Senator John Neely Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican, offended Mexicans across the world in a hearing on the FBI and DEA’s budget this month, calling for American military members and law enforcement agents to invade their country in order to “stop the cartels” while adding that Mexico would be “eating cat food and living in tent behind an Outback [Steakhouse]” if not for “the people of America”.
Mexico’s top diplomat condemned the comments as “profoundly ignorant”, and the country’s ambassador to the US called for a formal apology for the “vulgar and racist” language. Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, urging the more than 37 million Americans of Mexican and other Latin American descent to “not to vote for people with this very arrogant, very offensive and very foolish mentality” in the future.
The entire episode illustrated how Kennedy has emerged as a loud conservative voice in recent years in the US and in a state which has repeatedly relied on laborers of Mexican origin to rebuild homes as well as businesses following hurricanes and other natural disasters.
But as the fallout from his remarks about Mexico unfolded, critics also seized on the opportunity to point out that the Republican senator was once a moderate – and some would even say liberal – Democrat before switching parties in 2007, just as the far-right Tea Party movement was taking hold in Louisiana politics.
And those critics say the politician who holds degrees from Vanderbilt University, the University of Virginia and Oxford University in the UK is “playing the role of a clever hick” by doing things like making fun of Mexico in order to exploit the “bigotry and fear of his base”.
Kennedy has made a name for himself by delivering “folksy”, sometimes racist statements in an exaggerated southern American accent that has been likened to being somewhere between that of Mr Haney, the con artist from the former CBS sitcom Green Acres, and Foghorn Leghorn, the cartoon rooster who appears in Looney Tunes. The latter comparison is so striking that New Orleans’s Times-Picayune newspaper once posted a quiz featuring a series of eccentric statements that was headlined: “Who said it: Sen John Kennedy or Foghorn Leghorn?”
In a Senate confirmation hearing, Kennedy once told a Cornell law professor born in Soviet-era Russia: “I don’t know whether to call you professor or comrade” – insinuating that she was a communist or a foreign agent. The remark came about three years after Kennedy drew ridicule from some quarters for spending a Fourth of July holiday – which recognizes the US’s independence from the UK – in Russia with leaders of his country’s rival power.
Separately, in a tough-on-crime, pro-police campaign ad, Kennedy ended the video by saying: “Look, if you hate cops just because they’re cops, the next time you’re in trouble, call a crackhead.”
But back when he was a figure in Louisiana’s state politics, Kennedy’s elocution hewed more closely to a background that is typical of his estimated net worth of more than $12m in 2016. In interviews and videos of proceedings before his switch to the Republican party, Kennedy – one of the wealthiest members of Congress – appears to speak with only a slight southern accent.
“Before he got to the Senate, Kennedy never pretended to be a hick,” said Robert Mann, mass communication professor at Louisiana State University and author of Backrooms and Bayous: My Life in Louisiana Politics. “Instead, he usually acted like the well-educated, affluent person that he is.”
Mann said that while Kennedy was a member of the Democratic party during a prior role as the Louisiana state government’s treasurer, he was one of the most outspoken critics of the governor at the time: Bobby Jindal, a Republican. But once he switched parties and entered the national political scene, Kennedy literally changed his tune.
“After he got to the Senate and realized that Fox News and its viewers enjoyed his shtick, he went all in on this new persona,” Mann said. “The Kennedy of 2005 or 2008 is a completely different person in style and tone from the one you see today on the TV.”
For Mann, Kennedy’s one-liners aren’t genuine, off-the-cuff folksy remarks. They’re calculated attempts to appease his conservative base. “The relationship is simple, I think: he periodically validates and reinforces their distorted views [on] Mexicans, Blacks and other marginalized people,” Mann said. “That tells them that he’s not an urbane, rich, well-educated person, but just one of them.
“It’s how politicians have pandered to the lowest common denominator for centuries. Kennedy has mastered the technique.”
Mann said that Kennedy was “playing a role on TV” by delivering sometimes “nonsensical” statements and using an exaggerated accent, which appears to fall in the long tradition of ambitious people using voice alteration to further themselves. Recent examples include Elizabeth Holmes, the Theranos founder who is bound for prison after fraudulently claiming her technology could diagnose diseases with a single drop of blood and admitted that the baritone voice she used before her criminal conviction wasn’t her real voice. Another is Paris Hilton, who recently dropped the iconic, high-pitched “shy” voice she once used while appearing on the reality television show The Simple Life.
“That role is of a clever hick who, while unsophisticated, is always quick with a put-down for smug city slickers,” Mann said. “If you view him through the lens of someone who is affecting an attitude, the words don’t have to make complete sense. It’s the image and the attitude that count.”
But while Kennedy may be playing a character, the senator’s statements have real-world impacts, including on foreign relations. The remarks have strained the relationship between the US and Mexico.
The two countries are economic partners, with more than 33 million US tourists visiting Mexico every year and over $800bn in bilateral trade. That includes the more than $40bn Louisiana exports to Mexico and $15bn the state bought, creating a surplus balance in favor of Louisiana of $25bn.
Additionally, more than 2 million US citizens permanently live in Mexico, and the jobs created by trade between the countries supports more than 70,000 families in Louisiana.
A senior Mexican diplomat at the Mexican embassy in Washington said the rhetoric in Kennedy’s recent remarks about his country and his people runs “counter to the needs of the US-Mexico relationship,” which he said requires “stronger dialogue and mutual understanding”.
“Uninformed and ill-intentioned statements have the potential to veer us on to a trajectory that can further foster misunderstanding and miscommunication between both countries,” the official said. “The true challenge lies in comprehending and addressing the numerous shared challenges but also opportunities faced by Mexico and the US, on the grounds of respect.”