Is it just me, or is Ted Cruz the most transparently cynical politician on planet Earth?
In the interest of charity, let’s say it’s just me. After all, there are plenty of cynical people in politics, and picking out the cynical-est of them all is a bit like choosing which Oscar nominee is the most Caucasian: In the end, why not just call it a tie?
Yet it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, even among the most craven of presidential contenders, the junior senator from Texas is in a league all his own. While this has been true from the moment he appeared on the scene, his steady ascension in the polls has made his abject wretchedness a matter of national concern.
Indeed, the sheer chutzpah infused in every sentence that comes out of Cruz’s mouth is a wonder to behold, as you realize we’re dealing with someone who will say and do just about anything to become the next Republican nominee—and, presumably, the next president—and who apparently has no understanding of the word “shame.”
If we wanted to be succinct about this, we could merely cite his recent Duck Dynasty-themed TV ad and call it a day. (Seriously, how many hours were devoted to that face paint?) Or we could revisit that time he cooked bacon by wrapping it around the muzzle of a machine gun and firing away. (No, dear reader, that moment was not a hallucination.)
Truly, in the realm of primary season pandering, Cruz is a visionary and a prophet. You sense that if he could win 15 more votes by skinning a live raccoon and wearing its carcass as a hat, he would do so without a moment’s pause—with a big, fat smile on his face.
Which brings us to the $1.6 billion question: Is Ted Cruz as stupid as he looks?
Answer: Absolutely not. A graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law and a nationally-recognized debater at both, Cruz is arguably the most intellectually formidable person in the GOP field, capable of processing complex ideas in ways that most other public figures don’t even attempt. If you’re a Republican voter who values smarts above all else, Ted is most assuredly your man.
Herein lies the paradox and the punch line, which is that Cruz’s long-term electoral success depends almost entirely on garnering the support of idiots—folks who, at best, don’t give a rat’s ass about a fancy Ivy League education and, at worst, are openly contemptuous of those who have one.
Cruz understands as well as anybody that his only hope of winning the nomination is by pretending to be a total dunderhead, and damned if he isn’t giving it the old college try. He is not going to let a little thing like dignity get in the way of becoming the most powerful man on Earth.
In this sense, Cruz doesn’t employ cynicism so much as he embodies it. While the word “cynicism” has been used rather haphazardly in our public discourse over the years, it can best be defined here as purposefully saying something false in the understanding that your audience is too dumb to know the difference.
Up to now, Donald Trump’s birtherism has arguably been the gold standard on this front. From the beginning, Trump knew perfectly well that Barack Obama was born in the United States and was constitutionally qualified to be president. And yet, once he made the calculation (rather brilliantly, I must say) that there were enough ignorant rubes with whom he could build a base of support for his eventual foray into politics, he embraced the “Obama was secretly born in Kenya” conspiracy theory whole hog and—presto chango!—he is now the most popular Republican in U.S. politics.
Into this deranged, noxious atmosphere, Ted Cruz materialized last fall with possibly the most cynical public pose of all: Embracing Trump as a swell guy with a lot of really good points.
Recall, if you will, that while Trump was inexplicably rising in stature with one galling, infantile comment after another, all of his GOP counterparts denounced and distanced themselves from him—except for Ted Cruz. As Trump was called a “blowhard” by Jeb Bush and a “buffoon” by Rand Paul, Cruz all but linked arms with the Donald, insisting that the latter had his finger to the GOP winds and should not be so quickly discounted as some kind of unhinged carnival barker (thank you, Martin O’Malley).
Politically, it was a bold move for Cruz to align himself with a man with no apparent moral compass—someone willing to alienate virtually every racial and ethnic group in America as a means of taking over the GOP. Like Trump himself, Cruz wagered that there were enough bigots and paranoids in the electorate to comprise a plurality of Republican primary voters, and that if those fine, upstanding citizens ever soured on Trump, why shouldn’t Cruz position himself as their next-best bet?
It seemed like an insane gambit at the time: Trump was clearly a disaster waiting to happen and who in his right mind would tag along with that?
As it turned out—in a predictably unpredictable manner—Cruz’s low opinion of Republican voters proved 100 percent accurate, and he has benefitted from their credulity every step of the way. While Trump remains as admired as ever, Cruz is in the best possible position to absorb Trump voters in the event of a flameout. For Cruz, short of actually being in the lead, everything has gone precisely according to plan.
In the past few days, of course, all hell has broken loose as the unofficial détente between Trump and Cruz has officially come to an end. Suddenly vulnerable, Trump has begun treating Cruz as disrespectfully as all his other rivals, while Cruz has finally—finally!—hinted as to what he really thinks about his party’s bully-in-chief.
While I haven’t the slightest idea how the average Republican primary voter is taking this drastic turn of events, I think I speak for most leftists and other non-Republicans in calling this the most entertaining clash of the entire 2016 race. All presidential campaigning is crack to political junkies, but Trump v. Cruz is a veritable eight ball of excitement, and it’s going to produce one hell of a hangover when all is said and done.
Why is this fight different from all other fights? Easy: Because neither fighter has the slightest shred of integrity or self-awareness and—perhaps not coincidentally—both are born showmen and narcissists concerned with the fortunes of no one but themselves.
To wit: When Trump was exchanging insults with, say, Jeb Bush, the tiff was implicitly a battle between lunacy and reason, with Bush assuming the mantle of the latter as an antidote to the former.
Against Cruz, the rules of engagement have managed to achieve an added level of ridiculousness, as neither man has the faintest interest in moderation, decorum or intellectual coherence. By every known account, Ted Cruz is the most personally unpleasant member of the U.S. Senate, particularly among those in his own party. It might seem odd that a man of such intelligence and education would be so detested by his fellow Republicans—that is, until you realize that he channels every modicum of his rhetorical gifts to advance his own selfish interests (read: being elected president), often in the most heavy-handed and theatrical way possible.
Indeed, we can’t know whether Cruz means a word of what he says, because—much like Trump—every syllable is uttered entirely for effect, without regard for the consequences of turning those words into actions.
Lately, for instance, Cruz has mused about “carpet bomb[ing] ISIS into oblivion,” partly to find out “if sand can glow in the dark.” While we have all expressed such sentiments about how we would personally handle terrorism—typically in a college dorm at 4 o’clock in the morning after 10 or 12 drinks—to hear a sober grown-up say them in the middle of the afternoon—well, it’s a bit like those closet cases who are little too effusive about how much they love women. There is a whiff of phoniness and overcompensation in the air.
Except that doesn’t matter with Cruz, because his target audience is precisely the sort of gang that eats that stuff up and thinks all problems can be solved with apocalyptic violence. Since Trump’s attitude on this is virtually identical to Cruz’s (on ISIS: “I would bomb the shit out of them”), their matchup is destined to be the most childish, petty and substance-free contest in memory, and there may not be enough popcorn to get us through it. (At least not after we leave Iowa.)
It was Andrew Sullivan in 2009 who said the Republican Party would get worse before it gets better, but I think even he didn’t foresee just how completely the GOP would disintegrate into nihilism and self-parody. How even its highest-achieving thinkers would appeal to the lowest common denominator.
At that point, you’ll recall, Sarah Palin was the party’s great shining star—an ideological demagogue who, on the basis of her syntax, was every bit as dumb as she appeared. How interesting, then, that the current war for the nomination is between two demagogues who, by their backgrounds, are perfectly capable of enlightened, serious leadership but, because of what their party has become, have no plausible route to success except through cynicism and bombast.
Fasten your seatbelts, citizens. It’s gonna be a bumpy year.