About midday on March 14, Republican U.S. Senator John Cornyn sat down at a black laminate table, laced his fingers around the neck of a cold bottle of Corona Extra, poured half the beer into a lowball glass and thought: Now this will make for a good tweet. Or, at least, that’s what the photo suggests. Against the background of an unidentified deserted bar or restaurant, foam lingers atop the freshly poured beer, a fat lime wedge perched on the rim, unsqueezed. To aid interpretation, the 68-year-old Texan, arguably the country’s second-most powerful senator, captioned the image: “Be smart; don’t panic. We will get us through this #coronavirus.”
The joke didn’t land. At the time, the White House had just declared COVID-19 a national emergency and the country was rocketing past 2,000 confirmed cases of the disease. With the economy headed off a cliff, Congress had yet to pass expanded paid sick leave, unemployment insurance, or stimulus checks. And there was Cornyn, drinking a Corona. Predictably, the tweet drew thousands of critical responses, including from a celebrity chef, a fellow senator, and political rivals. Whole articles were written.
But whether you view the beer-tweet backlash as warranted or excessive hinges on your interpretation of the primary text: The tweet itself, which like so much of Cornyn’s social media output, is provocatively ambiguous. Was this a case of a harmless dad joke gone awry? Or was it a dangerous downplaying of the pandemic designed to justify the Senate’s lethargy? And either way, why—oh why—was the beer in that glass?
John Cornyn is a serious man. Gaze upon his snow-white hair and long, sober visage and you’ll know it to be true. He rose from a state district judgeship in San Antonio to the post of Texas Attorney General in 1999, then ascended to the Senate three years later. He kept climbing in D.C., thanks to a gift for packaging reactionary politics in moderate-sounding rhetoric—his ability to serve as “the soft face of the hard right.” Cornyn has said he hopes to succeed Kentuckian Mitch McConnell at the top of the GOP caucus, and in recent years he’s become a Trump loyalist. This November, he’s facing his first serious Democratic challenger in 18 years: Air Force vet MJ Hegar.
Cornyn is also a bona fide Twitter fiend. Unlike many colleagues of his age and rank, Cornyn runs his own account, tweeting or retweeting roughly 30 times a day. He sends these missives seven days a week, from early morning through evening, mostly from his iPhone. Over time, he’s become a powerful magnet for backlash on the site. He achieves this not through fire-breathing rhetoric, but by blending bits of right-wing demagoguery with unconventional information-sharing habits, ill-fated attempts at humor, and a wryness that verges into inscrutability—all that, plus at least one tweet in which he appears to promote Animism. Behold, the duality of John Cornyn.
Ironically, Cornyn’s past selves seem to have grasped his current social media predicament. In 2017, while praising Trump’s foreign policy approach, the senator noted: “Unfortunately the president has, I think, created problems for himself by his Twitter habit.” And in 2005, after Cornyn set off a hubbub by seeming to suggest that activist judges were courting violence from the public, he told the Houston Chronicle he’d learned a lesson: “If people can take what you say out of context and use it against you, they will.” It’s clear today, however, that the senator puts little stock in his own advice.
Like a Warhol painting, Cornyn’s Twitter account eventually provokes—with or without the author’s intent—an array of philosophical questions: Must not a powerful man, at some point, be culpable for the misunderstandings he provokes in others? What good are intentions in a world of alienated mass communications—which is to say, might not the road to hell be paved with retweets that “=/=” endorsements? And, that most vexing query of all, why does John Cornyn tweet?
In Twitter parlance, a “ratio” is when a tweet garners more replies than it does shares or likes. In most cases, this indicates a swarm of hostile responses, so the metric is used to assess a tweet’s reception. An original Observer analysis, performed just after lunch on August 10, found that Cornyn had been ratioed on eight of his last 10 tweets, and 68 of his last 100. That’s not normal. Other conservative politicians fare much better: Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are scarcely ever ratioed, and even Mitch McConnell keeps his head comparatively high above water.
To understand how Cornyn draws so much flak requires an endeavor in taxonomy. His major social media snafus are but the flashiest members of the species that populate his kingdom of error.
The Mysterious Headline
On June 22, 2019, Cornyn shared the headline and link to a Texas Tribune article about Hispanic population growth in Texas outpacing white growth. For the senator, sharing headlines with no comment whatsoever is part of his daily routine (along with sharing sections from articles with no link). Cornyn had even done so with a similar Tribune article in the past. But this time, he struck a nerve, leading thousands to accuse him of racist fearmongering. Later that day, he ventured a muddled clarification calling Hispanics “hard working” and referencing his upbringing in San Antonio, but left the original tweet intact. He then spent the next couple days tweeting about how asylum-seekers come “with a cost” and saying they use “infants … as a ticket to enter the US.”
Less than two weeks later, a 21-year-old North Texas man now facing dozens of charges for hate crimes and murder allegedly opened fire in an El Paso Walmart, killing 23. The shooter, according to police, had penned a manifesto saying he wanted to target immigrants and also stop “the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” Most of those killed were American citizens. It was the deadliest anti-Latinx attack in U.S. history. Soon after, Twitter users swarmed back to Cornyn’s tweet about Hispanic population growth with renewed fury. Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo asked Cornyn simply, “Senator, what was the purpose of this tweet, & what is your reaction to this specific article?” Cornyn did not reply.
Is Cornyn a crude white supremacist like the El Paso shooter? Absolutely not. He condemned the shooter’s “twisted vision” and went to the city to donate blood. But in an era polarized by a vocally racist president, how could Cornyn not predict his tweet’s reception? And once people’s misinterpretation was clear, did he consider deleting it? And shouldn’t he know, after all these years, that you can’t bash immigrants without stoking the fires of outright racism? Alas, the perils of not making oneself clear.
The Misleading and Offensive
Cornyn has struck a decidedly mixed tone on the coronavirus crisis, alternating between erroneous soothsaying and responsible admonitions. See, for example, the semantic chasm between the text and photo in this tweet:
In April, Cornyn downplayed the U.S. death toll from COVID-19; since then, total deaths in Texas have increased more than fortyfold. He’s repeatedly questioned the knowledge of scientists and experts, even sending a tweet claiming that statistical models are “not the scientific method” accompanied by a Wikipedia link. That prompted an article-length rebuttal from a science writer and educator.
In a live interview, Cornyn inaccurately blamed the coronavirus crisis on Chinese culture and falsely claimed other recent diseases originated in the country. On Twitter, he followed up by sharing a barrage of articles blaming China.
In August 2019, Cornyn appeared to deny the existence of climate change, then cryptically condemned the left for lacking a “sense on [sic] humor.”
Also, why would any non-fascist politician share a Benito Mussolini quote entirely devoid of context?
The Surprisingly Banal
So, what’s going on here?
Cornyn’s staff did not respond to an Observer request for comment, nor did the Senator answer questions posed on Twitter. But earlier this year, Cornyn did offer a rationale for his tweeting behavior.
On June 3, the senator tweeted the subheadline from a Wall Street Journal op-ed claiming there is no “systemic racial bias” among police. In response, a pseudonymous Texas-based account observed that Cornyn’s tweet felt like “a big fuck you” to communities reeling from the recent killing of George Floyd. A conservative talk radio host named Chad Hasty then answered, noting that Cornyn seemed to have simply clicked the article’s Twitter function, which auto-populates a tweet to share, and the message may not reflect the senator’s own opinion. To which Cornyn replied: “Chad, much of the time I tweet to provoke thought and discussion, and occasionally to expose hypocrisy. A retweet does not necessarily mean I agree with it.”
Which begs the question: Did he agree with the article or not? Further, what good is it to provoke discussion if the discussion is about what the hell you meant in the first place?
Roderick Hart, a University of Texas at Austin professor specializing in politics and mass media, thinks Cornyn has fallen victim to a generation gap. “I think that Senator Cornyn is caught in a time-warp,” Hart told the Observer. “He’s a 68-year old guy trying to sound like a millennial and doing so on a digital platform that knows neither nuance nor subtlety.”
But perhaps the problem is less what Cornyn says, or the medium he uses, and more who he is. Let’s take the senator at his word, that the reason he tweets is to “provoke thought and discussion.” Though his methods be unsavvy, that’s no capital crime. Possessing Boomer-ish habits or sensibilities is no cardinal sin either. If he weren’t partly liable for a pandemic running roughshod through the country, and he weren’t enabling the president’s carnival of corruption at every turn, it might be easier to give him the benefit of the doubt, to patiently infer whatever discussion it is he’s trying to have.
There are, frankly, traces of affability and ironic wit in Cornyn’s social media presence. After all, whom among us doesn’t like to chat about the weather? And a dad joke, funny or not, is usually harmless coming from someone whose highest rank is dad. Perhaps Cornyn’s raison de Twitter is simply stymied by his power, waiting to be unleashed if he finds himself—like so many millions of Americans this year—out of a job.
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