Why do Arizona Republicans keep dressing up as cowboys?

(Slim Aarons/Getty Images)

Why do Arizona Republicans keep dressing up as cowboys?

On Ed

Tom Zoellner

January 21, 2024

When Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona was considering a run for president in the 1964 election, he introduced himself to a national audience by releasing a photo of himself wearing a leather jacket, cowboy hat and jeans, with a antique rifle on his knee. He looked like a frontiersman in every way except the swimming pool in the background.

Those who knew Goldwater might have chuckled at another detail.

While although

His family had real 19th century roots in Arizona; they had made their fortunes in department stores, not on the farm. One of Barry’s only contributions to the company before leaving to pursue a political career was designing a line of cattle brand blouses and curtains.

The use of retail cowboys to project a conservative image of toughness, independence, and suspicion of government is an Arizona tradition at least as old as Goldwater’s failed presidential campaign.

But even though the real cowboy trade has all but disappeared in modern Arizona, direct cattle sales are less than 0.0014% of the state’s gross domestic product. The strategic use of Western clothing to promote right-wing ideology has only increased and appears to be getting even stronger.

As much as Arizona has grown, it’s in our political DNA, Republican political consultant Stan Barnes said of the cowboy iconography. When you come to Arizona you are subjected to the culture, and when you are in political life you see that culture distilled.

Of the 90 members of the 2024 Arizona Legislature, five wear cowboy hats in their official state portraits. They’re all Republicans. But only one is a real farmer with cattle. It means someone who drives for the brand, said Assemblyman David Cook, who was known in the Capitol as a hard-nosed dealmaker. He likens his governing philosophy to moving cattle. You bring them all together and move them together, he said.

The politician-cowpoke theme is steeped in several ironies, not the least of which is that when Arizona was governed by a Democratic Party machine for most of the 20th century, many more ranchers served in public office and their livery was both more general than was more general. less partisan.

Gov. Jack Williams declared the bolo tie Arizona’s official tie in 1971, and when Tom Prezelski, a Democrat from Tucson, wore his own decorative leather tie on the floor of the Legislature 15 years ago, no one blinked. Now he gets another question when he wears it: Have you become a Republican?

You are now taking over fashion to make a political statement, Prezelski complained. It’s all code. That wasn’t the case in the past. Now you see all these Republicans looking like this


musicians. Anyone who wants a front row seat to Deep Arizona should go to the state


Capitol when the state’s fifteen sheriffs arrive to lobby for something. Almost all of them are wearing cowboy hats, which look like a family reunion from the Wyatt Earp era.

There is another irony here. As a profession, cowboyism flourished for only a short period

between of

1865 to 1895, when it was a low-paying agricultural job often filled by Mexican immigrants and African Americans and, to say the least, not the core of today’s Republican base.

The equestrian tradition of western livestock farming is not derived from the Anglos brought to conquered native lands, but from the northern Mexican territories.


tradition. The cowboy hat is a modified sombrero. Even the core jargon comes from the Spanish language: lariat, corral, chaps.

But historical details don’t seem to matter. The aesthetic is used to evoke a politics of boundary-pushing individualism, which goes hand in hand. One affects the other, Barnes said. They feed each other.

These signifiers work because voters embrace them too. It is a common story for newcomers to Arizona to adapt to the Western fantasy lifestyle by decorating their homes with oil paintings of shootings and raids. Even the interior design today carries political influences.

A lot of people are responding to it, says Jim West, a longtime disc jockey from Phoenix. It comes down to taking care of yourself, taking care of your people, and having small government.

But not every politician can pull off this look.

Mark Finchem, a former Michigan police officer, ran a heavily MAGA conspiracy-focused campaign for Secretary of State in 2022. During his campaign, he wore an unconvincing combination of a string tie and a cowboy hat. That earned him the nickname Kalamazoo cosplay cowboy.

Some see a darker message in the aesthetic. J. Gray Sweeney, professor emeritus of art history at Arizona State University, wrote in an article, Racism, Nationalism, and Nostalgia in Cowboy Art, that the followers of Western art are willing to do everything in their power to revive the cherished imagination to protect. of America’s ‘victory of the West’, which is based on nationalist and conservative values.

That impulse has




has become stronger in recent years, especially in the Trump era, Sweeney explained to me. I can tell you without reservation that the people who have collected this kind of nostalgia-ridden art are uniformly conservative politically, as the art is about preserving certain values ​​that are regressive and largely of the white supremacist variety.

Of course, the supposed golden age of the Arizona territories in the late 1800s was also a time when Anglo settlement depended on government largesse in the form of railroad land grants, loose mining concessions, and military supply contracts. A later generation of ranchers would never have stayed in business if not for generous public grazing leases, plus federal dams for all that water.

So when Arizona politicians start dressing in Western style, they are paying tribute to an era that was not of rugged individualism, but of a Washington-driven economy, subsidized by taxpayers. Dizzy!

Tom Zoellner is the author of

Rim to River: Looking into the Heart of Arizona.


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