Thursday, March 14, 2019


At a time when even low unemployment can't quell widespread economic anxiety, it's curious how many presidential aspirants are identified with (small or large) upmarket indulgences. Howard Schultz -- I assume he's running -- is the candidate of $4 coffee. John Hickenlooper helped gentrify Denver's LoDo neighborhood by co-founding a craft brewery. Donald Trump sells a pricier brand of luxury -- but it's still pitched to the aspiring middle class, who may not be able to afford Mar-a-Lago dues, or the cost of an investment-grade penthouse apartment, but are able to shop at Trump Tower and stay at the hotels. Also, we'd be awash in Trump-branded products -- steaks, ties, bottled water -- if Trump weren't such a terrible businessman.

And then there's Beto O'Rourke, for whom affordable luxury has meant the option of spending years finding himself:
He and his El Paso friends Arlo Klahr and Mike Stevens formed Foss, the Icelandic word for waterfall, and after recording their first album, The El Paso Pussycats, organized a month-long tour, ... driving across the U.S. and Canada in a station wagon. It was a grand adventure, but also a lesson in scrappy survival....

After he graduated in 1995, O’Rourke and his friends moved to Albuquerque and rented a house formerly occupied by a Swedish ski team. They all shaved their heads and declared this their “Revolution Summer,” an homage to the D.C. punk scene of 1984. The idea was to live on part-time jobs and make art. They formed a band called the Swedes, donning motorcycle helmets and waving the Swedish flag onstage. “I didn’t want to make money, didn’t want to be in business,” O’Rourke says. “My dad was so disappointed. He took out [college] loans, he knew that I took out loans. I was like, ‘You know, I wanna make art. I wanna write. I wanna make music. I wanna create things.’”

The collective fizzled out, however... After briefly returning to El Paso ... O’Rourke went back to New York and started nannying for a wealthy family on the Upper West Side. In 1996, he and a group of friends from both Columbia and El Paso moved into a decrepit loft in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, across from a housing project. O’Rourke worked as an art mover for Hedley’s Humpers and for his uncle on a startup Internet-service provider, called El.Net, building the first Web sites for PEN American Center and the Committee to Protect Journalists. In Brooklyn, he and his friends threw parties, bashed out punk songs, and drank endless cases of Budweiser; on the roof was a trampoline and a perfect view of the Manhattan skyline.

O’Rourke ... describes the time as one of joyous indirection in which he surrounded himself with “some amazing artists and thinkers.” He read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, discovered Bob Dylan, deepened his devotion to The Odyssey, and went through bursts of enthusiasm for bands like Big Star and Guided by Voices....
O'Rourke is still a Kerouacian wanderer. He went on a solo road trip after he lost his Senate race in November. He's going on another road trip now that he's officially running for president.

In different ways, all of this -- higher-priced beer and coffee, Trumpian piss-elegance, the opportunity to be a slacker -- represents a level of prosperity that seemed attainable for much of America in the decades after World War II, and seems to be slipping away now for the people who took it for granted, and for their descendants.

We elected a really rich guy three years after the '29 stock market crash, but we didn't elect a guy who got rich selling small (Schultz, Hickenlooper) or large (Trump) indulgences to the mass public. We've elected young idealists, but they weren't as focused as O'Rourke is on the self. Maybe Trump and O'Rourke, in particular, represent what different groups of voters want within reach, as it seems to be less and less attainable.

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