abbott

There’s one knock from the right against Greg Abbott that no amount of abortion banning or attacks on drag queens or declaring the power grid fixed can help with: he’s no Rick Perry. We’ve known that for a long time, but looking at him try here, with his shirtsleeves rolled up and his hat facing forward, without so much as a pair of mirrored sunglasses wrapped around his face, only highlights the lack of spirit that Abbott brings to the role of governor. Abbott tries, but Perry was.

Cosplay Rating: 5/10 

Melania Trump

Border Cosplay
Melania Trump after her visit with child migrants on the Texas-Mexico border on June 21, 2018.Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty

Famously, the then–first lady traveled to the border for different reasons than most political figures do. She wasn’t there to pretend that she was going to play Davy Crockett to the Santa Annas that are hungry asylum seekers looking for a better life in the United States. Rather, she popped into the New Hope Children’s Shelter in McAllen in June 2018 to see kids who’d been separated from their parents by her husband’s administration. She did so wearing a jacket from the fast-fashion brand Zara with the words “I Really Don’t Care. Do U?” on the back in a graffiti-style scrawl. 

Why did she wear the jacket? At the time, her spokesperson declared that it was “just a jacket,” but Melania later changed her story. “It was for the people and for the left-wing media who are criticizing me,” she pronounced. Regardless, the jacket is still in the vaguely militaristic, drab olive green that many border visitors favor, and it doubles as an acknowledgment that Melania might need to disappear into the woods for a spell if things get dangerous. 

Cosplay Rating: 2/10

Ted Cruz

Border Cosplay
Senator Ted Cruz speaking after a tour of part of the Rio Grande in Mission on March 26, 2021.Joe Raedle/Getty

Cruz could have settled for the standard border attire, but this is Ted Cruz, the senator who cooks bacon on the barrel of a machine gun. A Texas Tough politician who launches his campaigns at the Redneck Country Club. A real man of the people. So when he visited Mission, just west of McAllen, in 2021, he made some on-brand sartorial choices, aiming for a look somewhere between Duck Dynasty and operator dude. He donned a cheapo ventilated fishing shirt in a paramilitary earth tone and a matching ball cap with a Lone Star–themed tactical patch. 

But, hmm, something is amiss: with that scruffy beard and the aggressive pointer finger, he bears more of a resemblance to Che Guevara or Fidel Castro than some Texas border Bubba. Ya basta, comrade!

Cosplay Rating: 4/10

George P. Bush

This may be the most painful border LARP of all time. As part of his hapless run for attorney general, Jeb’s son and then–land commissioner tried hard—way too hard—to convince GOP primary voters that he, not Attorney General Ken Paxton, was Trump’s man in Texas. You might recall the infamously cringe campaign koozie—it featured a quote from Trump praising P. Bush as “the only Bush that likes me”—but for my money, the indelible image of the Bush for Attorney General campaign comes from this political ad in which P. Bush promises to “[finish] President Trump’s wall.” Not content with the usual “Here I am at the wall” imagery, this senator’s great-grandson put on some edgy reflective sunglasses and mounted an ATV to prove his bona fides. Unfortunately for Bush, the overall vibe is one of “rich kid invites you over to ride his four-wheeler and then hogs it all day.”

Cosplay Rating: 1/10

Ron DeSantis

Why is Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida, standing around in Eagle Pass glowering into the middle distance, a barbed-wire fence blurry in the background, sunglasses shielding his eyes from the Texas sun, a dais to his left? You’re asking the wrong question. The right question is why does he have his name over both breast pockets?

DeSantis, of course, has famously recruited immigrant families who’ve arrived in Texas to come to Florida, so he could then fly them to blue-state vacation destinations to stick it to the libs. During his late-June visit to the border from which this photo comes, he urged the use of “deadly force” against suspected drug runners, saying that their entry indicates “hostile intent.” If that’s true, why would a high-value target such as the governor of the nation’s third-most-populous state make sure that he’s easily identifiable from the right or the left by any potential kidnapper or assassin hanging around Eagle Pass (violent crime rate: 179.6 per 100,000 residents, less than half the national average of 388.57)?

The shirt has a nice work-wear vibe to it, though, and those pockets are beefy enough to hold all sorts of supplies. The sunglasses, while not the full wraparound shades, are nonetheless coplike enough to project some no-nonsense energy. But DeSantis, by wearing a big campaign ad of a shirt, is making the subtext—that these visits are about being seen on the border to rally the base—the text. He’s not just blowing it for himself, he’s threatening to do the same for all the other politicians too.

Cosplay Rating: 2/10

Dawn Buckingham

You’re one of only two women in statewide elected office, and you’re heading to the border. How do you stand out in this boys’ club? First, you flash your piece. Duh. Land commissioner Buckingham may be the only elected official to pose at the border while open carrying. Her posture suggests “Get my good side,” but the gun says, “Don’t get on my bad side.” 

It’s a provocative move, but this West Austin plastic surgeon does it with style. She’s wearing the standard “first responder” shirt, but this one is red and has a patch on the back. Plus, she just happens to have it tucked in a way that offers a clear view of her sidearm. And her boots are no cheap Ariats. They are the Dubarry Galway Country Boot, made by Irish clothier Dubarry. According to good ol’ Dubarry, these boots (retail price: $479) “will see you from muddy country walks, to a smart day at the races, festivals and beyond.” 

They’ll even take you to a remote part of the border known more for its sparse beauty than for illegal activity. Buckingham is standing near La Linda bridge, a now defunct international crossing that until 1997 connected a seldom-visited part of the Big Bend region with the Mexican town of La Linda, a depopulated settlement that once served a nearby fluorspar mine. 

In some of Buckingham’s other photos, you can see the canyon on the Rio Grande that marks the beginning of the Lower Canyons, a wild and scenic portion of the river that stretches for 83 miles with no road crossings, homes, public access, or much of anything man-made. It’s a strange place to flog your promise to “gain complete operational control of our border,” but it makes for a nice day of sightseeing.

Cosplay Rating: 7/10

Joaquin Castro

Castro, the Democratic congressman from San Antonio (not to be confused with his twin brother, Julián Castro, the perennial fence-sitting former mayor of the city), stopped in Eagle Pass on August 8. Rather than make an effort to express how dangerous he believed the border to be, however, Castro looked downright chill in a natural-fiber, navy work-wear shirt tucked into gray slacks. Linen is a sensible choice for 105-degree weather, but it’s hardly as flashy as what his Republican colleagues don! He looks like a middle school social studies teacher: a practical style, but so low in effort that he takes home last place in our costume contest. 

Cosplay Rating: 1/10 

Dan Patrick

Border Cosplay
Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, right, accompanied by Texas Department of Public Safety director Steven McCraw, left, during a border visit on March 8, 2016.Marie D. De Jesus/Houston Chronicle via Getty

Touring the border can’t be a lot of fun. It’s insanely hot, it’s dusty, and there is desperation everywhere. You have to imagine that the playacting, for most politicians, is a chore.

Then there’s Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who apparently had the time of his life when he visited in 2016. He looks like he’s taking a selfie to send to his friends as he embarks on a twelve-day river cruise on the Danube, rather than dressed in a tactical life vest on a DPS gunboat in the muddy Rio Grande. He looks genuinely happy! Like a senior citizen on an extended RV trip

You could argue that the optics are all wrong—one of the overseers of the multibillion-dollar, accountability-free state border-security apparatus shouldn’t be taking smiling selfies at the Open Border. But you would be mistaken. Whether he’s actually having a good time is beside the point—Patrick has always presented himself as an “authentic” conservative. Would an authentic conservative—a true border warrior—need to put on a costume and grimace at the camera? No, he would be authentically and fully himself, a revered military general touring the front lines of the great battle over state sovereignty, border security, and Texas honor. Perhaps, if he were of a poetic nature, he would recall the closing stanzas of a William Wordsworth poem:

“This is the happy Warrior; this is he / That every man in arms should wish to be.”

Cosplay Rating: 9/10