It’s beginning to look like Ted Cruz will be the last wingnut left standing.
True, his path to the nomination depends on the collapse of both Ben Carson and Donald Trump—eventualities once thought as certain as Bernie Sanders staying on the fringe and Jeb Bush gliding to a coronation. But should the top of the field thin, Cruz has positioned himself by both disposition and policy to pick up the swath of non-college-educated white voters shared by Carson and Trump. The Texas senator has refused to tangle negatively with either of them and all but physically stroked Trump’s ego when pressed for a specific response.
Cruz’s solidly built campaign organization was designed from the beginning to mount a scrappy, outsider operation. He has a national presence, but a burn rate of just 57 percent, whereas Carson and Trump have skeletal volunteer networks yet are running through money faster (Carson’s burn rate is 69 percent, Trump’s 106).
Cruz’s trove of supporter email addresses, churned up by his relentless showboating on the national stage, has led to sizable small-donor support. He has the most hard cash on hand of any Republican candidate and has the third-most cash on hand (between hard and “soft” super PAC) in both fields ($64.9 million, compared to Hillary Clinton’s $97.7 million and Bush’s $133.3 million).
That means the senator can sustain himself far beyond the early states that dark horse candidates are expected to win.
All this is to say that, quite suddenly, people have realized that Cruz securing the GOP nomination is a non-trivial concern. He does, as he has implied, probably have Trump to thank.
The senator’s recent observation that Trump “has been immensely beneficial to our campaign” might appear, on first read, to be the kind of awkward, ultimately meaningless, and usually non-quantifiable boast that is a regular feature of the campaign trail. On the one hand, Trump moved the Overton window of extremism: His explicit racism and transparent maliciousness have made Cruz’s marginally more subtle remarks seem positively civil.
Perhaps just as important, Trump has simply sucked up the media’s limited attention, his one-man traveling circus a wonderful distraction while Cruz builds a campaign that threatens to replace Trump’s rhetorical thuggishness with portentous references to real physical violence.
Perhaps you heard Cruz compare last week’s Democratic debate to “an audition for who would wear the jackboot most vigorously.” Shortly after that, he sent out a fundraising email that portrayed the president in a military helmet and uniform, against a background splashed in a color you might call “Communist red.” What’s the urgent message being illustrated? Well, of course: “Obama is coming for your guns.”
Whatever you think of Cruz, he’s not dumb. He’s not even careless. Each radical statement and every over-the-top appeal—these are not gaffes of the traditional (an un-self-aware goof) or Kinseyian (an accidental admission of the truth) type. Pointing out that his opinions are out of step with the mainstream can’t undo Cruz; he also won’t be tempted into rhetorical excess for the sheer juvenile delight of it—a tic that Mike Huckabee and Bobby Jindal seem to have embraced, in a misguided race to out-outrage Trump. Cruz’s more outlandish assertions may sound wackadoodle, but he’s something more dangerous than earnest: He’s ambitious.
When Trump or Carson stray into cloud cuckoo land, one gets the sense that they are almost surprised to find themselves there—or at the very least are surprised that anyone might consider it a foreign country. Trump’s self-regard inoculates him against self-awareness, while Carson seems to have led a genuinely sheltered intellectual life: He’s a brilliant neurosurgeon who couldn’t pass a freshman physics class, a man who’s made history but doesn’t seem to know much about the past.
Cruz is playing a different game. When Cruz wades into the murky waters of right-wing conspiracy theories, it’s because he climbed to the top of the high dive and jumped. His stated general election strategy doesn’t depend on avoiding controversy but courting it: He believes he can be elected by a vast army of unactivated evangelical voters. When he talks about Obama “taking your guns,” he is making a specific appeal based on a specific fear—of an armed black man, to be excruciatingly precise. And if there is outrage from the left over such language, then fine. The base’s defensive roar will only slam the epistemological gates shut: post hoc ergo black helicopter.
The enduring mystery of Cruz is whether he is sincerely crazy or systematically craven. Does he truly believe what he says or is he just saying it? But the distinction between “meaning it” and “just saying it” matters less and less the closer one gets to power.
The sincerity that limns his entreaties is, I suspect, tied deeply to the apocalyptic Christianity his father preaches with the same boundary-blurring fervor the younger Cruz brings to his less total eschatology of government shutdowns.
Is he serious? It doesn’t matter. We should take him seriously.