The most revealing debate of the 2016 primary was held on the side of a road in Marion, Indiana, on Monday. In a widely circulated video, Ted Cruz asks a Trump supporter wearing dark sunglasses and a contemptuous grin to kindly explain what he finds so appealing about the Donald.
“Everything,” the man replies.
The former litigator implores his opponent to be more specific. The man says, “The wall.” Cruz informs him of an interview Trump gave to the New York Times, in which he reportedly suggested his most ambitious proposals were just campaign poses. “Lyin’ Ted!” the man retorts. “You are the problem, politician.” Cruz presses on, noting that Trump is the only 2016 candidate who has been sued for employing the undocumented and that, at his resort in Florida, the mogul has shown a preference for hiring guest workers over American-born citizens. “I believe in Trump,” the man eventually interrupts.
“A question here everybody should ask,” Cruz begins.
“Are you Canadian?” the man finishes, to the adulation of his peers.
Watching this exchange, one experiences a strange, disorienting sensation — sympathy for Ted Cruz. With patience and courtesy, the Texas senator tries to engage his interlocutor in a fact-based discussion of Trump’s merits as a candidate, only to be rebuffed and then humiliated by the ecstatic epistemological closure of the Trumpen proletariat.
But Cruz does not deserve your sympathy (and not just because he is almost certainly a serial killer who terrorized northern California throughout the late ‘60s and early ‘70s). In Marion, Cruz was overwhelmed by the very force that birthed his presidential campaign. Back when Trump was still dreaming of buying the Buffalo Bills, Cruz was already exploiting the defiant faith of GOP voters.
In 2013, the freshman senator rallied the conservative grassroots around a plan to build his email list, disguised as a strategy for repealing the Affordable Care Act. Cruz assured the tea-party faithful that Republicans could force Barack Obama to rip up his signature legislative achievement by threatening to shut down the federal government — a notion roughly as plausible as Mexican taxpayers funding Trump’s border-long monument to American xenophobia. But implausibility wasn’t an issue for Cruz, who made sure that blame for his gambit’s inevitable failure would be laid at the feet of his skeptics.
“I can’t count the number of Republicans in Washington who say, ‘Look, we can’t defund it. No, no, no. We can pass symbolic votes against it but we can’t actually stand up and take a risk and be potentially be blamed,” Cruz told a crowd at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, framing his colleagues’ assertion of basic facts as proof of their duplicity.
How many of those colleagues found themselves in debates like the one Cruz suffered in Marion? How many tried to explain the nature of divided government to earnest constituents, only to be told, “You are the problem, politician”?
Contrary to popular conception, Cruz’s quixotic mission wasn’t driven by ideological fervor but by ruthless ambition. The senator was willing to throw his party and government into chaos for the sake of attaining greater fame and power. This cynicism was of a piece with his broader career. As Ross Douthat has convincingly argued, Cruz’s political trajectory resembles that of an unscrupulous striver, not an uncompromising zealot. He is a populist who, whilst attending Harvard Law School, refused to study with anyone who hadn’t gotten their bachelor’s degree at Harvard, Princeton, or Yale. He is an anti-Establishment gadfly who tried desperately to win a spot in George W. Bush’s inner circle. Once he was rejected by the Washington Cartel and successfully rebranded himself as the sworn enemy of “compassionate conservatism,” Cruz waffled on matters of trade, immigration, and government spying, all while relentlessly hectoring the other members of his caucus for their political cowardice. He is a #NeverTrump conservative who spent the first half of his campaign defending and then imitating the Donald’s demagoguery.
Cruz didn’t lose the Republican primary because of his commitment to principle and reason; he lost because he is the second-most-talented liar his party has to offer.
“[Trump] is perpetuating the greatest fraud in the modern history of politics,” Cruz told Glenn Beck on Tuesday.
That statement shouldn’t be read as condemnation but as a confession of defeat.