Earlier this week, a campaign video emerged out of Texas showing a brawny bull-rider trying to buck his way into Congress. The ad, featuring Republican candidate and former professional wrestler Dan Rodimer, checked all the Republican boxes, from complaints about “communism” to whingeing about how Democrats “hate our way of life.” “Commies in D.C. are ruining America,” railed Rodimer, claiming the time had come to “make America Texas again.” For good measure, Rodimer referred to himself in the third person as “Big Dan.”
There was little to distinguish Rodimer’s ad from dozens of other campaign clips from Trumpian Republicans. But one thing stood out: As reporters from both the American Independent and The Washington Post found, Rodimer hardly has any claim to representing Texas. “Originally from New Jersey, Rodimer attended a preparatory school in the suburbs before moving to Florida for college and law school,” the Post wrote, while noting Rodimer’s buttoned-up, mild-mannered campaign ads from just a year before, when he ran for Congress in Nevada. Trading his starched polo for a 10-gallon hat and replacing his meek voice with a half-baked impression of Doc Holliday, Rodimer had refashioned himself as a cosplay cowboy—one who’d firmly back the kinds of illiberal, authoritarian policies swiftly rising in popularity on the Texas right.
But Rodimer—one of nearly a dozen Republicans running in a May 1 special election for the seat vacated when Representative Ron Wright died of Covid-19 in February—leaned a bit too far into his Lone Star affect. Even an oleaginous Republican like Congressman Matt Gaetz saw through the veneer; as Gaetz wrote, “Texas shouldn’t import its congressmen. Big Dan is all hat, no cattle.” Yet rather than charting his own path, “Big Dan” was simply following in the bootsteps of other carpetbagging fraudsters before him—attempting to stake a claim to Texan authenticity without any ties to the state itself, all in the service of expanding the oppressive policies that have defined Trump’s Republican Party.
If you scratch any of the politicians and voices peopling Texas’s frothing far right, odds are you’ll find an out-of-state transplant bent on burying any signs of their posh background. Senator Ted Cruz is perhaps the most well-known example of the phenomenon: a native Canadian, a graduate of Harvard and Princeton, refashioned into a belligerent, bearded jingoist bent on cracking skulls along the border (at least when he’s not sneaking into Cancun). But Cruz, who at least grew up in the Houston area, is hardly the most egregious case.
Chip Roy, a Republican congressman representing an audaciously gerrymandered district that includes parts of Austin and San Antonio as well as a wide rural swath west of those cities, made waves earlier this month for glorifying lynching during a hearing on anti-Asian violence. Born in Bethesda, Maryland, and raised in a tony Virginian suburb of Washington, Roy played on the golf team at the University of Virginia before working as an investment bank analyst. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick is best known for suggesting that older Americans sacrifice themselves in order to reopen pandemic-shuttered businesses, as well as for his efforts to target trans Texans and force public events to broadcast the national anthem. Born and raised in Baltimore, Patrick was an English major at the University of Maryland and worked as a nightclub owner and failed businessman before refashioning himself as a shock-jock radio host and then a far-right politico. Chad Prather, a self-described comedian at BlazeTV who recently become the most significant media voice pushing for Texas secession, is a New Jersey native and graduate of the University of Georgia.
And the current head of the Texas GOP is a lodestar for the kinds of counterfeit conservatism saturating the American right. Allen West ascended to the head of the state’s Republican Party in 2020—an odd move considering West had spent years making a name for himself in Florida, where he served as a congressman. As the Texas Monthly wondered, “How did a Florida Man become the face of the Texas Republican Party?” In less than a year as the party’s head, West has begun openly endorsing calls for a Texit.
Little matter that secession is illegal, and would result in unprecedented population transfers, economic devastation, and political bloodshed the likes of which the U.S. hasn’t seen in decades. As West said last week, reiterating his calls for secession, “What would be wrong with allowing people to have a vote on the future of Texas?”
These faux-Texans who are racing to out-bigot one another are living in the past, clinging to an image of Texas from the mid-twentieth century rather than the ethnically and economically diverse juggernaut the state has become. But one of the great ironies of these carpetbaggers is that, according to the conventional wisdom of Texas conservatives, the cause of the state’s leftward shift is the arrival of out-of-staters.
To be sure, there is some truth to the claim that transplants have pushed Texan politics in new directions. Americans from around the country have scurried to the state to take advantage of its economic boom and absence of personal state income taxes. And many of those have uprooted from so-called “blue states” like California, leading Republicans like Governor Greg Abbott to cry, “Don’t California My Texas!”
Yet there’s little evidence these transplants are the sole, or even the driving, cause of Texas’s approaching swing-state status. As the Houston Press wrote last year, “It is utter nonsense to assume that every person coming here is some wide-eyed socialist hippie who dreams of high taxes and replacing Whataburgers with soy patties.” Another write-up noted that it was “significantly reductive” to ascribe Texas’s leftward lurch to these new arrivals.
Indeed, there’s a kind of cognitive dissonance at play in the Texas right’s claim that the sole reason for the state’s political shift is wayward Californians. After all, shouldn’t these uprooted Californians be fleeing the supposedly failed socialist policies in California? Why would they be bringing these left-leaning policies with them? Are California politicians secretly plotting to spread the seeds of socialism wherever the roots of liberty run deep?
This willingness to pin Texas’s political changes on an influx of liberals acts as a kind of cover, or an excuse, for a state Republican Party unwilling to face new generations and demographics of Texans disgusted by the party’s Trumpian turn. Younger Texans, nonwhite Texans, second-generation Americans whose immigrant parents selected Dallas and Houston and El Paso as the place to raise their family—all of these contingents are increasingly sloughing off the outdated images of Texas that prep schoolers like Roy and Rodimer cling to. It’s these true-native Texans who are refashioning those tired tropes, all while steering the state leftward, toward a more multiethnic polity aimed squarely against the authoritarian rot at the heart of the Texas Republican Party.
But there’s one more irony at the heart of these far-right transplants attempting to claim the mantle of Texanness. When the state first began convulsing toward independence in the 1830s, the state’s residents broke into two camps. On the one end was a multiracial cohort composed of older Anglos and most of the state’s Tejanos, content to remain within the anti-slavery republic of Mexico. On the other end was a contingent of young, transplanted Anglos, comprising the so-called “War Party.”
As historian Thomas Richards Jr. wrote in Breakaway Americas, these new migrants “radicalized the struggle” for Texas independence, attempting to spark a revolution in order to cement slavery in the new Texan nation-state forevermore. The “War Party” was “ardently pro-slavery and stridently racist toward non-Anglos.” And, in the end, it was the “War Party” that proved successful—spiraling the region into bloodshed, annexation to the U.S., and, eventually, fratricidal war in the U.S. itself.
All of which is to say that the phenomenon of out-of-staters swooping into Texas to radicalize state politics is a tale as old as Texas itself. It already ended in devastation once. And there’s little reason to think the modern Texas GOP, or at least those non-Texans leading it, would object to a similar outcome this time around. As West wrote in a 2018 book on his new home, “In Texas, it’s ‘Victory or Death.’”