Just about anyone who saw Uvalde’s state senator, Roland Gutierrez, beg Governor Greg Abbott last week to call a special session to address gun violence would have been moved to tears, and probably to action. Gutierrez was respectful as he beseeched the governor, who sat above him on a dais, but he was clearly near the end of his tether. “I don’t know how to express the loss of the families that I’ve talked to,” Gutierrez said, his voice quaking as he opened his palms skyward in that universal gesture of helplessness. “I know you feel it too,” he continued, pointing a finger at Abbott. “You have to do something, man.”
Watching, I wondered how Gutierrez could assume that Abbott was feeling anything. Like the district judge and state Supreme Court justice he once was, Abbott sat stone-faced, his mouth tight, his expression equal parts imperious, impassive, and impatient. Nothing in his mien suggested he was inclined to do anything meaningful to avoid further tragedies like the shooting of nineteen fourth graders and two teachers in Uvalde, much less the seven other mass shootings in Texas since 2009, five of them on his watch.
Texans would be hard-pressed to find an example of Abbott “doing something” significant following an incident of gun violence. Years before the shooter opened fire on the fourth graders at Robb Elementary School, 23 shoppers were killed at a Walmart in El Paso, and before that 10 kids were killed at their school in Santa Fe, near Houston, and before that 26 churchgoers were shot dead in Sutherland Springs, east of San Antonio, and so on. The most prominent action taken by Abbott and the Legislature in response has been to loosen gun restrictions, with the passage of a law in 2021 that lets Texans carry firearms without a permit or any gun-safety training. Abbott was more than willing to call multiple special sessions last year to limit voting rights, but today limiting the opportunity for eighteen-year-olds to buy combat weapons appears to be a bridge too far. Instead, he has called for the formation of legislative committees.
Doing as little as possible has been Abbott’s method of crisis management for most of his tenure as governor, most notably during and after the devastating blackouts, amid freezing temperatures, that killed an estimated seven hundred Texans in 2021. The state’s natural gas industry, one of the most generous contributors to Abbott’s campaign coffers, resisted the common-sense regulations that kept the lights on in other states hit by the same winter storm. So Abbott has done little to prevent the next blackout. He has shown a profound lack of interest in the most basic form of leadership: to galvanize and unite the public during the worst of times. Try to think of a time when Abbott had a moment like George W. Bush, who stood on top of the rubble of the World Trade Center with his bullhorn in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
Since his election in 2014, Abbott has shown a talent for fund-raising and for covering his right flank in Republican primary elections. But he has demonstrated few of the presentational gifts that Texans have long expected in their governors. Previous Texas governors have been masters of public imagery and public speaking. Rick Perry and George W. Bush each possessed a disarming warmth and a horse trough full of self-deprecating humor. Ann Richards may have been prickly in private, but in public she was radiant, witty, and energized by the crowds who were drawn to her. All three sent the same message: I know you; I am one of you. Though those close to Abbott say he has a sly sense of humor when among friends, and a boundless loyalty to his staff (and, of course, to his biggest donors), the rest of Texas has to take that on faith. Those qualities are not ones he chooses to share with the rest of us.
Instead, we have seen a governor who could be mistaken for an automaton. His initial statement about the Uvalde shootings—“It could have been worse”—was jarringly tone-deaf, and pushed a false narrative about a supposedly brave and rapid response by police. Then there was his comment about the shooter who killed “incomprehensibly,” an adverb with which many would beg to differ, considering the number of mass shootings in Texas since Abbott took office. What words of comfort Abbott offered seemed purposefully selected from the Book of Clichés, and were delivered in a tone better suited to someone checking inventory at a Kroger. Abbott’s most noteworthy public expression of shame about guns in Texas occurred when he tweeted this back in 2015: “I’m EMBARRASSED: Texas #2 in nation for new gun purchases, behind CALIFORNIA. Let’s pick up the pace Texans. @NRA.”
There are reasons that might somewhat explain Abbott’s emotional stinginess. He grew up at a time and in a place where men were men and boys weren’t supposed to show their feelings. But so did Bush and Perry. Then too, Abbott lost his father young and had to grow up fast. And when he was left partially paralyzed by a tree that fell on him in 1984, he was intent on proving that he could function in the world just as other young lawyers and judges did, and without complaint. “He wanted to be capable in a world where no one else was disabled,” recalled Michael Terry, who represented the company that had serviced the oak tree in the personal injury lawsuit Abbott later filed. Even before the accident, Abbott was determined to outwork and outshine any competitor; the accident only made him more so.
The dangers of showing weakness have been exacerbated in the Trump era. As author Adam Serwer has pointed out, the cruelty has become the point for the former president and many of his imitators. Being impervious to the pain of others, for many on the right, is a sign of strength and dominance over weak-willed libs who threaten individual freedom at every turn.
It’s also worth recalling Abbott’s years as a judge before he got into politics. Several critics have noted that, once elected governor, Abbott tended to behave as if he were still on the bench. “I think he governs like he’s a judge,” noted retired Republican state representative Lyle Larson, who as a legislator clashed often with Abbott. “He’s quick to declare executive orders. He doesn’t really listen to legislators. He dictates what he wants.” The horse trading that has long been the lifeblood of political accomplishment holds little interest for Abbott.
Then there is Abbott’s caution, which has led him to take few stands that might constitute a political risk, and to jettison any position that proves unpopular with the 3.3 percent of Texans who decide the outcome of Republican primaries. One example was the so-called bathroom bill, the 2017 legislation which would have required adults, including transgender Texans, to use restrooms that correspond to their assigned sex at birth. Abbott privately opposed the measure in talks with big campaign contributors who feared major sports events and conventions would boycott the state, but he publicly supported it. Another example came after the Santa Fe shooting, when he created a task force to recommend solutions to curb gun violence, and then pushed the Legislature to act on only the most tepid of the school-safety measures suggested.
Nothing is more important to Abbott than staying in office, and that means staying true to his donors and to Republican primary voters. Abbott held a fundraiser in East Texas just hours after the shooting in Uvalde. Unlike other state leaders, including Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, Abbott didn’t withdraw completely from last week’s National Rifle Association conference in Houston. Nor did he show up in full-throated support of the organization, as Senator Ted Cruz did. Abbott instead split the difference, sending a supportive video opposing gun restrictions.
There are still contributors and political operatives who believe that Abbott could make a go of a presidential race. But the strikes against him are multiplying. He’s always been more interested in simply holding high office than in using it as an opportunity for leadership. He’s made a fetish out of many Texans’ long-held distrust of government, so that doing little or nothing, even in a crisis, can be made to look like a virtue. He’s been operating in a self-protective bubble for so long—able to avoid tough questions from reporters and confrontations from opponents—that he now seems both shocked and affronted when challenged, his responses to the Uvalde shooting being the latest case in point. Maybe the boos Abbott received on his last visit to the town will give him pause. It might do the same for Republicans looking for a presidential candidate in 2024.
Watching Abbott over the past few days reminded me of a video I saw in February 2021, when the electric grid failed. Abbott was about to give a speech from the bustling Texas State Emergency Operations Center, telling Texans who were still freezing in their homes that “You. Deserve. Answers.” He was practicing his lines, perhaps unaware that cameras were rolling. As he finished, he pushed back in his seat and looked away with the same grimace Texans have seen in the past week. “Is that good enough?” he asked. As if that were all that was required.