For 26 years, Rush Limbaugh has insisted that conservative values, clearly and passionately articulated, will win every time. By conservative values Rush meant: God, country, family, community, liberty, individualism, personal responsibility, limited government, and free markets. Reagan was the model, and the promise: it had happened once, and could happen again.
Easier said than done.
Year after year, candidate after candidate mouthed the platitudes, and botched the execution. They could overcome neither the opposition, their own establishment, or personal foibles. Yet year after year, failure after failure, Rush kept the faith, exhorting, cajoling, comforting, and dreaming of the perfect candidate.
In 2012, that candidate arrived on the national scene; and in 2016 he ran for President. Brilliant, articulate, principled, and tough, Ted Cruz couldn’t have been more perfect had Limbaugh molded him out of clay. Unlike the breathless ingénue Marco Rubio, who is so scripted you can see the hand in his back, Cruz was the real deal. Seemingly impregnable, Cruz overcame tremendous opposition, and several of his own missteps, to become a formidable challenge to the current front-runner, Donald Trump.
But Nemesis will have his day. In classical Greek tragedy, the protagonist is brought down by his own flaws. For the Greeks this was fate; it could not be otherwise. For us, it is the result of choice; every man, high and low, must make choices as he is confronted by circumstance. Sometimes those choices are monumental, and sometimes they destroy us. In order to avoid calamity, we must be self-aware enough to see how our own flaws are influencing our choices.
For Ted Cruz, the central flaw is a malignant narcissism that erupts into condescension, intellectual arrogance, and a sense of inevitability. He is no longer carrying the message; he is the message. That attitude, of course, leads to the message getting lost, as principle after principle is sacrificed to get the man into office, because that is all that matters.
As the desire for power has swamped him like a tidal wave of sewerage, Ted Cruz has allowed GOP Inc. to hollow him out like they’ve hollowed out the American economy. I never liked Ted Cruz, but I admired him, because once he laid down a position, he stuck to it.
Those days are gone. Confronted by the Trump behemoth, Cruz has adopted Trump’s positions, even as he criticizes them. The latest whopper is a “tax” on imports, which is nothing more than the tariff that Cruz claims will wreck the economy. Last debate, between the Al Gore-inspired sighs, Cruz sounded like an adenoidal Trump robot with the comedy left out. It was not pretty.
Even worse, the former scourge of the establishment is now openly collaborating with that establishment to slay the Trumpian beast. Cruz avoids criticizing Rubio, while shaking hands with him on stage after a successful coordinated attack. He meets with Jeb Bush and hires his people. He demonizes Trump’s supporters as dopes, morons, and incipient Fascists. Now, as icing on the cake, he is blaming the candidate for the fact that a bunch of communist and anarchist thugs managed to shut down a Trump rally in Chicago:
“But in any campaign, responsibility starts at the top,” Mr. Cruz continued. “And when you have a campaign that disrespects the voters, when you have a campaign that affirmatively encourages violence, when you have a campaign that is facing allegations of physical violence against members of the press, you create an environment that only encourages this sort of nasty discourse.”
…“When the candidate urges supporters to engage in physical violence, to punch people in the face, the predictable consequence of that is that it escalates,” Mr. Cruz said. “And today is unlikely to be the last such instance.”
This is the end. What has conservatism come to, when its leading advocate on the campaign trail, after decades of corrosive liberalism, and seven years of a malevolent, America-hating nihilist in the White House, blames a candidate from his own party and, worse, that candidate’s supporters, for the sorry state of the Republic and the viciousness of its political discourse? Barack Obama and the Democrat Party have done everything in their power to set person against person, group against group, and party against party, exploiting divisions, and inflaming conflict, until that conflict and hatred has become institutionalized as a means of governance, and Ted Cruz can only blame those that oppose the degradation, and the man who represents them. I can’t think of anything more opposed to the spirit of conservatism than that.
The difference between Ted Cruz and Donald Trump is that Ted Cruz looks out at a crowd and sees himself, while Trump looks into a mirror and sees the crowd. Trump may be crude, inarticulate, and occasionally boorish, but he looks back to an older, better America, the essence of which is its people, its citizens, themselves crude, inarticulate, and occasionally boorish; but who, like Trump, are animated by a vigorous spirit that, once unleashed, will make America great again. Trump is the means; the voters are the end.
For Cruz, the voters are the means, and he is the end. When he surveys a crowd his eyes are full of cold calculation. His conservatism is an exoskeleton designed to get him over the barricades. The rig is impressive, but cannot finally hide the pale, pasty, flabby milksop underneath. In this case, the clothes do not make the man.
A film critic once wrote that Alfred Hitchcock’s great film “North by Northwest”, was not about what happens to Cary Grant, but about what happens to Cary Grant’s suit. Told by a fan that he wished he were Cary Grant, Grant responded “So do I.” Grant was being overly dramatic. In his case, the clothes did make the man; the Cockney Archie Leach finally was Cary Grant.
Not so for Rafael Edward Cruz. It did not have to end this badly. Had Cruz realized that conservatism is not a clearly articulated set of principles that must be imposed on a recalcitrant mass, but is instead the systematized expression of the yearning of individuals and peoples, as flawed and imperfect as they are, he might have been born aloft by the wave that is now carrying Donald Trump to the White House. Instead, blinded by ideology and self-regard, Cruz missed the wave, and is being left behind.
Rush was correct — conservatism, properly articulated, will win every time. But conservatism is more than a set of bullet points. It is ultimately a form of trust, in people, and that, if left alone, they can manage to get things right. Trump may not have all of the bullet points in line, but the trust is there. Trust is the ultimate gift — if a candidate shows that he trusts the people, the people will trust him in return. Cruz finally could not trust, could not give, and so receives nothing back. And so he grasps at the only hand being held out to him, the cold, dead hand of the establishment, that destroys everything it touches.