TEXCEPTIONALISM

In ‘God Save Texas,’ Lawrence Wright Explores the Love-Hate Relationship With the Lone Star State

Lawrence Wright’s meditation on Texas bounces back-and-forth between an infectious case of ‘Texceptionalism’ and a serious bout of self-loathing.

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In 1979, 14 years after fleeing Texas as a teenager, journalist Lawrence Wright found himself on assignment in the Lone Star State in a little town called Gruene, his stomach full of a three-inch rare steak.

George Strait was opening for a swing band at legendary music venue Gruene Hall, when Wright—who lived in Atlanta at the time—finally felt the push to move back to his home state.

“Dancers were two-stepping; the boys had longnecks in the rear pockets of their jeans and the girls wore aerodynamic skirts,” Wright chronicles in his new book about his Lone Star home land, God Save Texas.

The book was inspired by a conversation that took place four decades after that fateful night on the dance floor, when Wright, by now a New Yorker staff writer, was asked by editor David Remnick to “explain Texas.” Some 368 pages later, he has epitomized many native Texans’ love-hate relationship with the proud state.

Texas has “a culture that is still raw, not fully formed, standing on the margins but also growing in influence, dangerous and magnificent in its potential,” Wright writes. And yet, the state has also “nurtured an immature political culture that has done terrible damage to the state and to the nation.”

The book’s 14 chapters dance between meditations on cities, culture, and politics, and all of them dive into what it means to be a Texan who has sentimental attachment to the state and still sees all of its flaws with clarity.

“Writers have been sizing up Texas from its earliest days, usually harshly,” Wright says. “We’re reputed to be braggarts; careless with money and our personal lives; a little gullible but dangerous if crossed; insecure but obsessed with power and prestige.”

Of course, that sounds like a certain orange-tinged president, and Wright addresses the connection: “It’s an irony that the figure who most embodies the values people associate with the state is a narcissistic Manhattan billionaire now sitting in the Oval Office.”

Wright points out that outsiders often accuse Texas of being responsible for a “darker political culture” all over the United States, using as examples figures like Lyndon Johnson, George W. Bush, Tom DeLay, and Ted Cruz.

But it’s more complicated than that, Wright claims in prose that meanders between revulsion and adoration.

Two different states exist at the same time, he says, dubbing them “AM Texas” and “FM Texas.” The first “speaks to the suburbs and the rural areas—Trumpland... Paranoia and piety are the main items on the menu.” By contrast, the latter “is the silky voice of city dwellers in the kingdom of NPR... progressive, blue, reasonable, secular, and smug—almost like California.”

Wright’s book is accurately described by The Texas Observer as “a record of ambivalence” about my proud state, a feeling I can certainly relate to as a native Texan who is also a vegetarian feminist living in Brooklyn.

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I love my state dearly for many reasons, including my family’s deep history in it. My grandfather, a gun-collecting oil man, is rarely without a cowboy hat. Great (great great) uncles have stories about fighting off knife-wielding thieves while working as Texas Rangers. I’m proud of that history, but I also understand its context.

Texas Monthly notes that “Wright’s tone throughout the book conjures nothing so much as a series of loosely connected diary entries by a spouse reporting from inside a troubled marriage,” and it’s likely my connection to my flawed home that makes me empathize so deeply with his perspective.

These reviews are correct, but there’s more to draw from Wright’s writing when you live outside of the state—partly because he’s bouncing between an infectious case of “Texceptionalism” and a serious bout of self-loathing.

A recurrent crop of crackpots and ideologues has fed the state’s reputation for aggressive know-nothingism and proudly retrograde politics.
Lawrence Wright

Traversing the state’s bluebonnet-dotted highways, Wright explores Texas culture both large and small. He covers all the capitalist representations of the state, including our obsession with Buc-ee’s, the exceptionally clean giant gas station and convenience store, and with H-E-B, our beloved grocery chain that sells Texas-shaped chips and Whataburger ketchup.

Both often serve as symbols for what Wright later calls “Level One” culture in the state.

“At Buc-ee’s, an aspiring Texan can get fully outfitted not only with the clothing but also with the cultural and philosophical stances that embody the Texas stereotypes—cowboy individualism, a kind of wary friendliness, superpatriotism combined with defiance of all government authority, a hair-trigger sense of grievance, nostalgia for an ersatz past that is largely an artifact of Hollywood—a low-brow society, in other words, that finds its fullest expression in a truck stop on the interstate,” Wright says.

“Despite the legendary qualities of boorishness, braggadocio, greed, and overall tackiness that are associated with my state, there is a lot to love about the traditional elements of our culture,” according to Wright. “You can still find the Tex-Mex Regular Dinner on the menu, and there are steak houses that haven’t changed since the introduction of bacon bits on the baked potato. Pickup trucks are as common on the city streets as yellow cabs in Manhattan.”

Former Gov. Ann Richards, a true Texan, “wore designer suits but picked her teeth, and she cleaned her fingernails with a Swiss Army knife,” Wright describes.

I have personally written thousands and thousands of words about the pervasive and egregious sexual harassment perpetrated by men in the state legislature, so to me it follows perfectly that Wright’s chapter on the statehouse is called “Sausage Makers.”

“Texas has always had a burlesque side to its politics,” he says.

As an example, he trumps out the now-notorious conspiracy theorist Robert Morrow, who in 2016 was famously elected as Republican Party chairman in Travis County. He was sworn into the position while wearing a jester’s hat and soon tweeted, “Top priority for Travis GOP: beautiful Big Titty women!!!”

(Morrow was eventually removed from his seat after several months of mortifying even his fellow Republicans.)

“Fairly considered, the Texas legislature is more functional than the U.S. Congress, and more genteel than the House of Commons, but a recurrent crop of crackpots and ideologues has fed the state’s reputation for aggressive know-nothingism and proudly retrograde politics,” Wright says.

Unfortunately, he adds, “What happens here tends to disproportionately affect the rest of the nation.”

The Texas Capitol, built with sparkling pink granite in 1888, was at the time the seventh-largest building in the world and can still today fit the Statue of Liberty inside its palatial rotunda. It’s bigger than even the U.S. Capitol.

As John Bainbridge once wrote in his 1961 book The Super-Americans: “Texas is a mirror in which Americans see themselves reflected, not life-sized but, as in a distorting mirror, bigger than life.

“They are not pleased by the image.”