EL PASO — A day and a half after a gunman opened fire in his hometown and killed 22 people, Beto O’Rourke was preparing to leave a vigil when he was stopped by yet another reporter asking yet another question about President Trump — this time wanting to know what Trump could “do now to make this any better.”
“What do you think?” the Democratic presidential candidate replied, shaking his head in exhausted exasperation. “You know the s— that he’s been saying. He’s been calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals. I don’t know, like, members of the press: What the f—?”
O’Rourke threw his hands up: “It’s these questions that you know the answers to. I mean, connect the dots about what he’s been doing in this country. He’s not tolerating racism; he’s promoting racism.”
This is Beto O’Rourke since the shooting: raw, emotional, mirroring the pain and frustration of those around him.
It’s a contrast to how most presidential candidates respond to tragedy, maintaining a veneer of composure as they present themselves as clear-eyed, strong leaders in moments of pain. And it’s unlike Trump, who rarely, if ever, is publicly overcome by emotion and has been accused of failing to show empathy in moments of crisis.
The former congressman does not have a formal title in El Paso these days — at the vigil Sunday he was introduced simply as “Beto O’Rourke” — but he is the city’s most visible spokesman, saying aloud what residents are saying among themselves and firmly placing blame on the president. He no longer has an elected position from which he can enact change, so his role now is to join his neighbors in calling for it.
In an interview Monday, O’Rourke said that he wants to “be helpful” to El Paso and its residents and that he is driven by “this overriding pride in this community, the way it’s come together.”
“It just is so personal to us,” he said. “This city is everything — and I just think that, for me, explains everything.”
The question is whether, in the age of Trump, this is what voters, especially Democrats, are looking for in a president — someone who is willing to unleash anger and emotion in visceral terms, a channeler of rage and grief rather than a leader in tight control of himself and others.
The nation’s sudden focus on El Paso comes as O’Rourke’s presidential campaign has been foundering. Since announcing his candidacy in March, O’Rourke, despite early excitement and buzz, has lingered near the bottom of the polls, and there have been questions about how long he can afford to keep his campaign going.
That has frustrated O’Rourke’s team, whose members urgently want voters to meet the candidate they admire — the one who, in his Senate run, eloquently defended the right of professional football players to kneel in protest of racial inequality. Still, the nexus of politics and tragedy can be sensitive, and O’Rourke has not escaped complaints from Republicans that he is politicizing the killings.
But El Paso is more than O’Rourke’s hometown; it’s a big part of his political identity. He speaks often of coming from a bicultural community. Now, El Paso has come under assault apparently for that very diversity.
As he made his rounds in recent days, his former constituents appeared appreciative. Arriving at the Sunday evening vigil, he was greeted with hugs, and a man shouted at him, “Beto, I like what you said about President Trump. Way to go!” A transcript of O’Rourke’s outburst at reporters has been retweeted more than 23,000 times, and his tweet saying that he stands by those words has been liked by more than 136,000.
“It’s awesome to have someone speaking up, saying that this isn’t what El Paso is,” Frankie Rivera, a 26-year-old student, said to O’Rourke as they both prepared to donate blood on Monday afternoon. “It’s love and family; it’s not this.” O’Rourke complimented Rivera on his T-shirt, which featured flags of other countries and the slogan “Different is not dangerous.”
O’Rourke was in Las Vegas for a campaign event on Saturday morning when a gunman opened fire at a Walmart near a busy border crossing with Mexico and killed 22 people, mostly Latinos, injuring many more. O’Rourke learned about the shooting from one of his staff members just before he was supposed to take the stage. He quickly called his wife to make sure that she and their children were safe, then addressed the audience of union members, struggling to find the right language.
He wheeled his hands around and around, as if trying to physically propel himself through each word. He looked and sounded as many felt.
“Just a real reminder of what’s most important at the end of the day for all of us,” he said, often speaking in fragments, not sentences. “And just that any illusion that we had that progress is inevitable or that the change that we need is going to come of its own accord, shattered in moments like these.”
O’Rourke once again called for gun-control measures that he has long backed, including a ban on the sale of assault rifles, saying the country should “leave that s— on the battlefield.”
In the hours that followed, O’Rourke rushed home to El Paso. He filmed a video message in the airport, his eyes heavy and tired: “I just don’t have words — this is not something that I can even fully believe has happened.” Over the weekend, he met privately with a shooting victim in an intensive care unit at her son’s invitation, asked his supporters to donate to a victims’ fund, conducted media interviews in English and Spanish, marched silently to a vigil, and spent time with his three young children.
With the passing hours and another mass shooting in Ohio, he struggled less to find the right words — and eventually lashed out at reporters who struggled to find the right questions.
After visiting a hospital Saturday night and meeting some relatives of the injured, including a woman whose husband was shot in the chest as he manned a lemonade stand for their daughter’s soccer team, O’Rourke told reporters gathered outside that the president bears some responsibility.
“He is a racist, and he stokes racism in this country,” O’Rourke said. “And it does not just offend our sensibilities; it fundamentally changes the character of this country and it leads to violence.”
On Monday morning, he stood before the crime scene to tell MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” hosts that no one should be surprised by what happened in El Paso. Gone was the starched white dress shirt he had taken to wearing on the campaign trail in a bid to look more formal, replaced now by a more casual blue button-down, part of his signature look during his unsuccessful but electrifying run for Senate in Texas last year.
“Anyone who is surprised is part of this problem right now, including members of the media who ask: ‘Hey, Beto, do you think the president is racist?’ Well, Jesus Christ, of course he’s racist. He’s been racist from day one,” O’Rourke said. “We are reaping right now what he has sown and what his supporters in Congress have sown.”
Trump’s defenders say he is not a racist and has only been expressing his views on issues such as immigration and urban policy.
O’Rourke’s team has been quietly allowing the candidate to be himself and then megaphoning his words to the country.
When O’Rourke filmed a short video message before departing Las Vegas, he did not live-stream it on Facebook, as he used to do. Instead, the campaign edited the clip and added captions before posting it across O’Rourke’s social media accounts. David Wysong, one of O’Rourke’s closest advisers, emailed the video to the campaign’s tens of thousands of supporters.
O’Rourke has faced accusations of opportunism from some Republicans. On Sunday, Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel retweeted a video of O’Rourke saying on CNN that Trump is a white nationalist, adding, “A tragedy like this is not an opportunity to reboot your failing presidential campaign. This is disgusting and wrong.”
O’Rourke campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon responded, “What’s disgusting and wrong is carrying water for a racist President whose very words inspired this violence. A real President would show leadership to a grieving community, seek solutions, and speak truth. That’s what Beto’s doing today.”
O’Rourke said Monday afternoon that he had not seen the tweet and declined to comment on it.
Before donating blood Monday afternoon, O’Rourke shook hands with other residents doing the same. Several of them thanked him for being a voice for their community.
Lorena Garcia, a sixth-grade teacher, told him that she is dreading school starting again because she is worried about the emotional toll the shooting has had on her students.
“Thank you for helping the community,” she said to him, “because we really need it right now.” O’Rourke answered: “Stay strong.”