Every Thursday, we publish Bull Session, a roundup of the political odds and ends of the week, penning them all into one overstuffed corral.  

There was plenty of pageantry on display at Donald Trump’s State of the Union address this week, from Trump playing a monarchical Maury to his audience of surprised Army wives and Rush Limbaughs, to Nancy Pelosi’s theatrical paper shredding, to the junior-high-production-of-Inherit-the-Wind mock trial we must all now endure over “civility.” But if you happen to be Texan—or you’ve vaguely heard of Texas—the moment that likely stood out to you was when President Trump unexpectedly invoked the Alamo. Trump’s shout-out to the famed San Antonio battle site came amid a sentimental reverie on great American heroes, from Abraham Lincoln to Annie Oakley, who represent the true grit and tenacity of this nation, and its handiness with a gun. “This is the place where the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, and where Texas patriots made their last stand at the Alamo,” Trump said to applause, before ad-libbing “the beautiful, beautiful Alamo.” 

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There were plenty who agreed with this sentiment—and many of them Texan, of course, and thus biologically predisposed to get misty-eyed whenever “the Alamo” is uttered. After all, have we not been conditioned since birth to “Remember the Alamo” through repeated drills, our fathers rousting us out of bed in the dead of night to recite the names of all two-hundred-plus men who died there, alphabetically, or else we get the hose? Right? And yet … beautiful? The Alamo? 

Granted, the Alamo is symbolically beautiful, a living monument to the determination, indomitable spirit, and, again, guns, that America was built on. (That is, if you ignore that to many the Alamo is an ugly reminder of the anti-Mexican sentiment that, not so coincidentally, is usually echoed in Trump’s own rhetoric. Or the fact that hundreds of people died.) But on a literal, more honest level, the Alamo itself isn’t much to look at. It’s a rather unremarkable lump of stone, dust, and souvenir that’s flanked by a Ripley’s Believe It or Not, a Fuddruckers, and a vape shop—the squat locus of a plaza that’s constantly crowded by tourists, protesters, and the occasional bouncy castle. It is “beautiful” in the sense that your screaming, snot-caked four-year-old is beautiful, which is to say that you love it anyway because you spy some glimmer of humanity’s potential for greatness lurking somewhere beneath the dirt and noise, and also because it is yours

As many quickly noted, it’s unclear whether Trump has ever actually been to the Alamo, or glimpsed it out of a motorcade window, or given it much thought at all before it suddenly appeared on his teleprompter Tuesday night. We do know that he once sped through San Antonio to hobnob with supporters at the swanky Argyle restaurant, approximately ten minutes to the Alamo’s north, and we know he thinks San Antonio is both on the Mexican border and has a wall. We also know that first lady Melania Trump tucked a miniature Alamo into her annual eerie, Stanley Kubrick-ian Christmas display—right between the White House and St. Louis’s Gateway Arch—and we know that its use as a sort of decorative, airport-gift-shop tchotchke arranged in a loose geographical jumble is probably a pretty accurate representation of where the Alamo actually sits in Donald Trump’s big, beautiful brain. But as to whether Donald Trump has actually gazed upon the Alamo in all its squat, utterly gold-plating-deficient glory and muttered that it is “beautiful”—as beautiful as doors, phones, coal, sleeping gas, or chocolate cake? Probably not. But we love the Alamo, don’t we, folks, and you hear it more and more that people are saying that it’s beautiful, and we’re all going to be saying “Remember the Beautiful, Beautiful Alamo” a lot more, believe me. 

The Other States of the Union, Ranked

Much as you would prepare for a night of fine dining by eating several smaller, crappier meals throughout the day, many politicians like to release their own mini State of the Union addresses before the big event, taking this opportunity to elucidate the various talking points they hope to hear in the speech—which are themselves largely derivative of the talking points their party has been pushing all year. It’s a tradition as popular as it is pointless, and a true delight for those with an insatiable hunger for speeches and pandering, desperately patriotic props. Because you don’t have jobs where you have to be on Twitter all day, we’ve collected some of those videos from Texas politicians for you, then conveniently rated them according to how overtly American-y they are.

Senator John Cornyn

Apparently filmed by someone who was trying to leave John Cornyn’s office, the senator’s rather sloppily edited testimonial finds him waxing both positively and haltingly about Trump’s economic and military achievements. Cornyn then expresses his hope that Trump will talk about infrastructure and reducing prescription drug costs—safely bipartisan issues that are automatically dumped like lorem ipsum text into every State of the Union, so don’t worry, John. And that’s it! You can go now.

Patriotic props: A portrait of Sam Houston. A Texas flag barely visible over his shoulder. An external Apple monitor that, uh, served two tours in Iraq.
American-y rating: 🇺🇸🇺🇸

U.S. Representative Mac Thornberry

Preceded by an old-timey Sousa march that’s played over a very Masterpiece Theatre-esque shot of his bookshelves, Thornberry offers us a bland history lesson on the State of the Union that’s one part Wikipedia-sourced report, one part employee training video. Thornberry grudgingly acknowledges that Trump’s impeachment “hangs over the situation,” but he reminds us “it’s not the only thing going on.” Thornberry praises Trump’s economic and military achievements and offers his stirring assessment that the state of our union is “really, pretty good.” 

Patriotic props: A giant National Geographic map labeled “The World,” which technically contains America.
American-y rating: 🇺🇸

U.S. Representative Kevin Brady

Brady shot his video at a desk strewn with binders and newspapers, so you know how important it must have been for him to take time out of his busy day to praise Trump’s economic achievements. (What, Kevin Brady doesn’t care about the military???) Brady expresses confidence that Trump will lower health care and prescription drug costs, and he even parrots Trump’s “The Best Is Yet to Come” slogan hours before its big debut. Finally, he gets in a little, mumbling dig at Democrats and “this partisan impeachment”—strong words he delivers with all the passion of a guy reading the side effects in an antidepressant commercial. 

Patriotic props: Brady has a portrait of Abraham Lincoln glaring at him from his wall, another bust of Lincoln on his desk, approximately eight baseballs, a bat, and a glove. He is missing only an apple pie cooling on his windowsill.
American-y rating: 🇺🇸🇺🇸🇺🇸

U.S. Representative Chip Roy

While most pols usually film these in their offices, U.S. representative Chip Roy, unsurprisingly, does his right in the middle of the Capitol, his voice echoing loudly off the walls. Roy praises Trump’s economic and military achievements, then abruptly changes his tone: “Is anybody in this building gonna actually do something about $23.2 trillion in debt, or are we just gonna hear more talk?” he asks. “Is anybody in this building gonna do anything to secure the border of the United States, or are we just gonna hear more talk and more blocking from my Democrat colleagues?” 

Roy goes on to ask whether “anyone in this building” will lower health care costs, support the military, and, above all, “stop letting Democrats derail what the American people want to see us do”—all questions that might be seen as broadly rhetorical, were he not posing them right there in the Rotunda. 

Patriotic props: Chip Roy’s got John Trumbull’s whole damn Declaration of Independence behind him, suckers! Top that!
American-y rating: 🇺🇸🇺🇸🇺🇸🇺🇸

 

Empower Texans Pivots to BBQ

The far-right advocacy group Empower Texans has spent years exerting a shadowy influence over Texas politics through its dark-money campaign financing, its “fiscal responsibility index” shaming of moderate conservatives, and, finally, through some byzantine, fluke “sting” operation that dragged Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen down into a scandal that was as shocking as it was stupid. And for its next act, it’s going to tell you where to get some good barbecue. Empower Texans’ website, Texas Scorecard, recently launched a new section dedicated to “life in the Lone Star State”—a wholly original area of coverage that will include “reviews of books, BBQ joints, local destinations, and those things that make life in Texas worth defending.” So far, the section is pretty sparse, largely consisting of several Christian essays from Empower Texans CEO Michael Quinn Sullivan. Still, if you’ve ever wondered whether Louie Mueller’s Barbecue is any good—and you only trust the taste buds of hardline conservatives—Texas Scorecard now has you covered. 

As noted by campaign finance tracker Christopher Tackett, Empower Texans’ expansion into a “lifestyle brand” dovetails suspiciously with its decreased campaign spending, suggesting that it may have realized that its brand has been tarnished in the wake of the Bonnen scandal. It is now, he suggests, likely to move on to some other shell game to accomplish its political goals. Or maybe this new guise of being travel-and-BBQ reporters is all about finally getting those press credentials Sullivan wanted, without having to blackmail anyone? 

 

Taylor Swift’s Latest Muse: Beto O’Rourke

Finally, former U.S. representative Beto O’Rourke may have lost both his senatorial and presidential bids, and his current mission to turn Texas blue has, thus far, seen some disappointing results. Still, as everyone from John Mayer to Jake Gyllenhaal has asked themselves, wasn’t all that stress and humiliation worth it, knowing that he inspired a Taylor Swift song? 

Swift’s foray into political music coincides with her recently released Netflix documentary, Miss Americana, in which she discusses her new single, “Only the Young”—a tune Swift says was inspired by O’Rourke’s failed run against Ted Cruz. “The first verse I want to be all about like hearing the news,” Swift says in the film. “You know, like if you were a kid, and you loved Beto and thought that was the future of Texas … and it just didn’t happen.” She then adds, “But statistically, we have what, 3 to 4 million people turning 18 in the next two years before the next one? It’s basically saying, don’t lose hope.”

As with most of Swift’s romans à clef, the lyrics to “Only the Young” are a bit oblique and universal when it comes to addressing her subject. “You did all that you could do / The game was rigged, the ref got tricked,” she sings of disillusioned Democratic voters and/or someone experiencing a bad breakup. “The wrong ones think they’re right / You were outnumbered this time.” Swift goes on to make a slightly more overt reference to school shootings in the second verse, before calling out “the big bad man and his big bad clan” as an anti-Trump rallying cry, putting conservatives, gun nuts, and white supremacists in the same dark league as Katy Perry. It’s a surprisingly grim but, yes, hopeful song that O’Rourke himself has yet to comment on—likely terrified, as any rational person would be, of talking about Taylor Swift on the internet. Still, hopefully it brings him some comfort in these lean times that people like Taylor Swift still remember the beautiful, beautiful Beto.