During the interview with Vanity Fair that launched his 2020 presidential campaign, Representative Beto O’Rourke described speaking at a rally as a sort of out-of-body experience:
“I don’t ever prepare a speech… I don’t write out what I’m going to say. I remember driving to that, I was, like, ‘What do I say? Maybe I’ll just introduce myself. I’ll take questions.’ I got in there, and I don’t know if it’s a speech or not, but it felt amazing. Because every word was pulled out of me. Like, by some greater force, which was just the people there. Everything that I said, I was, like, watching myself, being like, ‘How am I saying this stuff? Where is this coming from?’”
Beto’s spontaneous epiphany has been met with considerable mockery. Esquire argued that the passage sounds like Beto’s “revelation in the wilderness, like a wandering prophet in Sinai coming to terms with the mystic.” Similarly, a New York Times editorial called the line part of Beto’s effort to summon “the mystical glow of a messiah.” Like his maligned remark that he is “born to be in it,” Beto’s campaign speech reflections have fed a narrative that the El Paso candidate views himself as a political savior.
Claims that politicians have a “messiah complex” are nothing new. As a communication scholar who writes about the political identity of presidential candidates, I am struck by how quickly the same qualities that made Beto a popular senate candidate have become a liability during his presidential run. While politicians are often praised for their authenticity and willingness to speak off-the-cuff, for Beto to claim that campaign trail thoughts emerged suddenly from a “greater force” sounded to many like a reference to divine intervention. To make sense of why, it helps to examine how Beto’s remarks reflect a historical debate about the relationship of preparation and inspiration in religion.
Preparing for Divine Inspiration
That Beto’s remarks spurred Biblical allusions is no coincidence. In fact, the response to Beto’s remarks resembles a debate among preachers in the late nineteenth century over the topic of inspiration. Inspiration is derived from the Latin word inspiratio (“breathing into”), the word referred to when God spoke directly through the mouths of human beings. But Biblical scholars were divided over whether, when, and how God might lend a preacher his voice. As rhetorical scholar Russel Hirst explains, they argued over whether inspiration was a product “of our own making,” of “some mystical communal consciousness,” or of an “all-knowing God afford[ing] us glimpses of Truth.”
These distinctions mattered for preachers when they prepared their sermons. Many populist preachers believed that God would speak best through impromptu speakers willing to abruptly accept His revelations. By contrast, more traditional preachers like George Winfred Hervey worried these speakers were confusing “gifts” for “grace”—that is, confusing exciting performances for the “proper and natural effects of the Holy Ghost.” Instead, Hervey counseled preachers to seek “partial” inspiration that combined an openness to God’s intervention with deep study and careful preparation.
As Hervey summed up his position: “A free-spokenness, flowing from a settled conviction of truth, contributes much, but not all that constitutes the soul of eloquence.”
The F’ing Prophet from El Paso
During his 2018 senate campaign, Beto channeled the populist preachers of the 1800s by claiming unplanned inspiration. He portrayed himself as directly “reflecting the energy of the people of the state.” Through Facebook Live, he allowed the public to see unrehearsed conversations in real-time. He routinely dropped the “f-bomb” to accentuate his lack of filter. He garnered national attention when off-the-cuff comments about NFL protestors provided viral evidence of his authenticity. This emphasis on improvisation resonated with Texans; as one Beto supporter wrote in the Houston Chronicle, “He reminds us that politics is really just about connecting with people in a spontaneous way.”
Though rarely mentioned by name, Republican incumbent Senator Ted Cruz implicitly became part of the context Beto fought against: an ossified status quo trapped in an endless cycle of repeating the same partisan scripts. As the unmediated expression of the people’s will, Beto claimed to have the inspiration necessary to break that cycle. A moment during a debate with Cruz perfectly encapsulated his strategy. Asked to close with a positive note about their opponents, Beto noted the “great sacrifice” to his family and kids Cruz undertook and thanked him for his public service. After mirroring Beto’s words, Cruz slid into a backhanded partisan compliment: “I think you are absolutely sincere, like Bernie, that you believe in expanding government and higher taxes.”
Beto leaned into the microphone and replied, “true to form.”
That, in a nutshell, was Beto’s appeal. Cruz offered a familiar rhetorical form, repeating the same divisive talking points chapter-and-verse. By contrast, Beto could channel the people’s spirit—etymologically, their “breath”—to speak fresh revelations.
Rather than talk about his preparation or point out his opponent’s partisanship overtly, he chose to emphasize his direct inspiration—in this case, not from God but from “the people there” on the campaign trail.
We’re Not in Texas Anymore
Read as an extension of his senate campaign, Beto’s claim about a “greater force” makes some strategic sense. In the Democratic primaries, he will face at least nine opponents with statewide elected experience as either a governor or senator. Lacking such a resume, Beto made the same appeal to spontaneous inspiration that in some ways worked for him against his more experienced rival in Texas.
This time, though, Beto’s opponent is not Ted Cruz. Instead, he faces the most diverse presidential primary field in history. In this context, Beto’s remarks take on a different connotation. They imply that the inspiration of the people flows most directly through his straight, white, male mouth.
With whiplash-inducing abruptness, the speaking style and message that worked so well against Ted Cruz now reads as a marker of Beto’s outward signs of privilege against a far better-qualified group of women and people of color. “Can you imagine a woman boasting about she never prepares?” asked Arwa Mahdawi in the Guardian. “No, because women know they need to be overprepared just to get in the door.” Similarly, presidential candidate and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar undercut Beto’s messianic claims by linking them to his privileges. As she explained, “I wasn’t born to run for office, just because growing up in the ‘70s, in the middle of the country, I don’t think many people thought [as] a girl I could be president.”
As more voters, candidates, media outlets, and campaign operatives become willing to call out double standards based on gender and race, Beto will likely face more scrutiny for whether he is confusing grace with his gifts. Time will tell if his inspiration alone “constitutes the soul of eloquence.”
Michael J. Steudeman is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Arts & Sciences at Penn State University.