The Navy SEAL turned congressman who has no patience for outrage culture

Rep. Dan Crenshaw, a rising Republican star from Texas, lays out his philosophy for life in a new book

Rep. Dan Crenshaw is itching to get back to work. The freshman Republican is hunkered down in Texas as the coronavirus pandemic envelops the United States. But where he really wants to be is Washington. 

“We want people to get back to their lives and get back to a sense of freedom,” Crenshaw told Jewish Insider in a recent phone interview from Houston. “We’re fine, of course, it’s the rest of the country that better get back on track.” 

The legislator has called for Congress to reopen immediately, and he wants to see a change in how it deals with the “economic side” of the coronavirus moving forward. 

“I will not support any more large, trillion-dollar stimulus packages because it’s ridiculous,” he told JI. “If the PPP program needs more funding, let’s possibly fund that — but let’s take it one step at a time… there’s a lot of problems with what we already passed, and we need to fix those things first.”

In less than two years in office, the outspoken political newbie has already made a name for himself among Congress’s diverse freshman crowd. He has become somewhat of a rockstar among young conservatives — amassing more than 1.4 million Instagram followers — and a regular on cable news shows. In his new book Fortitude: American Resilience in the Era of Outrage, Crenshaw lays out his philosophy for his approach to both politics and life.

And there are several lessons from his book that can apply to the country’s current crisis, he says, pointing to chapters about acquiring perspective and living with a sense of duty.

“It’s tough to tell people during hard times that they should have some perspective, but it’s also true,” he said. “I think Israeli people probably know this better than most. Because on any given day, you might have rockets being lobbed onto your neighborhoods.”

Crenshaw, 36, was elected to Congress in 2018 in Texas’s 2nd district — after a come-from-behind candidacy that saw him decisively clinch the Republican nomination in a primary runoff, beating out former state legislator Kevin Roberts. 

While Fortitude is less a memoir than a call to action, Crenshaw draws heavily from his life experiences and the lessons they imparted. From losing his mother to cancer when he was 10 years old, to losing his right eye in an explosion while serving as a Navy SEAL, the congressman recounts how his own struggles shaped him.

“Perspective from darkness, perseverance in the face of adversity, purpose through action, and optimism in the face of failure are foundational antidotes to outrage and victim culture,” he writes. “But more than that, they’re a prescription for a happier life.”

After being wounded in an IED explosion during his third military deployment in Afghanistan in 2012, Crenshaw faced an uphill battle to regain his eyesight. After losing his right eye, he underwent a risky surgery to save the vision in his left eye, which required him to lie face down for six weeks afterward. But he beat the odds, regained much of his vision, retrained to shoot left-handed and redeployed two further times with the Navy SEALS. 

“That was always the path,” Crenshaw said of his decision to fight to stay in the military and continue to serve in combat. “There was no inner dialogue there, there was no finding of strength, it was just there all along. It was just a matter of staying on the path and staying on that purpose until I was just not allowed to anymore.”

After Crenshaw was medically retired against his wishes from the Navy in 2016, he enrolled in Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, where he received a master’s in public administration in 2017. Later that year, he threw his hat in the ring to run for Congress, eventually beating Democrat Todd Litton in the 2018 general election 53%-46%.

The Texas Republican likely received an unintended electoral boost due to a controversy stemming from a joke by comedian Pete Davidson on Saturday Night Live just three days before the general election. Davidson joked that Crenshaw’s eye patch made him look like “a hitman from a porno,” which sparked a wave of outrage from Republican officials. 

A week later, fresh off his election win, Crenshaw made a surprise appearance on SNL, accepted an apology from Davidson, delivered some light ribbing of his own and issued a plea for Americans to learn how to “forgive one another.”

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Crenshaw and his wife, Tara, celebrate winning the Republican primary runoff during an election night party at the Cadillac Bar, in Houston in May 2018. (Mark Mulligan/Houston Chronicle via AP)

It’s exactly that spirit Crenshaw is trying to promote in his new book. He lambastes the culture of victimhood he says has become commonplace in the United States, where people claim oppression and outrage at imagined slights, and throw up their hands in the face of true adversity. He denounces the use of ad hominem attacks and derides the lack of shame, the outrage mob and the use of bad-faith, emotionally driven arguments he says are prevalent today.  

“It seems like you have to be a victim or oppressed in order to gain any kind of social status in much of today’s culture,” he told JI. “Why would you want that? It’s completely the opposite of what we’ve done as a culture for such a long time — where we used to uphold the heroic ideal of somebody who overcomes adversity.”

In his book, Crenshaw — carefully, it seems — calls out both Democratic and Republican politicians for engaging in such behavior, from Rep. Steve King (R-IA) to Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam. He praises former President Barack Obama for his “sensible remarks” on outrage culture and for instructing his daughters to engage with those who think differently, and not to “go around just looking for insults.”

In conversation, Crenshaw says while there are bad actors in both parties, he believes the Democrats exceed at this type of behavior. 

“The Democratic Party, the left, is far more likely to engage in victimization of politics,” he claims. “I do point out that the right kind of does it too, but it’s just to a lesser extent.” And as far as “biased, emotionally driven argumentation, I think that does primarily come from the left,” he said. Such attitudes, he believes, are also reflected in Congress “to a huge extent.”

“I’ve literally been called racist by members of Congress, for no reason, just because we disagree on immigration policy,” Crenshaw said. “What an absurd statement. These are not serious people. If you’re saying that, it’s because you have no idea what to say. If you’re saying that, it’s because your own policy arguments are lacking.”

Crenshaw bristles at the idea that he should have referenced President Donald Trump in the book, demurring on the question of whether the president engages in bad-faith, “loud-mouthed,” and “shameless” ad hominem attacks. 

“I’m under no obligation to always talk about the president,” he told JI. “Just because everybody else is obsessed with the president, doesn’t mean I have to frame my book — which should last for decades — around one person at one given period of time.” 

And how would the president measure up to the framework laid out in Fortitude

“Sometimes he does well, sometimes he doesn’t,” Crenshaw said. “He’s a human being. Sometimes I don’t do well on these lessons. These lessons are standards to live up to. And I certainly don’t live up to my own standards, but at least I know what they are, and that we should all try.”

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Rep. Dan Crenshaw, hands President Donald Trump the “No” vote card from his House impeachment vote at the Turning Point USA Student Action Summit in West Palm Beach, Florida, on Dec. 21, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

While Crenshaw was attacked as insufficiently pro-Trump during his Republican primary campaign, he has gone on to become a stalwart supporter and defender of the president (who touted the congressman’s book on Twitter earlier this week). He notably, however, spoke out last year against Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from northern Syria, and called him out for attacking the late Sen. John McCain.

This November, the freshman congressman will face off against Democrat Sima Ladjevardian, a lawyer, former adviser to former Rep. Beto O’Rourke and Iranian immigrant whose family fled the revolution when she was a child.  

“While a Dan Crenshaw victory in November is not an absolute certainty, it is extremely likely,” Rice University political science professor Mark P. Jones told JI. “Crenshaw is very sharp and charismatic,” he added, and has “demonstrated a canny ability to connect with younger voters.”

Crenshaw has raised a whopping $6.6 million according to the latest FEC filings, the ninth-highest for any congressional candidate in 2020. Ladjevardian has raised more than $1 million, an impressive figure for a political newcomer. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has indicated it will be pouring resources into the race, in an effort to flip the district that has been held by a Republican since 2005. 

Brandon Rottinghaus, a professor of political science at the University of Houston, said it would be a “tall order” for Ladjevardian to unseat Crenshaw. While the incumbent is “susceptible to the same national tide that will hurt Republicans nationwide,” Rottinghaus posited that Crenshaw has “elevated his profile above Trump [and] the Republican Party, so he has some cushion in a year when Republicans are likely to do less well than in the past in Texas.”

According to Jones, Ladjevardian is a “strong challenger” and an “excellent fundraiser,” but she would need a major, unforeseen shakeup in the race in order to triumph in the “reddish district.” 

Randy Czarlinsky, the regional director of the American Jewish Committee in Houston, said the two candidates offer a “distinct difference” to Houston voters — and to the city’s Jewish community. “There will be Jews on both sides of the aisle voting for each candidate,” he said, noting that both Crenshaw and Ladjevardian have had positive contact with his office. 

Czarlinsky says the tone of Crenshaw’s reelection campaign, however, may shift from two years ago. “When he ran for election [in 2018], I think he was more to the center,” Czarlinsky said. “Maybe he moved, like a lot of Republicans have, to align themselves at least publicly closer with Trump to avoid backlash.” 

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Crenshaw has repeatedly made headlines during his first term in Congress for his sharp criticism of fellow freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN). But he makes clear that his reactions to her comments fall squarely in line with his prescribed approach.  

“You’ve got to call things out as you see them — that’s not outrage culture,” he said. His criticisms, he added, are not in line with saying “she’s an evil person, and we should have a mob run to her house and protest her.” Defenders of Omar, Crenshaw said, claim that he took her comments about 9/11 “out of context,” something he denies. But he points out that context is key to his perspective on his freshman colleague. 

“She’s made so many awful comments,” he said. “You take people’s comments in context. She’s made a ton of terrible anti-American, anti-Jewish comments. This is just who she is.” He would be more inclined to “give her some grace,” Crenshaw said, if he wasn’t familiar with her comments about U.S. soldiers in Somalia, or her accusation that Jewish people have dual loyalties.  

“She’s said terrible things about Israel,” he said. “This is a pattern. And you have to call that out.” Crenshaw said he has never met or spoken directly with Omar. “People don’t realize you don’t actually get many opportunities to see your fellow members of Congress,” he said. “You have to seek them out.”

Crenshaw has visited Israel three times, once on a brief vacation, then with a Harvard student trip in 2017, and most recently on a December 2018 American Israel Education Foundation trip shortly before being sworn into office. Both of the organized trips, he said, “really do try to to allow you to see both sides of the argument with respect to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. And it was really eye-opening.”

His affinity for the country is clear. On an episode released this week of his podcast, “Hold These Truths,” Crenshaw spotlighted the work of the City of David in Jerusalem, with call-in guest Ze’ev Orenstein, the director of international affairs at the City of David Foundation.

Crenshaw speaks at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington in 2019. (Michael Brochstein/Sipa US via AP Images)

The Navy veteran said he has “been to the Middle East so many times that it kind of feels home to me, it doesn’t really feel like a foreign country in a lot of ways.” And he appreciates the “sense of unity” that he feels in Israel, something he credits in part to the mandatory military draft.  

“The more I see our divisions, the more inclined I am to look at some kind of required service in the United States,” he said. “It seems to me that there’s more unity [in Israel] around at least a few given policies.”

Czarlinsky of AJC told JI that his office has had positive and substantive talks with Crenshaw on topics important to the Jewish community. 

“We had a real conversation on issues, it wasn’t just a ‘nice to meet you,’” type of meeting, Czarlinsky said of a sit-down with the congressman last fall. “It was really on issues, from the Middle East, to immigration, to getting to be on the [House] Bipartisan Task Force on Antisemitism, which he joined.” Czarlinsky pointed out that Crenshaw is “obviously, when it comes to the Middle East, very supportive of Israel.”

The Texas lawmaker said he is “generally in favor of the president’s strategy moving forward,” when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that he certainly doesn’t want to see “another Clinton Parameters-type plan… because we all know it just wouldn’t work. It doesn’t make sense on the ground and in Israel.” Moving forward, he said, “we’re just gonna have to deal with the reality as it is.”  

The issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Crenshaw said, is one that also can often devolve into the bad-faith arguments, victimhood and childish rhetoric he so deplores.  

“Why is it that the American left and American Democrats have become increasingly against Israel and more pro-Palestinian people?” he asked. “Well, because there’s a deeper psychology behind how American leftists think. They view everything through a lens of oppressor and oppressed. Everything.”

Applied to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Crenshaw said, growing numbers of Democrats “view Israel as an oppressor, they view Palestinians as the oppressed — and they will not listen to any kind of evidence that suggests otherwise.” This trend, he claims, represents a major shift in the Democratic Party in recent years, that is “manifesting in increasing anti-Israel sentiment.”

Crenshaw claims the Republican Party has not experienced any major changes over the past several decades. “I see how policies now compare to decades ago, and it’s not all that different,” he said, admitting that “some things have changed here and there,” without specifying further. 

By contrast, “The Democratic Party has changed radically — and that’s just since Obama,” he alleges. “That’s not even since decades ago” — adding that the growing “Bernie Sanders wing of the party,” has had a powerful effect on its makeup. 

“If Biden won the presidency, I don’t think he would govern the way Obama did,” Crenshaw posited. “I think he would govern radically left of that — because he has to.”

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