A Wrinkle in Time: On conservative disgust, preserving Texas and the race for governor

Good morning Austin:

Mattito’s Tex-Mex, where Greg Abbott met with supporters Saturday morning in Frisco.

My first day on the campaign trail following Greg Abbott Saturday (he was in a plane and I was in a car, so I made his first stop in Frisco and his last in Abilene, but missed his middle stop in Wichita Falls) got off to a bad start. I had covered the great Cornyn-Alameel Univision debate the night before in Dallas, and stayed at a hotel in Frisco. I arrived early for his appearance at Mattito’s Tex-Mex and was standing by myself amid the milling crowd, when a nattily attired man in sport jacket and tie approached me, looked me up and down, and with a look of disgust said something to the effect of “nice outfit.”

I knew this was not a compliment, but I wasn’t sure what exactly was wrong with my outfit, especially considering the casualness of a Saturday morning political event at a Tex-Mex restaurant. I was wearing relatively new Banana Republic black jeans, a freshly laundered white, button-down shirt, brand new Blundstone boots, a brand new black belt, and what I thought to be a pretty cool black linen Comune sport coat that I got at the Barney’s Coop in Georgetown, when I lived in Washington, D.C.

Unsure of where this was going, I mumbled some kind of apologetic, nondescript reply.

“It looks like you slept in it,” he said. And then, after another look at me, “How many nights?”

Now, it is true I have on occasion slept in my clothes, but I always change before leaving home the next day. On this occasion, however, I had not, in fact, slept in what I was wearing, and the only thing that was at all wrinkled was the linen jacket, and I really thought that a linen jacket allowed for some license in that regard.

Here from the Houndstooth Kid:

Intentionally Wrinkled

Having traveled a short distance to hang out with a friend this morning, it came to me that linen would make a very good travel fabric.

Here’s why.

It wrinkles. It’s supposed to wrinkle. A linen suit or jacket without wrinkles is like a car without wheels: they just have to be there for it to work.

I had thought my wrinkles were working. But apparently not.

“Typical wacko,”my critic said to me, at me. He turned, walked a few steps away and posted himself. When I turned to look at him he trained a contemptuous glare at me.

I was perplexed. I was clutching a reporter’s notebook, so maybe he had concluded I was an enemy journalist, but I was confused how he could be so certain that he was willing to risk insulting someone who might be there for the same purpose he was there for – to cheer for Greg Abbott.

I walked over to him and asked, “Did I do something to offend you?”

“Yes,” he said. “Breathe.”

My look betrayed my shock, and so he elaborated, just so I would know my shock was not misplaced.

“You are breathing my oxygen.”

Sign on the door entering the hall at Mountain View College in Dallas for Friday night’s Cornyn-Alameel Senate debate sponsored by Univision.

Shaken, I walked away. I went into the men’s room and looked in the mirror. I looked pretty much like I always look, my attire no worse than usual. My hair is a little long and shaggy.  I had gone to get a trim recently at the Austin Barber Shop on Justin Lane, but when I got in the chair, barber Trisha Wyrick  talked me out of it. She said if I cut my hair, I’d lose my curls and any possibility of a pony tail. At my insistence, she snipped a very few hairs, and didn’t charge me anything. I left a tip, looking pretty much the way I looked when I walked in.

“This is Austin,” Wyrick told me. “You can get away with it.”

I was in Frisco now. But I was confused. This was not some backwater. This is one of those booming, freshly minted communities of the future – all construction cranes and youth soccer tournaments – a paradigm of Texas growth, a peek into the Texas future.

Luckily, my sense of personal hurt was assuaged by my recently gained knowledge that my encounter was probably the result of a deep and reflexive conservative gag reaction to things that threaten or disgust them. Last week I wrote about the fascinating research by Rice University political scientist John Alford and others indicating that political conservatives tend to exhibit a stronger automatic reaction to things that threaten or disgust them. They have, in effect, a more hair-trigger survival instinct which, in the grand evolutionary scheme of things, may be a good thing.

I wrote about Alford’s research in the context of the political fallout of the Ebola outbreak:

The Ebola story, in which an outsider brings disease to American shores, is the quintessential issue more likely to provoke a gut reaction from conservatives than liberals, and draw them to the polls, according to Rice University political scientist John Alford, a cutting edge researcher on the physiology of ideology.

“There are two things that conservatives are attuned to more and react to more — signals of threat and signals of disgust — so it’s a gift to the Republicans in this election that you’ve got exactly those two things dominating the national news,” Alford said. “Every time someone in the news is talking about projectile vomiting and diarrhea, I think, `The Republican vote just went up another half percent.’”


In an experiment they wrote about in 2008 in the journal Science, the researchers used eye movement sensors to determine that the political conservatives in their study tended to have a harder involuntary blink response to a startling noise, indicating a heightened “fear state.”

In this and another experiment, Alford and his colleagues also used sensors on the subjects’ fingers to measure changes in the skin’s conductance of electricity, a precursor to sweat, when they were confronted with a threatening image, such as a snake ready to strike, or with a disgusting image, such as maggots in an open sore.

In both cases, conservatives tended to have a stronger response to the images.

The stronger reaction to threat, the researchers found, is correlated with a more conservative stance on questions of national defense, border security and immigration, while the heightened sense of disgust correlates with a more conservative stance on gay marriage, abortion and other social issues.

It seemed that I had found myself in Frisco in the middle of a political science experiment, and that something about me had provoked the same reaction as an image of maggots in an open sore.

I don’t mean to generalize based on this one encounter. This was one person. Apart from this one man, no one else at either of the Abbott events I attended Saturday was the least bit rude or unwelcoming. Why he felt the need to express to me his disgust with me, I don’t know.

But I do think that whatever success, or lack of success, Wendy Davis and Battleground Texas have in mobilizing Democratic voters this election, they, and Barack Obama, have clearly energized Texas Republicans by provoking a profound threat and disgust reaction among conservative voters.

After Abbott’s appearance, I spoke with Keith Self, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, who is running unopposed for a third term as the Collin County judge,presiding over a booming Republican bastion.

Of Davis, Self said, “Her views, her positions are so far out of the Texas mainstream that it has undoubtedly energized not just Republican voters but people who might not even consider themselves particularly conservative.”

Of conservative voters, he said, “Everybody is energizing them. Wendy Davis is energizing them. President Obama is energizing them. People are worried about the state of the nation. You know we’re not immune in Texas from this transformation of the nation that Barack Obama wants to do. We can fight the good fight and we will. We will lead the nation, but we also have to lead the nation out of this destruction of the foundations of America.”

“This is the question,” Self said of Obama. “Is he a bumbling neophyte or is he a very clever, very successful president in terms of his vision? That’s the question that no one can answer. I don’t have the answer.”

Incompetent, perhaps, but, Self said, “On the other hand consider that he has accomplished much of his purpose and if he does legitimize these 34 million people that will only, one, further move toward his vision, but, two, inflame the people of America.”

I asked Self what 34 million people he was referring to. The usual number cited for those living in the country illegally is more like 11 million.

“That’s the number they’re throwing around, ” Self said. “The 34 million illegals.”

This 34 million figure originated with a report from Breitbart Big Government:

Despite no official action from the president ahead of the election, the Obama administration has quietly begun preparing to issue millions of work authorization permits, suggesting the implementation of a large-scale executive amnesty may have already begun.

Unnoticed until now, a draft solicitation for bids issued by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Oct. 6 says potential vendors must be capable of handling a “surge” scenario of 9 million id cards in one year “to support possible future immigration reform initiative requirements.”

The request for proposals says the agency will need a minimum of four million cards per year. In the “surge,” scenario in 2016, the agency would need an additional five million cards – more than double the baseline annual amount for a total of 9 million.

“The guaranteed minimum for each ordering period is 4,000,000 cards. The estimated maximum for the entire contract is 34,000,000 cards,” the document says.

Here from a recent AP report:

“I think those who are trying to read into those specific orders about what the president may decide are a little too cleverly trying to divine what the president’s ultimate conclusion might be,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. “What I would caution you against is making assumptions about what will be in those announcements based on the procurement practices of the Department of Homeland Security.”

Earnest did not say whether Obama plans to issue more work permits.

Obama announced earlier this year that if Congress didn’t pass immigration legislation, he would act on his own. After twice postponing a final decision, he said as recently as last month that he would hold off on executive actions until after November’s midterm elections.

The administration has repeatedly declined to say what options Obama was considering, but it is widely believed that he will expand protections from deportation already extended to more than 500,000 young immigrants who came to the United States as children. Under that program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, many young immigrants who are in school or who have graduated and don’t have a criminal record can win protection from deportation for up to two years. They are also eligible for work permits.

The president does not have the legal authority unilaterally to offer immigrants living in the country illegally green cards or any other permanent immigration status. But administration officials have said the president can authorize protection from deportation for immigrants on a case-by-case basis, such as with the DACA program, and issue them work permits.

Self said the concern is that, post-election, Obama will issue some kind of executive order to effectively open America’s border.

Waiting for Greg Abbott at Joe Allen's  Bar-B-Que in Abilene
Waiting for Greg Abbott at Joe Allen’s Bar-B-Que in Abilene

“I think that would be a tremendous overreach and so, when Greg Abbott say’s he’s going to close the border, that’s huge,” Self said.

In Abilene, at the Abbott event at Joe Allen’s Bar-B-Que, the Rio Grande was not the only border folks were worried about.

Renee Higgins of Merkel, and her friends Caryn Hayes and Donna Nelson, both of Abilene, were just as concerned about the Yankee influx, which they feared was transforming Texas in unsettling ways.

“They bring all their damn liberal ideas when they come,” Higgins said. They may not be coming to Abilene, she said, but that doesn’t mean Abilene is unaffected.”

“What you got think about when you think about it is that when you say it’s Dallas, San Antonio, Houston, is that you have such a large voting base in the large cities, that even if that’s where they get isolated, they pull a lot of weight over these rural areas. We are much more conservative – I’m not saying Republican because to hell with the party thing – but people out here in rural areas are a lot more conservative than the people in the cities. So when you bring in all those businesses with these liberal ideas, those are the big cities that have a lot of pull in elections that overrule the Joe Blows like us out here in rural Texas.”

Abbott's Amen Corner in Abilene. From left to right, Donna Nelson, Caryn Hayes and Renee Higgins.
Abbott’s Amen Corner in Abilene. From left to right, Donna Nelson, Caryn Hayes and Renee Higgins.

“Houston’s a perfect example of where we’re going,” Higgins said, “where the damn queer mayor is making the preachers turn their sermons in.”

“I didn’t have a problem with the liberals until this past six years and I’m sick and tired of everybody saying this is racism and this is not politically correct and I want to tell you, in my opinion, until we put God back in our schools, our homes and our government and our country, we are going to be under judgment,” Hayes said.

Caryn Hayes meets Greg Abbott in Abilene
Caryn Hayes meets Greg Abbott in Abilene”My question to Mr. Abbott was, Are we going to quit bringing in the Northerners down here and begin taking care of our own?’ And he said it appeared to him we needed to secure all our borders, northern and southern,” Hayes said.

Higgins, Hayes and Nelson formed Abbott’s Amen Corner at the Joe Allen’s, offering audible “amens” when he talked about defending God and Texas. But they are clearly nobody’s yes women, so when their turns came to have their photos taken with the attorney general, Higgins and Hayes pressed him on their border issue.

Higgins asked Abbott about, “Rick Perry going all over the country soliciting businesses to come to Texas and what was his position about we’re bringing all these liberals and their liberal ideas with them to Texas, we can’t expect it to say red if that’s our practice. His position on it was, and I agreed with him on it, protect the businesses that are already here, no reason to  go and solicit businesses form other states when we need to protect the businesses that are already here in Texas. I like that position on that particular issue.”

Higgins also asked Abbott a second question, about reports she heard of the convicted pedophile murderer in a local prison “who wanted an eight-year-old little boy as his last meal.””I said to him, ‘Is this a for-real deal, surely they wouldn’t do it,'” and he’s like,  ‘No way that’s going to happen.'”


Here is Snopes on the pedophile’s last meal request:

This absurd item about a Texas “cannibal pedophile” death row inmate named Doug Stephener, who requested that his last meal before execution be a (non-Asian) child — a request that the state is now obligated to satisfy by procuring a corpse for him — appears to have originated as a hoax news item/petition on French-language web sites (hence the stiltedness of translated English-language versions).


If the sheer ridiculousness of this item’s premise isn’t sufficiently self-debunking, then we offer as negative proof the fact that according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, no one named Doug Stephener has been, or is about to be, executed in the state of Texas.

Renee Higgins said her bumper sticker always creates a positive stir at the Walmart parking lot
Renee Higgins said her bumper sticker always creates a positive stir at the Walmart parking lot


Author: Jonathan Tilove

Jonathan Tilove is the Statesman's chief political writer. He was a Washington correspondent for the New Orleans Times-Picayune from 2008 to 2012. Before that he covered race and immigration issues for Newhouse News Service for 18 years.

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