New York Times columnist David Brooks comes in for his share of lumps around these parts, but his latest column is, I think, dead-on. "The Brutalism of Ted Cruz" lays out the essential appeal of the Texan while also sketching the problems with his entire worldview.
Traditionally, candidates who have attracted strong evangelical support have in part emphasized the need to lend a helping hand to the economically stressed and the least fortunate among us. Such candidates include George W. Bush, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum.
But Cruz's speeches are marked by what you might call pagan brutalism. There is not a hint of compassion, gentleness and mercy. Instead, his speeches are marked by a long list of enemies, and vows to crush, shred, destroy, bomb them. When he is speaking in a church the contrast between the setting and the emotional tone he sets is jarring….
there's no variation in Cruz's rhetorical tone. As is the wont of inauthentic speakers, everything is described as a maximum existential threat.
Amen, Brother Brooks, amen.
Even Donald Trump, who is no stranger to stupefyingly overblown and extreme rhetoric, at least promises a better world in which we—and by which he means him alone—will "make America great again." Trump is fuzzy on exactly how he'll manage that, but he at least nods to a positive program that he will implement through sheer personality and art-of-deal-making.
Contrast that with Cruz, who is hugely reminiscent rhetorically of Sen. Joe McCarthy, who was always babbling on with faux-precision about the exact number of this or that national security threat while trash-talking everybody from Harry Truman to George Marshall. What was McCarthy for, other than constantly whipping up panic and fear?
What is Cruz for, other than standing with Kim Davis, the one government employee a hardcore conservative could laud for gold-bricking on the public payroll?
Pretty much alone among my Reason colleagues, I enjoyed Cruz's "extended speech" against Obamacare in the fall of 2013 because it was a statement against coercion. But don't kid yourself that Cruz has a positive plan to replace Obamacare, not to mention Medicare, with a free-market system of health-care and entitlements.
Cruz simply can't make a positive statement about anything. As Brooks notes,
Cruz lays down an atmosphere of apocalyptic fear. America is heading off "the cliff to oblivion." After one Democratic debate he said, "We're seeing our freedoms taken away every day, and last night was an audition for who would wear the jackboot most vigorously."
And don't mistake Cruz's definitive statements about the end of this or that freedom for adherence to principles.
Brooks notes that he is more than willing to flip on issues that are supposedly really important to him and conservatives, such as immigration and trade. I'd add federalism to that list, too. Now that he realizes even Republicans are in favor of legalizing weed via state law, he's pretending as if he always pushed that line. But two years ago, Cruz told Reason that among the many sins of Emperor Obama was his willingness to pick and choose what federal drug laws he enforces:
"I will say one thing that's been dismaying about the Obama administration," he continues. "The Obama administration's approach to drug policy is to simply announce that across the country, it is going to stop enforcing certain drug laws. Now, that may or may not be a good policy, but I would suggest that should concern anyone - it should even concern libertarians who support that policy outcome - because the idea that the president simply says criminal laws that are on the books, we're going to ignore [them]. That is a very dangerous precedent."
Obama, says Cruz, picks and chooses what laws to follow in a way that is unprecedented in U.S. history.
For video of that, go here.
The best conservatism balances support for free markets with a Judeo-Christian spirit of charity, compassion and solidarity. Cruz replaces this spirit with Spartan belligerence. He sows bitterness, influences his followers to lose all sense of proportion and teaches them to answer hate with hate…. Evangelicals and other conservatives…have won elections as happy and hopeful warriors. Ted Cruz's brutal, fear-driven, apocalypse-based approach is the antithesis of that.
It's far from clear to me whether evangelicals have really added that much that is good and generous to American politics over the years. Certainly since their entrance into politics with the rise of the Moral Majority, they have mostly worked as a prudish, reactionary force that disses free-market capitalism, biomedical advances, legalization of drugs and gay marriage, and the general flattening of traditional hierarchies that are meaningful to libertarians and most Americans.
But Brooks is right that Cruz's cramped and negative view of politics is no way forward. It might play well in Iowa and among what remains of the Religious Right. But that's a quarantined population that is the political equivalent of the Shakers: doomed to extinction by an inability to produce the next generation. At least since the Silent Generation, every succeeding cohort of Americans is increasingly secular and the culture-war mutterings of Ted Cruz aren't going to reverse that in the country at large. If he wants to do more than plow the Repblican Party deeper into a hostile relationship with an increasingly libertarian future in which individuals will be more and more able to create the worlds they want to live in, he really needs to change direction.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Cruz's disjuncture with libertarians for The Daily Beast, noting that even apart from his anti-libertarian positions of immigration, trade, war, abortion, drugs, and more, it was the "apocalyptic extremity of his rhetoric [that] is off-putting." Read more here.