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Dan Crenshaw’s Smart Strategy: Engage, Don’t Rage


“Dan Crenshaw started the week as a punchline and ended it as a star,” declared the Washington Post on Sunday, some six hours after the incoming representative appeared aside Pete Davidson on “Weekend Update.” For the right, there’s an important lesson in Crenshaw’s journey from one point to the other. Raging at culture is the best way for conservatives to get shut out of it

Contra the Post, I would probably argue Crenshaw became a “star” last week after Davidson’s cheap quip about his eyepatch landed flat on “Saturday Night Live.” But it wasn’t the joke that transformed Crenshaw from a no-name Republican candidate to a viral sensation, it was his response.

Crenshaw’s first move amid the controversy was crucial. As outrage over the joke bubbled on social media, he didn’t rage at “SNL,” fair as that may have been. He didn’t call for an apology, denounce Davidson, or lose his cool. Indeed, Crenshaw wasn’t just throwing away the template, he was actively resisting it. “I want to get away from this culture where we demand an apology every time someone misspeaks,” he said in a next-day interview with TMZ. 

Crenshaw added, “Veterans across the country probably don’t feel as though their wounds they received in battle should be the subject of a bad punch line for a bad joke. And here’s the real atrocity in all this: It wasn’t even funny. It was not original, it was not funny. It was just mean-spirited.”

That’s pitch perfect. The media is thirsty for opportunities to make likable conservatives look like losers, and Crenshaw gave them nothing to work with. He had every right to be enraged and sanctimonious, but chose instead to play it cool, stand up for veterans, and take a dig at the joke itself. The approach worked.

It’s almost certainly what set Crenshaw up for his appearance on “SNL” one week later, the significance of which is hard to understate. Popular culture giving a genuine conservative (and I certainly don’t mean Kanye West) favorable treatment is rare, and Crenshaw’s relaxed and relatable response to the dust-up probably made Lorne Michaels’s decision to invite him on the show an easy one.

It was a smart one, too. The exchange between Crenshaw and Davidson earned rave reviews, providing a moment of comity and relief on the heels of a contentious midterm election season. (He was also funny, a combination of good writing from “SNL’s” team and his own delivery. )

Crenshaw could have closed the “SNL” door entirely last Sunday with a different reaction. Again, it’s not as though a little (or a lot) of anger and indignation on his part wouldn’t have been justified. It would have. But, again, raging at culture is the best way for conservatives to get shut out of it. Getting shut out of it only makes Hollywood’s desire to depict conservatives as unfeeling, unenlightened bigots much easier.

Crenshaw managed to make inroads to popular culture without ceding an inch, or compromising his principles. It can be done, indeed it has to be done. (That’s not to say it will always work, but the importance of the mission makes it well worth the effort.)

The first thing Crenshaw did right was to jab at “SNL” rather than unload on it. Humility and a good sense of humor go a long way, especially for politicians, and especially for conservative politicians who are broadly cast as humorless antiheroes in entertainment media. That set Crenshaw on a course to “Weekend Update.” The second thing he did right was to accept Michaels’s invitation to appear on the program. The third was to accept Davidson’s apology (which he did not ask for), crack some jokes, and still make a serious point about respecting veterans.

“SNL” was inevitably attacked from the left for “normalizing a white supremacist.” What the segment normalized was Republicans (synonymous with “white supremacists” to some progressives), which is a healthy development considering they comprise a big chunk of the country, a chunk of the show’s viewership, and just about everybody has to get along with at least a couple of of them. With his deft response to Davidson’s ill-advised ad-lib, Crenshaw made that rare and valuable concession possible. Others should follow his lead.