Ted Cruz’s Fear Factory
Fear, revanchism and chauvinistic Texas tropes: Cruz’s re-election strategy might not be pretty, but that’s not the point.
by Justin Miller
October 4, 2018
After eight years under siege by a power-hungry federal government led by Barack Obama, Texas is finally free. Republicans have full control of Washington, D.C. — a rare occasion in the past century. Taxes have been cut, regulations loosened, the economy is booming, conservative judges are filling the benches and a border wall is supposedly on its way.
Oh, it’s happy days for conservatives! And that could be a big problem for Ted Cruz. With Obama out of office, Hillary Clinton out of sight and nobody but friends in power, there’s no natural villian to drive the conservative base out to the polls in November.
Cruz is no doubt well aware of this. In early August, a couple hundred mostly older conservative activists gathered in a drab conference room at an Austin hotel for the Resurgent Gathering — a pared-down reboot of the right-wing evangelical tastemaker Erick Erickson’s influential Red State Gathering. The Texas senator told the audience, “My biggest challenge is complacency. People say, ‘Oh, it’s a re-elect in Texas, how can you possibly lose?’ In an ordinary cycle that might be true, but this is not an ordinary cycle.”
In what has become perhaps his most common refrain on the stump, Cruz warned, “The hard left is filled with anger and rage, and we underestimate that anger at our peril.” It’s in this — the impending threat of a leftist backlash to President Trump and the GOP — that Cruz has found his antagonist.
Democrats, Cruz argues, are eager to launch a “political circus of impeachment” that would grind the federal government to a halt as Washington devolves into “simply naked political warfare. Mad Max at Thunderdome.” But wait, isn’t Cruz’s whole legislative career premised on partisan obstructionism? Not so, he says. Of Barack Obama, Cruz preposterously claimed to Erickson, “He was always my president.” With that, Cruz waves away the ugly tea party rage against Obama that he used as a springboard to the Senate and presents himself — the filibustering insurrectionist loathed even by colleagues in his own party — as a paradigm of reasonable opposition.
His campaign is now consumed with shaping Beto O’Rourke as the embodiment of a uniquely dangerous and unhinged opposition. Despite his warm and fuzzy rhetoric, Cruz insists that the El Paso congressman, much like Obama, is a radical. In fact, Cruz says, he’s further left than Nancy Pelosi, Elizabeth Warren and even Bernie Sanders.
In Cruz’s portrayal, O’Rourke is a gun-grabbing tax-hiker who wants to abolish ICE, open the borders, legalize narcotics and obstruct Trump. And he wants senior citizens’ crown jewel — Medicare — to become fully socialized.
This is Cruz shrewdly exploiting a Democratic Party in flux, as the base demands new levels of opposition and an ascendant left pushes for bold policy commitments. But Cruz’s depiction of O’Rourke is a caricature at best. O’Rourke certainly has staked out several progressive positions, but he wades into those tumultuous debates with care. He is skeptical of Abolish ICE demands. He thinks Trump’s corporate tax cuts need to be only partially rolled back and often talks about the tax cuts in the frame of fiscal irresponsibility. He wants to decriminalize marijuana — not heroin or any other hard drug. And he’s eased off talk about single-payer health care.
No matter. While his opponent is flying high on hope and optimism, Cruz’s natural instinct is to stoke fear and resentment — it’s the stuff his political career was forged in. His 2016 presidential campaign was all about dog-whistling white conservatives in the South. He echoed George Wallace as he pronounced that he opposed amnesty “today, tomorrow, forever” for undocumented immigrants — whom he called “undocumented Democrats.” He lashed out at Black Lives Matter, claiming that activists in the movement were trying to spark a war on cops. And he wanted to give local police departments the authority to “patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.”
Cruz’s re-election bid hinges on sowing fear of a radicalized left descending upon Texas — and he’s animating that threat with portrayals of violent immigrants and unprotected borders, an opposition party filled with vengeful socialists and an opponent hellbent on exploiting racial divisions. It’s a modern appropriation of the Southern strategy, customized for the Trump era. It’s not new, it’s not sophisticated and it’s certainly not pretty.
But it might just work.
When Cruz’s re-election campaign first started in earnest back in April, O’Rourke had already been campaigning for a year. Fueled by righteous indignation in response to the Trump presidency, he put forth a post-partisan call to come together. But O’Rourke was still something of a national curiosity. Hailing from way-over-yonder El Paso, he was largely unknown even in Texas and wasn’t seen as a real threat.
Cruz’s opening campaign salvo was a “Tough as Texas” tour that centered on Lone Star heroism and chauvinistic tropes. Some observers couldn’t help rolling their eyes at the Princeton and Harvard Law grad straight-facedly mouthing lines like, “Texas is America on steroids. The ethos of our great state is, ‘Give me a horse and a gun and an open plain and we can conquer the world.’”
In September, Cruz warned that liberals want to Californize the Lone Star State, “right down to tofu and silicon and dyed hair.” When PETA activists offered up barbecued tofu outside one of his events, Cruz joked that if O’Rourke won, he would ban meat. He has said that the media thinks Texas is “a state of pajama boys” — that is, effete liberal beta males — and described the divide in the country as neatly split between “GQ America” and “Field & Stream America.”
But as the buzz around O’Rourke intensified over the summer, backed up by a series of tightening polls, it became clear that Texas tropes wouldn’t be enough for Cruz to wake up his base. It was time to pull out the right-wing smelling salts.
Heading into the final stretch, Cruz has dialed up his extremist caricature of O’Rourke with the explicit intent of scaring the bejeezus out of old, white and conservative Texans — the bedrock of a typical midterm electorate. His campaign, along with a battalion of billionaire-backed super PACs, has unleashed a barrage of attack ads. The offensive has included a Willie Horton-style ad falsely claiming that O’Rourke supports decriminalizing illegal border crossings; the ad features mugshots of undocumented immigrants who repeatedly crossed the border and committed heinous crimes.
In one of the most heated moments during their first debate, Cruz lashed out at O’Rourke, twisting recent comments he made about how the criminal justice system has become “the new Jim Crow” into an attack on police officers. Asked whether he’s concerned about police violence against unarmed black people, Cruz gave a perfunctory response about his concern for all people’s rights (echoing the “All Lives Matter” line). Then, with a somber tone that crescendoed into indignation, he said he’d been to too many police officer funerals because of the “irresponsible, hateful rhetoric” that he accused O’Rourke of using.
At about the same time, his campaign tweeted out a video of O’Rourke delivering an impassioned call for justice for Botham Jean at a black church in Dallas as the audience stood to applaud.
Twitter filled with jokes about how Cruz was promoting one of his opponent’s most righteous moments. But in reality, Cruz was sending out a dog-whistle to those just tuning in: This guy is not on your side.
On a Friday afternoon in late August, Cruz entered the Old 300 BBQ in Blanco — a small, conservative town in the Hill Country that Trump won with more than 70 percent of the vote — slowly wading through the crowd packed along the entrance hallway. He stood at the edge of the crowd and listened as his former chief of staff Chip Roy, who is running for Congress in the 21st Congressional District, recalled how his former boss led the Senate battle against Obamacare. “It was never about doing anything but making sure we protect our way of life,” Roy said.
Cruz’s events are often filled with smaller, older crowds than you would typically find at a Beto rally — and they’re usually held at a local barbecue joint (in case you weren’t aware, Texans like barbecued meats). Here, Cruz’s warnings of a radical insurgence are embraced with genuine unease.
After his speech, Cruz took questions from the audience. One man asked him about the loss of trust in the intelligence community during the Trump administration. “The politicization of the [DOJ], of the FBI, of the intelligence community, has been powerful, profound, and dangerous.”
“It’s criminal!” a woman next to me yelled. Cruz knew where the audience wants this to go (to the deepest of states), and he was more than willing to oblige.
“Under Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch” — (“Criminals!” the same woman shouted) — “the DOJ and the FBI became weaponized. … And the consequence of it is that we’ve seen hard partisan liberals burrow down within these agencies,” Cruz said. “There’s a lot of the discussion of the deep state and there’s a lot of truth and reality to that.”
Deborah Backle, who runs an alpaca farm in Blanco County with her husband, told me that Beto “seems like a nice guy” but is “a little too left. A little too scary.” Her husband, Bob, is worried about all the Californians moving to the state — and the money that he’s heard George Soros and Tom Steyer are pumping into O’Rourke’s campaign. (They’re not).
“It’s not so much the regular Democrats, it’s the socialist Democrats who scare me,” Deborah said. “They’re so angry.”
Protest outbursts are a common occurrence at Cruz’s campaign events, so much so that they’re almost embedded into his stump speeches. All the better to feed the narrative of a ravenous and uncouth left.
During Cruz’s conversation with Erick Erickson, a young protester stood up and yelled, “You’re a coward, Ted!” as he held up a sign that read “Russian Bootlicker.” He started chanting, “Beto! Beto! Beto!” as he was escorted out, and the crowd booed and hissed.
“What you saw there,” Cruz explained, “it’s not about Russia. That young man, bless his heart, couldn’t tell you a thing about Russia. He’s just angry and Russia is the latest thing they’re screaming. That anger, by the way, is dangerous.”
While O’Rourke has built a national following, Cruz appears confident that it has come at the expense of electoral success in Texas. He’s gambling that what makes Beto a celebrity sensation is grating to a Texas electorate that demolishes Democrats.
Cruz’s bet is that Texas is still the same state that elected him in 2012 and elected Trump in 2016 — the same one that responds in droves when Republicans press just the right buttons.
History has shown it’s not a bad bet to make.