Perhaps because the president has transformed Twitter from a forum for trading memes and petty personal grievances into a place where memes and petty personal grievances become de facto executive orders, officeholders of the Trump era can’t help but descend into the social media muck.
This is true despite the fact that, relatively speaking, hardly anyone is on Twitter: only about 22 percent of U.S. adults use the platform, according to a 2019 Pew Research study. As vices go, that makes it just slightly more popular than smoking. Yet because the media and political beasts comprise an outsized proportion of that 22 percent, Twitter is credited with 99 percent of “The Discourse,” midwifing the daily gaffes and scandals that feed our news and fostering the partisan sniping through which we process it.
Most Texas politicians play the Twitter game cautiously, using their accounts to post innocuous photos of themselves shaking hands with various PACs or chambers of commerce they “really enjoyed meeting with.” Some, like Congressman John Ratcliffe, use it to post dryly formal press releases, 280 characters at a time. Senator John Cornyn treats his feed like one big email forward, sharing (mostly right-wing) news stories he finds “interesting.” The same goes for Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, although he’ll sometimes liven things up with birthday shout-outs to long-dead guys like Davy Crockett. Nearly all Texas politicians remain dully on message, whether it’s devout Trump disciples like state representative Lance Gooden or impeachment proselytizers like Congressman Al Green.
For those relatively rare politicos who use Twitter to share their actual thoughts, you have to wonder why they bother. Is the occasional viral bonus worth the potential undoing of your career with a single poorly thought-out mashing of thumbs? Let us consider the accounts of six Texas politicians with prolific Twitter presences and run a risk-reward assessment in an attempt to suss out what could possibly be in it for them.
Congressman Dan Crenshaw
At a spry 35, Dan Crenshaw is one of the more social-media-savvy politicians in the state, maintaining both a personal feed and an “official” one, where he rebuts Democrats with a marginally more statesmanlike form of sarcasm. He’s far less guarded on @DanCrenshawTX, waging open war against liberal politicians and the mainstream media, retweeting squeaky agitators like The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro, and even standing up for the sitcom Friends. Crenshaw’s willingness to mix it up—coupled with his dry tone, self-deprecating sense of humor, and basic familiarity with GIFs—confirm that Crenshaw has a better-than-average command of the medium, earning the freshman congressman an impressive 618,000 followers.
Situations like this story are why we protect the 2nd Amendment.— Dan Crenshaw (@DanCrenshawTX) September 4, 2019
Side note: With universal background checks, I wouldn’t be able to let my friends borrow my handgun when they travel alone like this. We would make felons out of people just for defending themselves. https://t.co/x60mdd1WW1
Sample: After back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso and Odessa, Crenshaw staunchly defended Texans’ rights to responsible gun ownership by bemoaning that universal background checks might make it difficult for him to loan guns to his buddies. The tweet attracted plenty of mockery from people well outside his district, culminating in a tense back-and-forth with his equally Twitter-adept colleague Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Potential rewards: By sparring with Ocasio-Cortez in front of her five million followers—and loudly calling out other prominent liberals—Crenshaw can further position himself as the crossover-ready, “cool” face of conservatism (relatively speaking), a Republican for the social media age who’s unencumbered by formality or even forethought.
Potential risks: Given that Crenshaw made political hay out of beefing with Saturday Night Live, it’s no surprise that he’s always spoiling for a fight. But it’s a slippery slope from popping off at AOC to getting dragged into spats with viral also-rans like Kaitlin “Gun Girl” Bennett and Mindy Robinson. We all float down here, Dan.
Likelihood of rewards: 95 percent
Likelihood of risks: 95 percent
Risk-reward ratio: One guest spot on Joe Rogan’s podcast to one accusation of incitement.
Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke may have recently called out Facebook, Twitter, and Google over their spread of dangerous misinformation, but there’s no question that he enjoys a symbiotic love-hate relationship with the internet giants. O’Rourke’s career was built on social media. He seemingly live-streamed his every Whataburger pit stop along the campaign trail, and his answer to a town hall question about the kneeling protests of NFL players made him a nationwide viral star. He lost the election, of course, but the clout he earned was enough to convince him he could take his vlog all the way to the White House. He’s pursued the presidency with a social media strategy that attempts to marry his practiced bluntness (e.g., dropping f-bombs, directly calling Donald Trump a racist) to his usual man-in-the-drive-through approachability.
Beto makes a burger pic.twitter.com/PywGSE58jD— Behind 2020 (@Behind2020) August 24, 2019
Sample: In August, O’Rourke appeared in a video posted to his wife Amy’s account. In it, he cooks a cheeseburger—a regular-guy task he undertakes by spreading patties across three separate frying pans, scraping them off the nonstick surface with a metal spatula, and depositing them atop what appears to be an English muffin next to a side of raw broccoli. This was a commendably bipartisan gesture, bringing a polarized country together in disgust.
Potential rewards: Even these occasional missteps suggest a willingness to strip away the varnish and allow glimpses of vulnerability. That practice can lend emotional weight to a campaign steeped in appeals to our universally human nature.
Potential risks: Everyone thinks you’re a narcissistic dweeb who doesn’t know how to cook a burger.
Likelihood of rewards: 70 percent
Likelihood of risks: 30 percent
Risk-reward ratio: Three skateboarding videos to one video where you get your ear hair trimmed.
Senator Cruz was an early adopter of Twitter, joining the site in March 2009, back when he was still a private citizen mulling a run for state attorney general. Cruz’s initial, hesitant forays into “trying to figure it out” have paid off, and he’s slowly honed an online personality that’s marginally more human than his own, relying time and again on dad-friendly pop culture references. After years spent absorbing attacks with his approximation of a smile, Cruz has lately taken up the mantle of “civility,” attempting to turn Twitter fights with the likes of Alyssa Milano into IRL summits and positioning himself above the fray—even as he repeatedly creates it. Like Cruz himself, @tedcruz is a morbidly fascinating ball of contradictions, galling and amusing and cringe-inducing in equal measure, and it’s earned him more than three million followers (presumably only some of whom are there out of spite).
Um, El Paso is land-locked. https://t.co/ORXqu5ojCz— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) September 5, 2019
Sample: When his former opponent Beto O’Rourke recently told a CNN town hall that his son had expressed concern about El Paso becoming uninhabitable due to climate change, Cruz smirked, “Um, El Paso is land-locked,” followed by a GIF of Kevin Costner in Waterworld, captioned, “Beto next year in El Paso.” After a deluge of responses from people pointing out that climate change poses other threats besides coastal flooding—drought and unbearable heat, for example—Cruz cackled about all the “triggered Lefties” panicked over nothing.
Potential rewards: Cruz’s general “U mad?” approach to his ideological opponents—and his lack of shame and self-awareness—have made him an unusually elusive target on Twitter, which only bolsters his Teflon appeal to people who view everything in terms of “owning” the other side. After all, it’s tough to embarrass a guy who cheerfully plays along with jokes about being the Zodiac killer.
Potential risks: Cruz’s frequent personal attacks on Democrats like Elizabeth Warren and his unwillingness to ever criticize President Trump—a man who implied Cruz’s wife is ugly and intimated that his dad killed JFK—might seem hypocritical, albeit only in the context of every single thing Cruz has said or done. Also, there’s always the chance of accidentally liking a porn tweet on 9/11.
Likelihood of rewards: 80 percent
Likelihood of risks: 20 percent
Risk-reward ratio: Four American flag emojis to one small, nagging void that surely he can feel deep down inside, right? Right?
Like Dan Crenshaw, the governor maintains two accounts: one for official business, and a separate, far more popular personal feed where he can cut loose. @GregAbbott_TX is more than just a place where Abbott can allow his distaste for liberal politics to take full bloom, retweet stories from right-wing sites, or jab at Fox News–designated villains. You’ll also find him participating in memes, sharing videos of his dogs Pancake and Peaches, and repeatedly extolling the supremacy of Texas barbecue, beer, and football at every opportunity to ensure that no one calls for his impeachment. As with Crenshaw, that zeal has occasionally attracted national attention—usually not the favorable sort.
Sample: In 2015, Abbott wrote that he was “embarrassed” by Texas falling behind California in gun sales, urging Texans to “pick up the pace”—a tweet that’s been dutifully resurfaced in the wake of every mass shooting since. Last July, Abbott tweeted about the San Antonio teenager who’d posted a viral video of herself licking a carton of Blue Bell before returning it to the store freezer, a dumb prank that saw the governor brand her a “despicable criminal” who should be “rightfully punished.”
Potential rewards: Texans can enjoy a hearty chuckle over Abbott’s “Don’t Mess With Texas” bravado, sharing in his rootin’-tootin’ glee for ice cream, guns, and draconian legal action.
Potential risks: The governor comes off looking like a tone-deaf lunatic, one who’s seemingly more outraged over kids licking ice cream than dying in ICE detention camps—or even the three people Blue Bell killed via a listeria outbreak, which somehow escaped Abbott’s condemnation. Such grandstanding, however tongue-in-cheek, leaves him open to monster dunks like this one from Joaquin Castro: “You had to be shamed into paying for rape kits to be tested.”
Likelihood of rewards: 5 percent
Likelihood of risks: 1000 percent
Risk-reward ratio: Maybe one time Marco Rubio notices you to 12,000 angry comments about the blood on your hands.
A textbook case of how an active Twitter presence can mean the difference between anonymously toiling in the state legislature and getting dunked on by half of Hollywood, state representative Matt Schaefer is one of the site’s newest rising stars. Although he boasts only eight thousand followers at present, he recently made a name for himself with his full-throated defense of Chick-fil-A’s religious freedom as well as his equally impassioned stance against gun control.
I am NOT going to use the evil acts of a handful of people to diminish the God-given rights of my fellow Texans. Period. None of these so-called gun-control solutions will work to stop a person with evil intent. 2/6— Matt Schaefer (@RepMattSchaefer) September 1, 2019
Sample: Yep, it’s guns again. Schaefer was one of many Texas politicians to chime in after the El Paso and Odessa shootings, answering the inevitable calls to “do something” by outlining how he would do exactly nothing. “I am NOT going to use the evil acts of a handful of people to diminish the God-given rights of my fellow Texans. Period,” he wrote, followed by an itemized list of gun control measures he would explicitly not support. He then shared all the things he would say yes to, such as “praying that God would transform the hearts of people with evil intent.”
Potential rewards: By taking the standard thoughts-and-prayers to unprecedented “Kill ’em all, and let God sort it out” levels, Schaefer becomes a darling of Second Amendment absolutists, possibly vaulting him to a more prominent national stage (and all the potentially lucrative sponsorships that entails). His tweets since—which, naturally, are all about guns, including a retweet of former NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch—suggest Schaefer has found his niche.
Potential risks: You’re forever known as the guy who thinks guns were handed down by God. John Legend rips on you.
Likelihood of rewards: 25 percent
Likelihood of risks: 75 percent
Risk-reward ratio: One CPAC invite to one especially uncomfortable conversation with God.
The Houston-raised Williamson has maintained an active Twitter presence since long before she became a presidential candidate, which she’s used to dispense her spiritual wisdom and talk about how much she loves Avatar. Her candor has occasionally complicated her campaign as her national profile has grown, requiring her to do a bit of damage control: she’s already had to go back and delete an oft-mocked tweet saying that people can overcome nuclear radiation if only they “visualize angels dispersing it into nothingness” and another one proposing that Avatar director James Cameron be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. (She really, really likes Avatar.) But despite the proliferation of articles with headlines like “17 Most Outlandish Marianne Williamson Tweets, Ranked,” she remains a prolific social media user, often posting as many as ten or twelve times a day.
I was born and raised in Texas so I’ve seen it. Millions of people today are praying that Dorian turn away from land, and treating those people with mockery or condescension because they believe it could help is part of how the overly secularized Left has lost lots of voters.— Marianne Williamson (@marwilliamson) September 4, 2019
Sample: Williamson tweeted, then deleted, her belief that Hurricane Dorian could be redirected through prayer and “the creative power of the mind.” Then, after being roundly mocked for it, she began lashing out at assorted journalists and other members of the “overly secularized left,” shaming them for what she saw as their condescending attitudes toward spirituality. Among them was HuffPost contributor Yashar Ali, whom Williamson challenged to a public debate after he pointed out that she’d deleted and reframed her original tweet. Around the same time, reporter Molly Jong-Fast revealed that Williamson had DMed her mom, feminist icon Erica Jong, to complain about her daughter’s attitude toward her.
Potential rewards: Denouncing the godless and smug could rally to her cause not only Christians but a broad, if vaguely defined base of “people of faith”—people who make self-help books into a multibillion-dollar industry and who see nothing wrong with trying to inject positive thinking into a world increasingly overwhelmed by despair and cynicism. Also, maybe the hurricane does change paths a little, and she can say she did it with her mind.
Potential risks: As with Williamson’s past suggestions that everything from clinical depression to swine flu can be cured by love, there’s always the potential that she’ll be regarded as some sort of loon whose solution to absolutely everything, even natural disasters, is the liberal application of New Age bromides. By sniping at her critics, she risks being seen as hypocritically unwilling to practice her own philosophy and unable to withstand even an iota of the scrutiny that would come with the job of actually being president.
Likelihood of rewards: 11 percent
Likelihood of risks: 80 percent
Risk-reward ratio: Statistics are just the shields brandished by a frightened soul. Visualize cold numbers being surrounded by positive ions, then crushed and reborn as sunbeams.