But that rightward tug has more to do with gerrymandering and cynical pols than with demographics. The state is becoming more urban and less white. “It should be as reliably blue as California,” Wright says. “Instead, it is the Red Planet in the political universe.”
Wright rattles off the familiar 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.” He concedes they’re all true. But they’re not all there is. “God Save Texas” also depicts “a culture that is still raw, not fully formed, standing on the margins but also growing in influence, dangerous and magnificent in its potential.”
The book rambles far and wide, and it’s a testament to Wright’s formidable storytelling skills that a reader will encounter plenty of information without ever feeling lost. A bride and groom emerging from a chapel leads to a disquisition on the Spanish conquistadors and the explorer Cabeza de Vaca; a chapter on Texas radio turns into a discussion of Texas gun laws and a consideration of Texas snakes.
“It sometimes seems that every living thing can bite or poke or sting or shoot you,” Wright says of the state where he lives. He has a deep knowledge of the terrain; he has been hoarding details over a lifetime, consulting history books, his reporter’s notes, his own memories and what one imagines is a massive clippings file of truly strange stuff.
Politicians offer up much by way of raw, often confounding, material. Sometimes all Wright has to do is relay the facts, arranged just so, and the hypocrisies come shining through. Describing the Republicans’ obsession with their failed “bathroom bill,” which would have forced transgender people to use the restroom that corresponded with the sex on their birth certificates, his deadpan delivery cuts deep: “Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is under indictment for securities fraud, added, ‘This is a spiritual war.’”
Other details showcase what Wright calls the “burlesque side” to Texas politics, which sometimes finds its way to the national stage. Wright recalls the 2016 video of Sen. Ted Cruz wrapping a strip of bacon around the barrel of an AR-15, pulling the trigger, peeling the bacon off the smoking gun and eating it with a plastic fork. “The object of the video apparently was to show a jollier and more human side of the candidate,” he writes, knowing he doesn’t have to say more than that; the senator, the bacon and the gun have done all the work.
But the book isn’t only about current affairs, and Wright — who was born in Oklahoma and moved to Abilene, Tex., as a child in the 1950s — weaves in his own intimate history with the state. He fled Texas after high school, doing “everything I could to cleanse myself of its influence.”
That influence included its long shadow of racism. In 1845, the bankrupt Texas Republic chose to be annexed by the United States as a slave state; the alternative was a bailout from the British, which would have preserved Texas’s independence but required it to switch to a system of non-slave wage labor. Texas, at this crossroad and others, chose slavery every time.
Wright has ancestors who fought for the Confederacy. In Abilene, he kept a portrait of General Robert E. Lee on his bedroom wall. He would later cover the civil rights movement for The Race Relations Reporter in Nashville. “I still feel ashamed of the prejudices that I struggled to shed,” he writes. He doesn’t say much here about that struggle, though in his 1987 memoir, “In the New World,” he explores his Texas upbringing with vulnerability and candor.
Since returning to Texas in 1980, Wright has lived in Austin, the state capital that serves as a scapegoat for state lawmakers, who routinely attack the city in showy attempts to establish their conservative bona fides. They’re almost as fixated on Austin as they are on California. To them, as Wright puts it, “Austin is a spore of the California fungus that is destroying America.”
Wright doesn’t counter the moral panic with moral panic. His tone is gentle, occasionally chiding, and he seems most comfortable in the center lane, allowing the road hogs to pass by while he holds steady at the wheel.
Certain readers might crave more righteous anger from someone writing about Texas, especially now, when there’s little room for agreement and plenty at stake. But Wright’s project is perspective, not conquest. In a chapter on Texas culture, he praises the work of contemporary artists who have returned to their Texas roots “with knowledge, self-confidence, and occasionally, forgiveness.” “God Save Texas” is his vivid bid to do the same.