Reflections on the State of an Illusory State
A24’s latest documentary helped elucidate my high school experience running an imaginary government.
I remember distinctly the bellowing calls and the allure of the crowd. As I stepped up onstage to give my speech my palms trembled and my heart tore at my ribcage, an animal trying to break free. In that moment I wasn’t thinking of my intelligence or political aptitude or even the kind of glad-handing I’d have to do if I really wanted to win. All I was thinking about was how I’d manage to string enough words together to appear coherent. All I was thinking about was how I was going to deliver the line. Yes, that line.
Stuck in the limbo of quarantine, I’ve often taken time to wonder and exclaim about how different a person I am now compared to time gone by. My worldview has widened dramatically and for the better, and I don’t exactly look back at my past indiscretions fondly.
The speech I delivered as part of the American Legion’s Boys State program is one such moment that may be roundly labeled an indiscretion…depending on how you look at it. Though I didn’t know it at the time, that speech would come to sit at the square nexus of politics both personal and nationalized and contribute to my ever-growing moral ethic.
I was reminded of this moment by an ad I saw in The Atlantic earlier last month. The ad was promoting one of Apple TV+ and A24’s latest productions, a documentary called Boys State about the Texas iteration of the Legion program. Intrigued, I watched the film’s trailer on YouTube and shared it with a friend of mine, also an alumnus of the program. When he failed to reply to my text, and with my curiosity mounting, I decided to bite the bullet, sign up for Apple TV+’s seven-day free trial, and dig deeper into the Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner.
Filmmakers Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine (The Overnighters) take a long hard look at the 2018 version of Texas’ program, following four boys extensively over the weeklong summer camp. Founded in 1935 by the American Legion (America’s premier veterans organization) ostensibly to fight the creeping dual threats of communism and fascism, Boys State programs have sprung up in every state in the country (excepting Hawaii) as a virtual experience for high school juniors to create and maintain their own mock government. Organized at the city, county, and state levels, over the course of a week boys compete with one another for the votes of their fellow Boys Staters in order to win elections and receive appointments to non-electoral offices. The pinnacle of all these electoral competitions is the governorship.
Though the camp in some parts reflects the generally conservative bent of its sponsoring organization (the American Legion is officially nonpartisan) there is very little in terms of explicit substance that is given over to the boys to debate during their time at the camp. The vacuum is instead filled by the politics of today, or rather an approximation of the politics of today as imagined by an assortment of about 1,000 teenagers.
Indeed, it’s this lack of substance and the strange facsimile that follows in its wake that is most potently captured in the Boys State documentary. At one point in the film, a camper asks a counselor what their government is actually supposed to do. The counselor’s milquetoast response? Boys State isn’t about the matter of politics per se, but about the electoral process more precisely. Though divided into two rival parties, the Federalists and Nationalists, what the boys discuss is entirely up to them — their only charge is to win.
During my Boys State (“Badger Boys State” in the style of my native Wisconsin) experience in 2015, rhetoric did take a decided rightward glance, but there were plenty of purely apolitical, idiotic things that also piqued our interest. We were 17-year-olds, after all. Boys got up and performed everything from comedy to magic tricks to rap songs. (One instance where a guy spit a few lyrics about the size of his penis stands out in my mind as both particularly vulgar and effectually hilarious.)
My own previously alluded to line could also find company among deliveries of the more boorish variety. As I rose to contend for the office of secretary of state (a position that in real life at the state level mostly deals with the execution of elections) I moved to emphasize my administrative credentials and promised to relieve anyone else from the tedium of having to likewise administrate: “Paperwork is a pain in the ass. So, as your secretary of state, let me help. Let me take the pain out of your ass and put it right into my ass!”
As would be expected with a cabal of high schoolers, they loved it.
Moss and McBaine find nearly the same thing in their own work. While most of the focus of the film after its halfway mark follows the exploits of Steven Garza, a Nationalist candidate for governor, and Ben Feinstein and René Otero, rival state party chairmen, there was another figure that caught my eye: Robert McDougall, a compatriot Nationalist and Garza’s challenger for their party’s gubernatorial nomination.
McDougall, a cowboy boot-wearing, gaudy pickup truck-driving rich kid seeks to cut himself in the mold of Bush-like, unabashed Texas goofiness. Yet, to his credit, McDougall perhaps displays the most raw, self-reflective honesty of any of the boys profiled in the documentary. Though he oozes with the virulent machismo of identity conservatism, McDougall later admits to the privacy of the camera that he actually considers himself pro-choice, not pro-life. He thinks it’s bad that politicians lie, and in some respects is disappointed in himself for lying during his own campaign.
Still, the game of the election calls, and McDougall eventually, circuitously talks himself into continuing his runoff campaign against Garza, despite the latter’s 150–35 edge in votes cast on the first ballot. Indeed, as late as the second-round speeches McDougall considers dropping out and endorsing Garza as a sign of party unity…that is until he learns that Garza, a Bernie Sanders acolyte, organized a March for Our Lives protest in Houston. And though McDougall struggles with whether or not to use this affiliation against Garza, even going so far as to tell his competitor that he knows about his progressive politics and that many of the boys are talking about it, he ultimately does assert, in a bit of a cartoonish fashion, that Garza insufficiently supports the Second Amendment.
What suggests to me that my experience was similar to that of McDougall is not that I too believe myself to be a Clint Eastwood archetype reborn for a new generation (although during my time at Boys State I did hold myself as an ardent conservative) but rather that we both came to identify the rigor that politics demands of its practitioners. The sentiment is summed up in this reflection that McDougall shared after losing the runoff to Garza:
“I took the view, if they were all being loud and crazy, that’s what they wanted to be. That if I played to that, they’d love it. But thinking about it now, I think they actually, like, on the inside, wanted to be serious. And I didn’t think about that as a possibility.”
This strikes me as eminently relatable since I too lost my primary election for secretary of state. Though there were many boys that did indeed think my joke about putting paperwork into my ass was funny, there were plenty others who found it so extremely distasteful that they closed off any possibility of ever voting for me. I still remember trying to lobby for votes in the hours leading up to the closure of the polls, informing a fellow Boys Stater that I was “the ass guy” running for Secretary of State. His face fell from open curiosity to stone-cold rejection before the second syllable even left my mouth.
What would ultimately prove more ironic, I think, was the icy reception I got from some of the Legionnaires that helped run the program. In fact, immediately after delivering my riotous punchline and stepping off stage, one of the older men running the event pulled me aside and practically spit at me, “Do you speak to your mother like that!? Do you use that mouth with her!?”
All I could muster was a feeble “no,” and limply return to my seat.
At that same moment, on the very same day that I delivered my ass speech, Donald Trump also kicked off his campaign for the presidency by saying a whole host of truly disgusting and abhorrent things about Mexican migrants. In time he would also come to attack, mock, and vociferously insult Muslims, women, racial minorities, the physically disabled, poor people, and, of course, veterans. Most veterans, including, if I had to guess, most present for the delivery of my speech, would ultimately vote for Donald Trump.
This juxtaposition has gnawed at the back of my mind since I first discovered it a few years ago, but Boys State brought it back in full force. And though I know my actions in Ripon, Wisconsin had no direct linkage to the events that happened that same day in Manhattan, I can’t help but also be disturbed by the underlying implications. Perhaps my own flippancy foretold the electorate’s embrace of Trump’s vicious vulgarity in a way that no one could have seen coming.
I fear that even when Donald Trump has gone from the national stage he won’t have really left because I fear in so many ways, plain and not, Trumpism was there before him. It was in me long before anyone had a name for it. And now that it’s been codified and given shape, I can’t imagine it going to go gentle into the night.
I lost my primary election by a two-vote margin, 86–84.
In the end, I can only see laying the blame for the viciousness of the program’s darkest parts at the feet of its organizers. After all, elections aren’t merely about the game of getting elected. It’s that mindset that makes our political parties look increasingly like rival sports fandoms (albeit ones with a violent streak) and less like investors in boring, even-keeled civil service.
The mistake made by politicians both 17 and 77 is thinking that the only thing at stake is personal gain, personal power. America has oft struggled readily with this, its federalist presidential system given over greatly to the whims of personality.
Politicians shouldn’t have to lie to win, nor should they be willing to do so. What they should be doing is putting forth honest, measured ideas for improving society, and they should be prepared to engage those ideas in a fair, balanced contest with their opponents (who must also, I might add, operate under the auspices of good-faith). They should then let the people come to a decision concerning their representation, and they should abide by that decision soundly, because the majesty of that democratic pinnacle is one that is ever fleeting.
By leaving Boys State as nothing more than a strange experiment in teenagers jockeying for power rather than running elections that stand for something, the American Legion created the perfect environment for children to caricature their parents’ politics in miniature. Instead of asking them to use their collective intellect to address some of the most pressing American problems (“How do we solve gun violence in this country?”) the Legion leaves the door open to all manner of fraught political maxims that are inevitably poorly understood and unfairly trollish.
Boys Staters in the film often talk about “freedom” as a concept upon which they all can and must agree. But freedom from what exactly? Freedom from government repossession of firearms? That already exists. What of the freedom from the dangers of a school shooting? Of freedom from a random (or not so random) act of police brutality? Of freedom from excessive, cruel, and unusual punishment that has taken on the ugly face of mass incarceration in our age?
On those freedoms the boys are ultimately mum. The grounding of dialogue around a single, central, not inevitably partisan topic could go a long way toward solving that problem.
Ultimately, Boys State is an excellent piece of film that finds its rhythms in the hopes and dreams of several boys from diverse backgrounds as they seek to build one of the largest illusory states in the world. Their abject defeat and epic triumph are truly the stuff of big screen drama, and it’s my misfortune that I had to watch this play out on a perpetually buffering laptop rather than a slick locale like Sundance.
Still, it’s neither soaring highs or lowest lows that hit most poignantly here. It’s the small human moments. The wholesome bros taps, the hugs, the excited smiles, the sights, sounds, and memories you know these boys will cherish forever. And of course, the potential. All the young men profiled herein are extremely talented in their own right and I will not be surprised in any capacity if in a few short years I see any of them contending for non-illusory government positions. They are all certainly more than capable. The question then will be whether they’ve learned to use their Boys State experience to craft honest, measured ideas…or not.
It would be some time after that June 16, 2015 day before I fully came apart from Donald Trump and a time later before I did the same with the Republican Party. Still, whether I knew it or not, the seeds were sown that evening for my departure. I would come to realize that democracy, and the free and fair elections that it depends on, is not a game, not merely a crass joke to crack, but something much more precious.
I would come to realize the need to reject any politician, any partisan, that makes a move to contend otherwise, myself included.