Briscoe Cain
Courtesy Briscoe Cain

The World’s Briscoe Cain Problem

The far-right Texas lawmaker and other political trolls are holding us hostage to the idea that the world is more chaotic, unfixable, and stupid than it is.


A version of this story ran in the November / December 2019 issue.

Above: In the days before social media, Cain’s idiotic posturing might have gone unnoticed except by his wife and his dog.

One of the fun things about covering Texas politics is that every once in a while, a political figure you know too much about, and no one else cares about, does something deeply unwise. Suddenly, they’re in newspapers from Aarhus to Zanzibar, the subject of stories about the strangeness of Americans. It’s hard to describe the feeling. It’s a bit like working at a wildlife rehab facility, taking care of deranged and hobbled birds. One day one of them takes flight, and everyone sees what you knew all along, that they were majestic and beautiful and rare—and then they fly into a Mack truck.

In September, state Representative Briscoe Cain of Deer Park spread his wings. During the Democratic presidential debate, Beto O’Rourke’s team tweeted the candidate’s vow to begin confiscating America’s AR-15s, if elected. Cain shot back: “My AR-15 is waiting for you Robert Francis.”

This, clearly, was a hideously stupid thing to say. Politicians in America have been targeted in the past, and elected officials should steer clear of encouraging violence. Yet Cain stood by the tweet and proclaimed he was invoking the famous “Come and Take It” flag from the 1835 Battle of Gonzales. In that battle, of course, townspeople killed agents of their federal government who had come to town to lawfully seize a gun.

But what happened next was remarkable. Cain’s big oopsie spread to every inhabited corner of the globe. Media organizations of every stripe mentioned him, among them the BBC World Service, which broadcasts in more than 40 languages and claims an audience of some 275 million people. It was demoralizing to consider the vast array of people learning about Deer Park’s finest. Even though every democracy in the world has its own Briscoes Cain, as they’re known in the plural, his words must have made the country sound like it was sliding toward civil war. (Jury’s out on that.)

Cain didn’t seem to enjoy this experience—when he appeared before local news cameras the next day, it looked like he hadn’t slept much—but he was able to make lemonade out of his lemons. As always happens, there was a backlash to the backlash. He was invited on ex-NRA flack Dana Loesch’s radio show. He did a segment on Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News, where he charged that O’Rourke was “the one who made the threat,” and then asked viewers to donate to his campaign, a big deal for a little state lawmaker.

State Representative Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, during the 2015 Texas legislative session.  Sam DeGrave

This cycle is now familiar. In the days before social media, Cain’s idiotic posturing might have gone unnoticed except by his wife and his dog. Now every nutcase in government is playing to an audience 24/7, just one tweet away from talking to a billion people. Sometimes they suffer from it, but sometimes they profit from it, a perverse incentive that encourages more trolling. U.S. representatives Matt Gaetz of Florida and Louie Gohmert of Texas are fine examples—they’re always in the news, yet never have anything newsworthy to say.

The news has become saturated with the ramblings of the most unbalanced people in the country. No, not just the Trump administration; other people too. On the one hand, the media can’t not cover an elected lawmaker threatening a presidential candidate. It’s undoubtedly news. On the other, the Briscoes of the world are taxing our psyches, holding us hostage to the idea that the world is more chaotic, unfixable, and stupid than it is.

I don’t know what to do about this. Listening to the BBC, I fantasized about an international database where journalists could weigh in on how much credibility their local elected officials have, how much their words are worth, and cover them in proportion to that equation. In recent years, journalists have developed communal rules about how to handle the identities of mass shooters, because they so often act for attention. Could something similar be possible for politicians who obviously act in bad faith or are on society’s fringes?

Perhaps we could decide not to write up things like Cain’s comments on their own, as a stand-alone story, putting it instead in the context of other events, and avoid giving the person the spotlight they crave. Which, it occurs to me, is exactly what your humble correspondent is doing right now. Ah, beans, guys, I goofed up on this one. Better end this n—

Read more from the Observer:

  • How Pete Sessions Became ‘Congressman-1’: The powerful former Dallas congressman and GOP leader was trying to swim back to the swamp. Instead, he got sucked into it.

  • Death in Solitary: Russell Johnson’s sister warned officials that nearly three years in solitary confinement had broken him. His suicide in isolation two months later points to compounded crises inside Texas prisons.

  • Mr. Reynolds’ Opus: How Graham Reynolds became Texas’ top composer.