There comes a moment in every congressperson’s memoir where they must address an incident in which their spouse exposed themself to a minor in a bowling alley. This is a tricky business. For a politician attempting to present their family as wholesome and all-American, the words “indecent exposure to a minor” have an awkward ring. Colorado Republican congresswoman Lauren Boebert’s husband, Jayson Boebert, pled guilty in 2004 to public indecency and lewd exposure, receiving a brief jail sentence and two years of probation. Rep. Boebert’s memoir My American Life tries to present the incident as consistent with a narrative of a working-class family whose members have led a colorful life and made some mistakes along the way but found redemption and are now trying to save America from moral degradation and creeping socialism.
To make the 2004 incident fit in with the “wholesome American family values” narrative, Rep. Boebert’s present-day retelling contradicts the police report and the statements of the two women to whom Mr. Boebert revealed himself. In the congresswoman’s version, a bartender was begging Mr. Boebert to show her a tattoo he said he had on his penis, so he merely “acted like he was going to unzip his pants.” (Boebert concedes her husband later refused to leave and “threw a basket of fries at the owner.”) According to the witness statements from the two women who accused Mr. Boebert of displaying his genitals to them, Mr. Boebert said “I have a tattoo on my dick,” and when the women tried to “ignore him,” he “pulled his penis out of his pants” and showed it to them against their wishes. (Interestingly, Mr. Boebert’s own version contradicts Rep. Boebert’s memoir. He says he stuck his thumb through his zipper and pretended it was his penis, while she writes that he only pretended he was going to unzip. One of the complainants told police she knew it wasn’t a thumb because thumbs aren’t six inches long.)
Her husband’s indecent exposure is not the only extraordinary incident that Lauren Boebert has to explain away in My American Life. A chapter called “Pretty Little Mugshots” deals with her arrests on minor charges. Rep. Boebert and her husband have been arrested for assaulting each other, according to the New York Post. Boebert’s background is full of attention-grabbing material.1 She first came to prominence through her ownership of the Shooters Grill, a restaurant in Rifle, Colorado where the servers were armed with loaded pistols. (Boebert claimed she decided she needed to carry a gun at work because a man had been beaten to death outside the restaurant, though in fact he died of a methamphetamine overdose.) The restaurant made the local news after 80 people who ate its pork sliders at the county fair came down with food poisoning, leading to a damning report from the county health department on the unlicensed fair booth’s violations of basic health protocols. Food safety inspectors aren’t the only meddlesome government bureaucrats Boebert tangled with, having re-opened the Shooters Grill in defiance of COVID-19 restrictions, which resulted in her restaurant license being pulled, but helped give her a boost in the Republican primary.
Boebert has distinguished herself in Congress through her aggressive pursuit of “MAGA” politics. Whether it’s unapologetically lobbing horrible racist invective at Rep. Ilhan Omar (repeatedly implying Omar is a terrorist), or clashing with Capitol police over bringing her gun into Congress, Boebert knows how to throw “red meat” to the Trump crowd. She has heckled president Biden and publicly confronted Beto O’Rourke over gun control before she was elected. On Jan. 6, 2021, before the swarming of the Capitol, she tweeted “Today is 1776.” Her outrageous statements are constantly making headlines; recent highlights include “in Venezuela, they eat the dogs, and it started because they don’t have firearms” and “the church is supposed to direct the government” as she’s “tired of this separation of church and state junk.”
I find it hard to muster much empathy for Boebert. Reporting from Mother Jones revealed that a number of ex-employees considered her a horrible boss—a “monster” who failed to pay on time. In her memoir she claims that “at Shooters, which is a fairly small restaurant, we can’t afford to buy health-care plans for our staff,” while former employees told Mother Jones that the Boeberts spent “exorbitant sums” on luxuries.
Nevertheless, Boebert is from a working-class background. She was raised by a single mother on welfare and dropped out of high school to have her first child. Boebert is among the four percent of current members of Congress who do not have a college degree.
Furthermore, Boebert’s Colorado district “isn’t deep red: It’s a competitive congressional seat where more than 40 percent of voters are unaffiliated.” Since Boebert is so extreme, Democrats should have been able to beat her. Why didn’t they?
A clue may be found in a chapter of Boebert’s memoir called “Foreclosure” that discusses the 2007-2008 financial crisis. Boebert discusses how she and her husband, both of them in their twenties at the time, lost their home:
“It became clear that as hard as we worked, it was going to be very difficult to make our mortgage and truck payments and still meet all of our family’s needs. We may have both been determined to make it through the crisis without help, but it was clear we were at risk of losing everything. I called our mortgage company and asked if we could talk about ways to modify our loan so we could afford it. The representative immediately said Jayson and I weren’t eligible for a mortgage modification because we hadn’t missed a payment. I explained how we didn’t want to miss a payment because we preferred not to destroy the credit we’d worked so hard to fix. I was told it didn’t matter; I would need to miss a payment before they could investigate it. That made absolutely no sense. I called everyone else at the mortgage company, and I’d tell anyone who would take my call the same thing. Jayson and I thought long and hard about the situation and what the mortgage company told us. So, with great consternation, we ultimately decided to skip a payment. We still set aside the money we would have otherwise paid and saved it. I called the mortgage company again. This time, they said we’d need to miss two payments. Again, I tried explaining our situation to anyone who would listen, because this didn’t sound right to me at all. Again, they told me they couldn’t do anything without us being behind two payments. So, we again skipped a payment. We still put the money aside that we would have used for that payment. The money for both missed payments was in a savings account. Now that we were two months behind—following the mortgage company’s instructions—I called them back and unbelievably got the runaround yet again. This was a never-ending series of unreturned phone calls and then inconsistent messages. Now they were telling us they couldn’t begin working to restructure our mortgage until ninety days after a missed payment. I felt completely lost and helpless. No one at that company would help. It was beyond stressful, and now a feeling of hopelessness began sinking in. A third payment was “missed” and set aside. I called the mortgage company again. They said there was nothing I could do because the property was now in foreclosure. I asked what options we had to fix the problem—their answer? The bank would repossess the house, and we’d be booted out of it. Two months later, they did just that. We lost our home despite the fact that Congress had authorized billions of dollars for loan modifications to help people in our exact situation. This was one of the saddest times our family, to this day, has ever experienced. The feeling was only made worse when the bank put our house up for sale at nearly half the price we’d paid. It didn’t matter that we tried to help solve the problem. It didn’t matter that we had the money to make the mortgage payment. We lost our home, just like so many other people. We didn’t make excuses. And as hard as it was, we moved on.”
Boebert then attacks the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), which “was supposed to help millions of homeowners avoid foreclosure” but “didn’t.” Indeed, as David Dayen wrote in the American Prospect, “HAMP helped only about one million homeowners in five years, when 10 million were at risk. The program arguably created more foreclosures than it stopped, as it put homeowners through a maze of deception designed mainly to maximize mortgage industry profits.”
The program was a scandal. As Dayen writes, employees at mortgage servicers “were told to lie to homeowners, deliberately misplace their documents, and deny loan modifications without explaining why.” Servicers would string along homeowners who thought they could get the terms of their mortgages modified, and then foreclose on them and take their houses. Boebert, citing Dayen’s reporting, says that “the mortgage companies didn’t have the incentives to help people, that instead, they made a ton of money in the accumulated fees that were racked up when they strung out the modification process for months.” Boebert was not the only one who got foreclosed on despite doing everything she could to try to get the terms modified into something affordable. This disaster came directly out of the Obama administration’s capitulation to the industry. Democrats declined to impose conditions on mortgage lenders that would have saved people’s homes.
You might think that being preyed upon by Wall Street would have caused Boebert to start questioning the wisdom of having pure unregulated free market capitalism, but this is not the direction of her thinking. Instead, she writes:
“I’ve often said I’m a self-taught conservative whose life experiences formed my conservative principles. Put this foreclosure in that bucket. Was it painful to lose our family home? Yes. Did I have a role in all of this, and am I more cautious because of this experience? Yes. Did the government’s policies play a role in the economic downturn that would eventually cost our jobs and our home? Yes. Would my personal experience affect my thinking about the proper role of government? Yes. Would I have done something else with a better understanding of what the outcome would have been? Maybe. Would I trust the government to effectively address another crisis like this, say, for a pandemic? Absolutely not.”
In other words, Boebert’s lesson from the crisis is that you can’t trust the government to help you, and you’re on your own. Better get a gun and learn to shoot. It’s not surprising, after people are repeatedly betrayed by the institutions they are supposed to have faith in, that they would harden themselves and stop trusting those institutions. Every time Democratic administrations let people down, they create a new generation of cynics disinclined to place trust in the government.
I am skeptical of Boebert’s narrative about her process of being steadily disillusioned by “progressive” policies. She has said, for instance, that when she was young her mother was a Democrat, but in fact she was a registered Republican. (Today Boebert’s mother complains about having to shop alongside so many “brown” people at the local Walmart.) Boebert comes across throughout the memoir as a hardcore idealogue and I suspect she has never changed her mind about anything in her life. Her politics are rigid: she is against abortion, socialism, and bureaucrats, and for Jesus, guns, and Donald Trump.
But if we want to understand why Coloradans voted for Lauren Boebert, it’s worth considering how her financial crisis story could have been different. Imagine if Obama’s programs had actually helped homeowners avoid foreclosure by forcing banks to give debtors favorable terms. For those like Boebert, the aftermath of the financial crisis would not have been a depressing story about Democrats pretending to help people while actually creating conditions that made people lose their houses. Those in Boebert’s position would have been able to stay in their houses, because of Barack Obama. When they looked back, instead of being bitter about Obama’s failure to help them, they may have grudgingly conceded that actually they were able to stay in their house thanks to a government program. That could make them more open to supporting other new government programs, rather than assuming that everything done by the federal government will inevitably be corrupt and useless.
As a 35-year-old millennial who came out of nowhere to become a member of Congress, Boebert has been called the “right-wing AOC.” And there is something important about the comparison. For AOC and many other millennials, the disappointments of the Obama era led us to embrace a more left politics. We saw that the “neoliberal” approach—e.g., letting banks off the hook and allowing the private sector to handle renegotiating mortgages—was betraying the working class. We saw the failure not as proof that “government doesn’t work,” but that a government unwilling to confront and curtail the cruelties of capitalism is not worth supporting. At the very least, when there is a devastating foreclosure crisis, it is the government’s basic responsibility to keep people from needlessly losing their homes—even if that eats into the profits of banks.
Some have gone in another direction, though, toward the support of what is often called “right-wing populism” (although “populism” has an honorable tradition and I think the term shouldn’t be used in this context). People like Boebert can attract support in part because their criticisms of centrist Democrats ring true. (She mocks the silly hype about Beto O’Rourke: “‘Beto is good looking!’ ‘Beto cares about people!’ ‘Beto is cool!’ He was Barack Obama, John F. Kennedy, and Bill Clinton playing saxophone on the Arsenio Hall Show all rolled into one.” And she is right. The buzz around Robert Francis O’Rourke has always been ridiculous.) A Guardian report on Boebert includes quotes from some who know the politics of the district well, one of whom points out that “national and state Democrats have lost virtually every line of communication with working-class voters in places like the western slope [of Colorado].” That’s from a local community organizer who opposes Boebert but is stingingly critical of the way the Democrats have failed to provide a message that energizes the working class:
“They’ve had three decades to work on strategies and they still have no real strategies. There’s no storytelling, no cultural competence, no ladders for new rural talent. They’ve got to make big, brave, generational investments in rural organizing.”
The article quotes a former state senator who became extremely frustrated with the party, but still thinks that Democrats have a shot in Boebert’s district: “I think any Democrat who would get in their pickup truck and get out there and knock on doors and show the heck up would have a shot. … There are so many people in this district who are embarrassed by what is going on.”
To me, the election of Donald Trump was as much a story about the colossal failure of the Democratic Party as it was about the rise of a new type of hard-right radicalism. The same goes for Boebert: we can laugh at the absurd things she says, we can enjoy some schadenfreude when reading that her gun-themed restaurant has closed its doors, but if we are to keep people like her from holding public office, we need to better understand why they win elections. Lauren Boebert should not be in a position of any power whatsoever—she is an unhinged bigot and her legislative priorities are totally out of touch with what Americans want or need (she’s for banning abortion and expanding gun rights when people need decent healthcare and higher wages). But constituents voted for her because they like that she is “not a politician” or “speaks her mind.” She appeals to independents disgusted with Washington and eager to “shake it up” by tossing a human hand grenade into it. As with Trump, her misdeeds do not hurt her, because they are part of the appeal.
I think we should be careful not to simply laugh at Boebert. (Some liberal criticism of her, focusing on the fact that she only recently got her GED, is ugly and classist.) I remember how people laughed at Donald Trump. They fact-checked all of his statements and showed what an idiot he was. But he became the president of the United States, and I would not be surprised if Lauren Boebert is someday a viable contender for the Republican nomination. (She has not yet, like Marjorie Taylor Greene or Madison Cawthorn, done something so egregious as to make the party distance itself from her; Boebert’s outright Islamophobia is perfectly acceptable among Republicans.) I think the best response to Boebert is not just to snicker at the story of her husband in the bowling alley—though I have snickered myself—but to think about how we can craft a message and a program that appeals to those who have been through similarly dire economic circumstances (in other words, not vacuous liberalism). Otherwise, we will find ourselves losing to candidates we consider too ridiculous to take seriously.
Boebert has threatened, but not yet filed, a defamation suit against a PAC that claims she—a crusader for Christianity and pro-life values—had multiple abortions and worked as an escort. Some of the PAC’s details have turned out to be false but the PAC insists its central claims are true. The PAC has responded, “If it’s fake news, then sue us. We would love to depose you about these matters.” ↩