On multiple occasions, I’ve sat down to drinks with politically aware friends, and the same question has come up: “What does Ted Cruz look like?” A hand goes up and makes a faint pointing gesture, and you can tell a grand pronouncement is supposed to follow, but then. . .nothing. Ted Cruz looks so tantalizingly like something we all know — some Jungian archetype or the star from an Eighties sitcom — that our sense of recognition needs something to latch onto, something to grasp and say, “This! This! This!”
The impulse is not terribly intellectual. Who or what someone looks like usually says little about their politics, and one would like to think that we as a nation have evolved enough that a brilliant thinker and communicator could resemble the afterthought slurry at the bottom of a busboy’s tray and still get elected president. But we know that’s wrong. We are still a shallow people, and we get shallow candidates. And if someone is going to spray platitudinous market-study-speak at us to get elected as the Fingerlican or Tastycrat candidate, then we will still want to figure out who they are by what they appear to be. Even more so with someone like Cruz.
Ted Cruz is an ideologue and a grandstander who has conflated loudness with leadership and hardline orthodoxy with sophistication, and the end result is a remarkably shallow candidate. He’s got an Ivy League education and has argued before the Supreme Court, and the latter at least is not something you get to do if you’re a moron. But Ted Cruz the candidate is not Ted Cruz the jurist. Any of us could reproduce his policy platform by grabbing bumper stickers of conservative catchphrases and planks from the last 25 years and assembling them in a rough order. For all his erudition, he sure seems to be using it wrong — like taking a state-of-the-art racquet and decades of practice and firing 150 mph serves into the net again and again.
Ted Cruz is called a Tea Party intellectual, and that’s fair in ways he probably doesn’t intend. He nimbly cites classical references, philosophy, Austrian economics and far more of America’s founding documents than your average politician, then draws boilerplate conservative conclusions unreflective of the process of study: America is objectively the greatest moral force on earth; government always creates bad outcomes; capitalism only rescues and elevates people; this country was founded by Jesus, with a gun. His name dropping great works is meant to suggest that the truths he espouses are more profound and unalienable for his having returned to them after immersing himself in the rest of the world’s knowledge. Instead, it seems like he just wasted his time. All that effort to end up where he started, with books in his library metaphorically no different from the ones in Gatsby’s. Or, to quote from A Fish Called Wanda:
“Apes don’t read philosophy.”
“Yes they do, Otto, they just don’t understand it.”
So if Cruz’s text ultimately says nothing, the urge to look at the man and glean some subtext is almost overwhelming. And you don’t have to restrict this impulse to Cruz, considering a wealth of buffed and flattened candidates. Conservatives as far back as 2007 circulated this picture comparing Hillary Clinton’s forced “enthusiastic pointing at audience members” to Donald Sutherland’s alerting scream in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It said everything about Hillary even many people on the left feel about her: sure, that looks human, but. . .
For liberals, there was an essential truth to the simian features of George W. Bush; he could sound smart sometimes, but he was slow. And there was an uglier enduring truth to the eagerness of conservatives to liken Obama to a chimpanzee: yeah, his ears stick out, but there is half a millennium of racist pseudo-science behind depicting blacks as simian — not a commentary on an individual’s intelligence but a blanket racist categorization of them as subhuman. (Which has been a recurring conservative problem.) Better to avoid that entirely and point out that when the sides of Obama’s mouth creep down in a thoughtful frown, when he closes his eyes and breathes in through his nose, as if to marshal strength to wrestle with this forthcoming idea, he looks like the muppet Sam the Eagle.
And, good Lord, pictures about Romney said more about the man himself than even he did, apart from those moments of “lemon. . .wet. . .good.” There was an unctuous unreality to Mitt Romney that he never shed, even after essentially five consecutive years of campaign mode. The Reed Richards hair, the white dress shirts tucked into jeans — together with the Mormonism it achieved some magnificent alchemy of Squaresville. Even the legendary Photoshopped mom jeans picture of Mitt seems somehow more authentic than Campaign Romney. There’s a picture of Mitt on the wall, and another rasterbated picture of Mitt on the side of the desk, and there’s a cheap stereo with exposed wires, and in spite of all that, I still I wouldn’t be willing to bet a sizable amount of money against the slim possibility that the whole thing might be real.
I first saw Ted Cruz at a Faith and Freedom rally at the historic Tampa Theater the day before the start of the 2012 Republican National Convention. The luminaries of the conservative Christian movement all spoke: Ralph Reed, Mike Huckabee, rising star Scott Walker, etc. There was something apt about apocalyptic Christian rhetoric in a room full of sculpted gargoyles. Back then I avoided TV news whenever possible and still did most of my political reading through RSS feeds, and I had a bad habit of reading about people without knowing what they looked like, because I never saw pictures. As it happened, my colleague Hamilton Nolan and I slid into our chairs late, already mid-speech, and since I hadn’t seen him introduced, I didn’t recognize the man before us. As he winced his way through describing the hard realities that obligated him to dismiss half the U.S. population as the broken-egg enemies in the American Dream Omelet, all to murmurs of righteous approval, I whispered, “This man seems extremely dangerous.”
“Well,” Hamilton said, “that’s Ted Cruz.”
At first glance, and at every speaking appearance he’s made in the three years hence, Ted Cruz’s face is a work of remarkable economy for a caricaturist. There are his thick lashes and slightly angled-upward eyes beneath perpetually arched concerned brows and above a mouth usually fixed in a rueful frown or up in a smile as wide and short as the U shape of an industrial sink. You can draw Ted Cruz’s face with four thick ink strokes, and looking at him is actually more like looking at the New Yorker cartoon of a person than the person himself.
There is only one other Cruz expression, one he deployed multiple times during his Faith and Freedom speech, as the audience of conservative seniors bused in from The Villages ate up every red-meat gimme line of e-mail-fowardable simplicity. Cruz dips his head, looks down, and smirks, like he just said something he knew was naughty but too good not to try to get away with. Every time he does this, he looks like Gabbo.
Reminder that Ted Cruz looks like Gabbo. pic.twitter.com/mtWjr9a69i
— Jeb Lund (@Mobute) March 26, 2015
But the smirk is far less common than the rueful frown and upturned brows. Instead, that expression accompanies almost every one of Cruz’s conscience-stricken utterances about living in a depraved nearly post-American world, where people wantonly have both healthcare and skepticism about calls to bomb Iranians — where, sure, some poor people, some sick people, some Middle Eastern people, some people who still drink the groundwater in coal country will have to die, but only so freedom can live. That face is accompanied by the anguished solemnity of a golf play-by-play announcer just holding back tears. Together they combine to share a sense of bemused shame. Bemused because these ideas are so simple, and shame because those folks — you know which ones — are too stupid, too blind, too hardened in their hearts to understand them. It’s one that would cry but for laughter and vice-versa. In fact, if anything, the thick line-drawing smudges of this cheerful regret look like the smiley face that Mentalist serial killer “Red John” draws in his victim’s blood.
Ordinarily we should be ashamed of taking someone at face value, but if that’s all Cruz wants to give us beyond clone-stamped Heritage Foundation bullet-think, then we should have no compunction about heeding the message. Just make sure to look a little bit tickled and heart-stricken about it.