by Max Cea
Ted Cruz announced that he would be dropping out of the Republican presidential race Tuesday evening following a landslide Donald Trump victory in Indiana. I watched his concession speech yesterday afternoon hoping for schadenfreude. Instead, the act felt masochistic. To watch Ted Cruz speak, even in defeat, is an assault on the senses – auditory and visual, of course, but hell, even olfactory; I can smell his acrid breath when I hear his mumpy voice.
The revulsion I feel towards Cruz isn’t unique and it isn’t partisan. There have been rumors throughout the campaign that he could be the Zodiac killer. And just last week, former House Majority Leader John Boehner likened Cruz to “Lucifer in the flesh,” adding that, “I get along with almost everyone, but I have never worked with a more miserable son of a bitch in my life.” Cruz’s insidiousness was on full display on Tuesday. He was smug, sanctimonious, calculating; he toggled between waxing poetic about a mythical America (“We have spilled more blood, spent more treasure in defense of liberty than any country in history. Yet we do not engage in wars of conquest. We do not seek to enrich ourselves at our neighbor’s expense.”) and casting himself as an outsider to ‘the system’ (he told the story of two kids who gave him their lemonade stand money, claiming that, “That’s what built this campaign.”). He saved the concession for the end. There were no tears, just an awkward hug.
Perhaps fittingly, it was at this moment, the moment when Cruz accidentally smacked his wife, when Donald Trump, for all intents and purposes, clinched the nomination – Kasich would announce the end of his bid the next morning. Following the news, the great orange fever dream that’s consumed the nation for much of the past year continued to suck many into its swell. Trump was justifiably the headliner. Even after months in which every indication has been that Trump would get the Republican nomination, that it’s happened, that Donald Trump is now the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, is surreal.
It’s surreal because Donald Trump is such an anomaly. America has elected presidents who were celebrities before they were politicians, but they were politicians before they were president. America has elected presidents who never served in office, but they were decorated war heroes, bona fide leaders. Donald Trump is ostensibly a real estate mogul. But more so, he is a reality TV star and a brand. He is a serial liar, a fraud; he’s unapologetic in his xenophobia, misogyny, and racism. Many have argued that you’d need to look beyond American history, to 1930s Germany, for an apt comparison.
While for some that’s been a way of insinuating that Trump, if elected, might literally be a Hitler-like leader, the comparisons to the Fuhrer have mostly had to do with the anomalous way a monster comes to power. If Trump could happen here, now, in the age of mass information, it makes it easier to understand how Hitler happened back then, over there.
Though surprising, Trump’s success in the race, if viewed as an anomaly, is not so difficult to understand. He is a sui generis figure who came along at the right time, a time of mass social change. He’s a response to that change, a voice to old white peoples’ hostility and fear. Everything that Barack Obama is – poised, intelligent, nuanced, Black – Trump is not. He doesn’t mince words. He’s going to “Make America Great Again.”
I expect Trump to lose in November and be remembered as an accident of time. It’s worth considering then, if Trump hadn’t entered this race, who would’ve been the Republican nominee?
Perhaps Jeb Bush, who was many pundits’ pick, and who might have fared better if Trump hadn’t attacked him like the Grizzly in The Revenant attacked Leo? Perhaps Marco Rubio, who was billed as conservatives’ Obama but wound up being, simply, “Little Marco”?
It’s not hard to convince yourself that it might have been either candidate, but then you’d have learned nothing from this race. Republican voters this go-around didn’t want an establishment figure; they weren’t interested in an Eisenhower conservative. They wanted the crazy.
The overwhelming evidence suggests that Ted Cruz would’ve been the Republican nominee. Not just because he finished with he second most delegates. Through most of the race, Cruz has trailed only Trump in national polling. He won Iowa and held onto second placethrough Super Tuesday, which was before Trump unleashed holy hell on Rubio. Cruz was also overwhelmingly Trump voters’ second choice – as well as Rubio voters’ second choice, Carson voters’ second choice, and Fiorina voters’ second choice.
Cruz’s success, more so than Trump’s, is hard to get your head around. He seems less like an outlier and more like a signifier that the party has shifted away from so-called mainstream Republicans, that the Tea Party has won. Imagine for a moment how things might have been different if Ted Cruz was a bit more charismatic, if he looked a bit less like a blobfish. I’m sure other Republicans with presidential aspirations are doing just that. Ideologically, Ted Cruz has proved that the ultraconservative outsider model is viable.
It seems especially unlikely that yearning for such a figure will lessen if Hillary Clinton is elected. If anything, Clinton is more of the establishment than President Obama, and she is certainly equally despised by conservatives. Ultimately, I’m not sure who that figure would be. And I’m not sure if they could ever gain general election traction. It remains to be seen whether the Right’s shifting right will continue to move the middle to the left.