In his new book, God Save Texas: A Journey Into the Soul of the Lone Star State, Lawrence Wright examines his native state with a combination of disappointment, affection, and concern. Wright looks at how Texas has become increasingly diverse, with an economy that is more and more tech-driven, as its politics remain firmly right wing. Despite its large, multicultural cities, the state remains a low-tax haven, with safety-net benefits under assault, gun ownership sky-high, and a Republican Party increasingly unmoored from common sense. How this mix will play out over the next several decades as the state continues to rapidly grow is the narrative question underpinning the book.
I recently spoke by phone with Wright, who is also a staff writer at the New Yorker. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed whether Texas is quintessentially American or unlike the rest of the country, why Ted Cruz has never really seemed like a Texan, and the ways in which the national GOP has followed in the Texas GOP’s footprints.
Isaac Chotiner: Why title the book God Save Texas?
Lawrence Wright: It’s going to take a mighty force to make a correction.
A correction to your book title or a correction in Texas?
The direction that Texas is now taking politically. I love Texas. I love it enough to be critical of it when I feel that it’s taking a step in the wrong direction. Texas is forfeiting the future that it should have, and that has national repercussions because Texas is really the future of America.
Why do you think it’s the future of America?
Well, right now it’s the second largest state. It’s projected to double in size by 2050, at which time it will be about the size of New York and California combined. We have 39 electoral votes now in Texas. We’ll get four more in the next census. California has 55, but it hasn’t had any more electoral votes since 2003 and won’t in the next census. And New York, the third largest state, has been losing population and delegates and influence for decades. It’s pretty clear that there’s only one state that’s going to become the main factor in the future of America, and that’s Texas.
A lot of people, especially people abroad, see Texas as the embodiment of America, with cowboys and a go-it-alone attitude and guns and all the clichés, which have some truth to them. Is this correct, or do you see Texas as sui generis within America, to use a very un-Texas phrase?
There’s two ways of looking at this, Isaac. One is that Texas is very much like the rest of the country. If you look at, for instance, where people voted for Trump, you’ll see splashes of blue along either coastline, and then you see a big red country with blue freckles on it. If you’re looking at that map, you can’t tell where Texas ends and where it begins. It looks just like the rest of the middle of the country. On the other hand, Texas has a very profound cultural imprint, and there are few places in the country where you have such a defined identity as you do in Texas. This cultural imprint is a gift, in a way. It’s a powerful brand. All over the world people have images of Texas and what Texas is like. I wouldn’t want to lose that. It certainly doesn’t define what Texas is today and maybe it limits our imagination about what Texas really stands for.
So then how do you define what Texas is today?
Let’s start with the fact that Texas is far more progressive and diverse than people imagine. Take the city of Houston, for instance, which is considered the most ethnically diverse city in America. Twenty percent of the population was born in some other country. It had more political refugees than any other city in America. It’s had two black mayors and America’s first lesbian mayor. It’s considered by some metrics to have the highest standards of living in the whole country. These are not the images that people have of Houston or of Texas.
But in terms of the flip-side of that: To what degree do you think what’s happened with the Republican Party in Texas is, again, specific to Texas, and to what degree do you think it’s just a large Republican state and the Republican Party as a whole has gone in an unfortunate direction?
Much of the direction that the Republican Party has taken nationally has its roots in actions that were taken in Texas, such as redistricting. The pioneer of redistricting was Tom DeLay and the Texas Legislature, when it turned red and began to carve up districts like mine, where I live in Austin. Austin is probably the most liberal city in the entire southern tier of the United States, and now it’s been carved into six different congressional districts with five Republicans and one Democrat representing Austin. Representatives from other states actually came to Texas and talked to [former speaker of the Texas House] Tom Craddick and Tom DeLay about how they’d accomplish it. Texas became a model for that.
There is a national Republican agenda for cutting back taxes. Naturally, that causes a failure to deliver the services. You can see that in education, all over, especially in the deep red states— Kansas, Oklahoma, our neighbors, where teachers are seriously underpaid, and the education of our children is really suffering. That’s true in Texas. The nation’s report card, which came out a couple weeks ago, has Texas down in the bottom 10 or 15 percent of the nation’s students. It’s at the bottom or right next to the bottom in terms of how much money it spends per student in the state, which is similar to what’s happening in other states. A lot of it has its origins in Texas.
What are your biggest fears about Texas, and are they distinct from your fears about the future of the country?
They are very much tied up. Ten percent of all the schoolchildren in America right now are Texans. We’re really failing in the education of our future workers in the state, and it has national repercussions. Texas is going to double in population by 2050, but the infrastructure of the state is already challenged. There’s been very little planning to accommodate that massive influx of population. Both Dallas and Houston are expected to have populations of 10 million people in just 12 years, and yet the cities are really, really struggling with the infrastructure. A lot of that has to do with the fact that the state has done so little to provide the kind of infrastructure that Texas really needs.
You’ve written a lot of books on a lot of different things, from the Middle East to Scientology. Was the experience of writing this book at all different just because of how much it means to you personally?
Yeah, it really was. It was also a lot of fun. I know we’ve been talking about my dismal forecast for our politics. But I love Texas. I love a lot of things about Texas. I’m in a band; we play a lot of Texas music. I love to drive around the state. I have a ton of friends in the state. I like the epic friendliness and openness that is so characteristic of Texas. There’s a great spirit of boldness and entrepreneurialism that I admire quite a lot. I enjoy living in Texas, but there are things that I feel should be addressed and corrected. I love Texas enough to want to add my voice of concern.
What has it been like to be in Texas during this post-Parkland gun debate?
The only politician that I’m aware of with any real standing in the state to have addressed this is John Cornyn, who put forward a very modest gun proposal in the Congress. He took some hits for that, but I think he at least was one political figure in the state that felt that something had to be done rather than nothing. Our attorney general, his solution with the Sutherland Springs church shooting was to arm the parishioners. That’s a characteristic response of our current political leadership.
What do you make of Ted Cruz? At one level, I think people would say he’s the stereotypical Texas senator, he’s extremely conservative on every issue, etc. But in a way he seems like the least Texas person possible.
Well, I agree that he does not strike anyone in Texas as being a native Texan, and he’s not. He’s a Cuban by way of Canada. It’s not that there aren’t a lot of immigrants from other places in Texas. He’s one of them. When I think of Ted Cruz, he reminds me more of a British imperialist in the 19th century, maybe with a curly mustache and a monocle while he divides up the globe. I think he’d be far more at home in that kind of ultra-elite circle than he is in the kind of rough-and-tumble of Texas. It’s creepy to see him in his video about making machine gun bacon.
During his campaign, he issued a video called “Making Machine Gun Bacon with Ted Cruz.” It’s not actually a machine gun; it’s an AR-15, this school shooter gun that’s semi-automatic.* He’s at a gun range, and he wraps some bacon around the muzzle and encloses it in foil and then he starts firing away, and soon grease is flying and so on. He takes this fully cooked piece of bacon off the muzzle and goes, “Nothing like machine gun bacon,” and talks about how much he likes to make bacon for his family on the weekend. I suppose this was to show a jollier and more humane side of the candidate. It just comes off as being extremely creepy.
Well, Trump did basically accuse his father of killing JFK, and JFK was killed in Texas. It’s all coming together.
It makes sense, doesn’t it? I tell you, this senatorial race with Beto O’Rourke is going to be a really telling factor in the future of Texas. Ted Cruz is certainly not the most beloved political figure in the state. He was elected with what has been characteristic of Texas politics up until now: that the winner of the GOP primary is the de facto victor, and November is simply a ratification process.
It was, comparatively speaking, a handful of Republicans who elected Ted Cruz. He’s a divisive figure even in the state, and his failure to endorse Trump at the Republican convention alienated a lot of Republicans. He’s an awkward figure, but many Texas Republicans stand by him because he represents the kind of extreme conservatism that they endorse. He’s been out-fundraised by a very progressive, attractive candidate who has, according to a recent poll, climbed within the margin of error in the election. It will be exciting to see how it might turn out.
Correction, April 26, 2018: Due to a transcription error, an original version of this piece referred to the AR-15 as a “dual-shooter.”