Ted Cruz was always going to have lonely questions for God, regardless of how he lost. No recent candidate has more visibly wrestled with Messianic uncertainty about whether he actually was the Creator or was merely anointed by him, so any fallibility was bound to occasion at least one night of Nixon-esque recrimination and self-pity cast down a darkened corridor.
It could have been worse.
Losing to Donald Trump — an inhuman orange-and-corn-silk caricature summoned to life by the syncretic magic of heaving a pumpkin pie into the face of a scarecrow — was bad. Losing to him in evangelical, heartland Indiana was worse. Losing to him there after a morning rant castigating him as a pathologically lying sex imp spikes the needle on the Grand Schadenfreude Scale.
But to really redline the needle on that scale will take something more. It will take Ted Cruz walking away from this year with the certitude that he is predestined to become the nominee in 2020. And then, finally clear of the rest of the Republican field, he will stand alone in the general election, getting whipped like a rented mule.
That’s the destiny a chosen candidate like Ted Cruz deserves. It can still be his.
It’s important to remember that Ted Cruz was never expected to come this far in any venue outside his mind.
Both the GOP big-donor class and the media’s big haircut class picked Jeb Bush from the start, with either Scott Walker or Marco Rubio as realistic challengers. Cruz would siphon off the fundamentalist vote until the establishment closed ranks around a candidate and drove him from the race. It’s a testament both to Cruz’s appeal and his thoughts about reproductive rights that he was neither anyone’s Plan A nor their Plan B.
Iowa’s February 1st caucus was meant for Scott Walker, governor of neighboring Wisconsin. Instead, his campaign became a hysterical mess by the start of September. Three weeks later, it was gone. Meanwhile, everyone assumed that heir apparent Jeb Bush would be given New Hampshire in the same way that first-born English princes are just sort of given Wales. We all know what happened to him.
Cruz never really factored into any of this, by his own admission. In August of last year, his team outlined their intention to win the “SEC Primary,” the collection of Southern Super Tuesday states that, along with Texas, would give him enough proportionally assigned delegates to boot other hardline religious conservatives from the race. Cruz envisioned a repeat of the Romney-Santorum 2012 showdown, with him edging out the weasel-worded establishment compromiser via his brand, elocution and networked evangelical get-out-the-vote game.
But, like a variation on an old joke, the best way to make a thug laugh is to make a plan. Donald Trump tore the hearts out of the GOP primary campaigns and held them aloft, burning in his hand, while he stood there cackling like Mola Ram. He rolled up nearly every state in the SEC Primary, including Georgia, where Cruz should have had an advantage. He vivisected every conventional-wisdom strategy and nearly every contender.
He humiliated Walker into silence and denied him any semi-consensus that could have kept his polls aloft and justified donors funding his campaign’s high burn rate. He humiliated and confused Bush, until Bush’s team could think of nothing better than sitting back and waiting for Trump’s numbers to fall. He humiliated Rubio and robbed him of the aura of inevitability he desperately needed to mask just how lazy and insubstantial he was.
Everyone else was a joke. Gilmore, Pataki, Graham? Whatever. Rick Perry put on some glasses. Rick Santorum flirted with Trumpist populism, but all his solutions were doctrinaire conservatism. Mike Huckabee’s campaign seemed focused on reassuring voters scared that chicken sandwiches might get made by “a homo.” Rand Paul’s dad gave him a Libertarian movement, and he abandoned it to halfheartedly woo movement conservatives.
Bobby Jindal tried to play the highly educated candidate role and came out playing the Rob Schneider role in a fart comedy. Carly Fiorina was only auditioning for VP or a cabinet gig. Nobody wanted to give Chris Christie checks when he was potentially about to be wrapped in a quilt of federal indictments, so Trump took the only thing of his that had any value: being a bully. And Ben Carson was a clusterfuck when he was winning and a clusterfuck on the way out the door.
After that long list, you probably forgot about John Kasich, which puts you in excellent company.
Trump cut through this sad remainder-bin collection of the indolent, the unappealing and the relentlessly, programmatically shitheaded like a burning chainsaw going through Country Crock. He recognized a fundamental weakness at the heart of this soft, oily collection of ersatz humanity: They can be undone by basic human contempt.
While Cruz would like everyone to assume he knew this too, that kind of retrospective conclusion is a stretch. Trump won because he basically didn’t give a fuck. Not about verbal pieties, campaign traditions, rudimentary gestures of respect or the orthodoxies of modern conservatism. Nothing. Trump spent so long being a post-human avatar of the Trump™ brand that he neither knew nor cared about being a post-human avatar of conservative candidacy.
But however much Cruz branded himself a renegade, he did care about these things. He spoke in campaignese, used formal titles, lowered his voice gravely when mentioning Ronald Reagan and filtered every idea through electability doublespeak. If you’d put every candidate’s debate statements into a vocal distorter until they sounded alike and deleted all proper names, no average voter could have picked him out from the crowd. There’s a reason why he attacked Rubio so ferociously: Their platforms and biographies were basically identical.
Cruz could never have cleared this field singlehandedly. Without Trump — after doomed and underfunded candidates croaked via inevitability — Cruz would have faced the same liabilities as everyone else. In a conservative climate determined to reject the broken promises of politicians, he still was one. He still sounded like one, just turned up to 11.
Worse, without a Trump to stop, the necessity of Ted Cruz to anyone outside of Ted Cruz would have plummeted. In a contest pitting him against everyone else in the field, he would have still had a good organization, a pet billionaire and his tremendous extemporaneous speaking chops, but he would have also had the liability of being Ted Cruz amongst a group of people who were emphatically not. For every one of his remaining days, Cruz should lift his head heavenward and weep the profoundest Swaggart tears in gratitude for whatever caused Donald Trump to enter this race and make the question of who was the most revolting candidate in it something less than a total no-brainer.
Cruz’s policies and actions were revolting, of course.
He railed against political correctness with the tenacity and accuracy of an email forward. Maybe it was personal: Modern niceties robbed him of the rancid queer-bashing that he could have campaigned on a few decades before. Like most of the rest of the GOP, he converted gay panic into transgender panic. He suggested the Colorado Planned Parenthood shooter was “a transgendered leftist activist,” and voters were getting fearmongering mailers on the penultimate day of his campaign. Women were encouraged to never have intercourse without a license but apply for one for a handgun immediately.
He campaigned on abolishing the IRS and reducing tax filings to a postcard — to free the downtrodden — while giving more tax breaks to the wealthy than anyone else. He screamed bloody murder at the horrors of regulation at the same time the water in Flint was denuding enough children’s brains with lead to raise a generation of Caligulas. He blamed economic ills on government’s cozy relationship with “crony capitalism” while accepting loans from Goldman Sachs — where his wife worked — in a gesture of hypocrisy that won’t be topped unless Beyoncé issues a press release condemning people who write songs about infidelity.
He demagogued while calling Obama a “world-class demagogue” and telling a small child her “world is on fire.” He blamed violence at Trump rallies on people’s fury at Obama being “an imperial president.” He painted the left as the most extreme it’s ever been in American history while accepting the endorsement of extremists. The man who launched his Senate career by implying Chuck Hagel took money from North Korea could not stop being victimized by the scandalousness of others. He lied about immigration more times than you can count. He claimed in his book that he was being targeted by Politifact. He ratfucked the Carson campaign in Iowa, and then his campaign clumsily tried to ratfuck Marco Rubio over the Bible.
Nearly every Cruz speech or TV appearance devolved at some point into lecturing about the rule of law, and it’s a marvel to see what he’d do with it. His Mideast plan was “carpet bombing” ISIS, an unambiguous war crime. He called on American law enforcement to patrol “Muslim neighborhoods.” He painted Supreme Court rulings on the Affordable Care Act and marriage equality as “judicial tyranny.” He warned about an unrecognizable Supreme Court removing individual religious symbols from veterans’ gravestones. He converted the First Amendment into the foundational document of a Christian theocracy.
And all of this hardly set him apart from the rest of the Republican field. What made it special was Cruz himself. Ted Cruz achieved something fairly shocking in an election with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as candidates: He made the question of who is the biggest fake something like a tossup.
As argued here before, the one person most qualified to impeach candidate Ted Cruz is Ted Cruz. He positioned himself as a champion of real America while holding degrees from Princeton and Harvard Law. He clerked for Chief Justice Rehnquist. He worked for the Bush administration and a top-flight law firm before becoming Texas solicitor general. He was not only the embodiment of the one percent, he also had so many elite credentials that it became impossible to believe he didn’t know how unrelentingly full of shit he was.
Take the First Amendment: Somewhere along the line — either that Princeton BA in American history, or a Harvard law course or clerking at the Supreme Court — he would have run across objective goddamn reality. It was inevitable; it’s a hulking, obdurate mass of things that actually happened. As a result, his campaign was an exercise in convincing yourself that recorded history never occurred, he didn’t read it, and neither of those things mattered.
Ultimately, all voters had to go on — after a Senate career studded with zero accomplishments other than becoming the most loathed member in the history of the body — after perusing a field of candidates with more or less the same cruel beliefs, was a conflict of personalities. Ted Cruz was armed only with his.
The problem for Cruz was that he was revolting on a policy level and all the way down to a personal one. He inspired revulsion in people the way snakes do — in a primal, Jungian way. If you showed a picture of Ted Cruz to a newborn, it would probably start screaming. Probably a quarter of all columns about Ted Cruz feature the authors wrestling with what other, more knowable grotesque he reminds them of. Comedian John Mulaney said his “face looks like the entire movie Dick Tracy pushed together.”
The elements of staggeringly inauthentic humanity or authentic inhumanity started to pile up. His daughter recoiled from him, multiple times. He and his wife embraced in such proximal discomfort that it looked more like the puppets on Spitting Image. John Boehner called him “Lucifer in the flesh.” A reworked Zodiac Killer meme applied to him gained national traction despite being beaten so deep into the ground that it turned into the Twitter equivalent of that dipshit on The Big Bang Theory saying “Bazinga!” Basketball ring. Campbell’s soup. His college stories. He ended his campaign elbowing his wife in the face.
What came through, beyond oddities that might befall a candidate on a bad day, was an unnerving simulacrum of a candidate-person. Cruz’s voice dropped to a theatrical whisper at the incipient collapse of Christian America, like Garrison Keillor intoning the peril that a gooseberry pie was in, after being set too far out on the edge of the sill. When he was upbeat, he spasmodically broke into the same mask of satisfactory levity on every applause line. When he was deadly serious, he rarely deviated from an oleaginous reverence for America as its own Godhead, like an unctuous salesman replacing the Archangel Gabriel at the Annunciation and telling Mary she would soon birth capitalism, a charter and a firearm.
And even this last Dominionist religiosity became ritualized to the point of painstaking insincerity. Cruz extruded conservatives’ endlessly parroted comparison between Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter and beat it into a triptych showing his career mirroring the course of the sainted Ronald Reagan. Like Reagan, he was a true conservative left in the wilderness by the party, yet determined to rescue it. Like Reagan in 1976, he chose a running mate despite not being the delegate leader. Like Reagan’s speech to the RNC in 1976, his concession speech Tuesday night was meant to light the fire for the next four years.
MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki pegged it in two lines: “The difference between Reagan’s ’76 speech and this one: Reagan wasn’t trying to imitate a famous moment.”
It was stagecraft and mimicry from the most granular to the most epic levels: Ted Cruz doing an impression of a person and an impression of sincerity to evoke the set pieces of a broader impression of Ronald Reagan. It was noxious from the subject matter down to the execution, the political equivalent of watching 18 straight months of an Air Supply cover band.
The sad thing is, he is going to think it worked.
The campaign is over now not because of its lack of viability but to preserve Ted Cruz’s. He could have pushed through to California, tried to narrow the delegate lead and walk into the convention with greater leverage to shape the party. But that would have risked letting America witness a solid month of Donald Trump stomping a mudhole in him and then walking him dry.
Arguably the most dedicated acolyte of the Reagan cult of personality borrowed a personality and tried to build a cult of his own before getting crushed by a Trump-hotel-sized monolith of branding. Ordinarily, that kind of experience teaches you some things, but Ted Cruz is nothing if not nimble at dismissing data that falls outside his narrative. To anyone else, this looks bad, but by the reading of the Reagan prophecy, this is just a temporary setback.
He’s not entirely mistaken. Aside from this year and 2000, the GOP’s post-Nixon presidential nominee has been either the sitting president, the runner-up or the very near runner-up from the previous set of primaries. But that process began to break down in 2012, as the party’s own successes have robbed its institutional arms of whatever leverage it could exert.
An array of competing media mouthpieces, all reliant on the mantra that absolutely everyone else is lying to you, has balkanized whatever messaging the party had. Breitbart Media became Donald Trump’s dream journal. Cruz titled the introduction to his own book “Mendacity” and dedicated three pages to the Wall Street Journal: “Whenever congressional leadership is particularly exercised on a topic, it usually takes about seventy-two hours for the Journal editorial page to unleash that same attack.” Thus the ideological voice of the party gets written off as a feckless tool of a compromised establishment.
The party has slowly undone itself on other accounts. Years of agitation against campaign-finance laws delivered victories in the courts that enable any billionaire to create his or her own insta-candidate. Billionaires bought Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum a combined 383 delegates in 2012. Both men would be hard-pressed to manage a Dairy Queen for a full shift without burning it down for the insurance money.
At the same time, the GOP has embraced the notion that conservatism cannot fail but can only be failed. By those lights, the setbacks of 2008 and 2012 came not from candidates offering things that a majority of Americans had no interest in or were actively repelled by, but rather from candidates who failed to offer more intense and uncompromising versions of the things that either repel or do not engage voters. An infallible message can only be sabotaged by an imperfect vessel; if the imperfection cannot be found in the candidate, then it lies in the party.
This system created Ted Cruz, and he has every right to think that tradition, rabid orthodoxy and his own idolatry guarantee that 2020 belongs to him. And if Ted Cruz can find no flaw in himself, then it lurks within the system that undermined him and conservatism. It was a party that did not accept him in the Senate, that did not embrace him on the trail and only truculently came around to him after Donald Trump made him necessary.
There will be no Donald Trump in 2020 to undermine him. God willing, there will be no central party apparatus strong enough to stop him, and those publications, apparatchiks, kingmakers and special interests looking to shape America will have no choice but to cling to him to have first dibs at relevancy. And yes, God willing, outside Trump’s shadow and above the machinations of the party, it will be clear to all that there is only one Republican candidate.
Unfortunately, that candidate will still be Ted Cruz. He will still believe the things Ted Cruz believes. He will still speak and whisper and whine and thunder and simper like Ted Cruz. He will still accrete amongst him every indulgence of whingeing victimhood, every petty prevarication, every grandly contemptuous lie and every piously cold commandment and try to paper them over with the same affected and failed approximation of humane personality tied to a Messianic narrative only Ted Cruz believes. That’s his destiny, but it doesn’t have to be anyone else’s.
At some point, before then, what remains of the Republican Party might ask if losing in 2016 is enough, or if they want to go for two.Ted Cruz suspended his campaign for president after losing to Donald Trump in the Indiana primary. Watch highlights from last night’s primary speeches.