Sen. Ted Cruz’s humiliating capitulation last week to the Republican presidential nominee raises anew the question of what exactly the Republican Party is — and what it will be after November.
Cruz had initially bet he could command the support of the party’s reactionary base and ride it to the nomination. When Donald Trump claimed the base instead, Cruz withheld his support, calculating that Trump’s buffoonery would make opposition to him appear principled, serious and conservative.
That gambit, too, collapsed as Trump consolidated support from previously reluctant Republican voters, and Trump supporters in Texas began undermining Cruz’s own standing at home, where he is up for re-election in 2018 and looking vulnerable to a primary challenge.
Cruz not only endorsed Trump. He also dutifully stated Tuesday that Trump had maintained “the upper hand” throughout his hapless debate performance the prior night. An excellent debater himself, Cruz pledged to help with the next debate if Trump called on him.
What does it mean that a shrewd, ruthless tactician such as Cruz is clinging to Trump? In a seemingly sincere moment in May, after Trump had crudely insulted Cruz’s wife and broadcast lies about his father, Cruz called Trump a “pathological liar” who “cannot tell the truth” and “combines it with being a narcissist.” Cruz even called Trump on his most consistent psychological tic, projection. (Trump relentlessly accuses others of whatever he himself is most guilty of.)
Neither Trump nor Cruz has changed. Only the political calculation has.
“Cruz wants be able to say he did all he could, if only to avoid the inevitable recriminations that he undermined the nominee at a key time,” said GOP strategist Liam Donovan, via e-mail. “And even if the Trump primary base isn’t made up of the ideological fellow travelers he thought they were, Cruz world probably still views them as rightfully his in a post-Trump environment.”
Cruz bows before the party when he bows before Trump. In an interview with Byron York, Sen. Jeff Sessions, an early Trump backer with a strong anti-immigrant streak, called for a similar ritual from the recalcitrant leaders of the Bush family.
“I think they should remember the loyalty they were given by millions of Americans,” Sessions said of the Bushes. “They should objectively analyze who is likely to advance best the agenda they favor and the agenda the Republicans who supported them favored. And that’s clearly Donald Trump.”
The Bushes don’t share Cruz’s ideology, or even like him, but they surely share his view of Trump as a moral, intellectual and psychological wreck. Sessions, by contrast, isn’t interested in Trump’s missing brake and fenders, his dangling tailpipe or his errant steering wheel. Trump is of the tribe. That’s all that matters.
Henry Adams famously called politics the systematic organization of hatreds. It’s that and more, of course. But for Republicans circa 2016, not a great deal more. The threads that unify them are support for supply-side tax cuts for the wealthiest and their uneasy membership on the same team, aligned against Democrats. The first position isn’t remotely popular (except among rich donors). That leaves the second.
If Jeb Bush failed to summon a tribal scream when he needed it in the Republican primaries, Cruz and Trump suffered no such shortcoming. Cruz has now determined that he cannot inherit Trump’s sizable piece of the action — or perhaps even keep his seat — without genuflecting before the party’s new idol, ratifying its collective wisdom.
Trump’s inadvertent service to Republicans was clarifying that a party seemingly riven in two bitter factions actually contains three: Cruz’s cultural/ideological reactionaries, Trump’s cultural/populist reactionaries and the increasingly marginalized, once mainstream, business conservatism represented by Bush.
It wasn’t the only lesson. Bush learned that decency is for suckers. Cruz learned that ideology, in a party that ostensibly worships it, turns out to be dispensable. And Trump? Trump learned that he possesses the perfect flaws that, in service of their current array of hatreds, many Republican voters find dangerously exciting.
This fact surely hasn’t escaped Cruz’s probing eye. He’ll never be a petulant, slapdash, ignorant adolescent himself. But for the sake of his shaken ambition, it’s not too late to endorse one.