OSCEOLA, Iowa – For a few minutes I wondered if I’d wandered into the wrong barn.
Rick Perry, the former Texas governor, was introducing the candidate I’d come to see, but with descriptions that bore no relation to the candidate I’d come to know.
He called this man “one of the great listeners that I’ve ever been around in my entire life.” He praised him as “a person who is full of humility.”
Then it hit me: Perry was playing defense and asserting the precise virtues that the candidate famously lacks.
Because when most people think of Ted Cruz, they don’t think: listener.
And when Cruz took the microphone and made his remarks, I hardly thought: humble.
It was Tuesday morning, six days until the caucuses. Dozens of voters sat among bales of hay, and cows could be heard mooing in the background at such perfectly staggered intervals that I suspected a soundtrack rather than the real thing.
Cruz explained what he regarded as the seven battles of our time, and guess who was the conquering hero in each? (Hint: not Barack Obama.) He expressed the need for a Ronald Reagan of the here and now, and guess who’s perfect for the part? (Hint: not Donald Trump.)
His voice swelled and swooped and dropped at times to a whisper so fraught with foreboding that it belonged in a bad afternoon soap. There are speakers who smoothly get the job done, and then there are those who dance to the music of their own voices, pirouette after pirouette. Cruz is the 2016 campaign trail’s prima ballerina.
But then Trump is its black swan.
As each tries to muscle the other into the wings, they emphasize their contrasts. So do the media, describing the dissimilar paths that these two Republican front-runners traveled.
But to me they’re as alike as they are different, with an overlap that helps to explain the intensely, passionately negative reactions they elicit. They’re both transcendently – and transparently – self-serving and self-infatuated. They scale new pinnacles of egotism in a profession (politics) and pursuit (the presidency) that are already veritable mountain ranges.
They’re grim prophecies come true. Many of us have worried that the increasingly circuslike, invasive, round-the-clock nature of modern campaigns would frighten off anyone with an inkling of modesty, an iota of self-doubt. Who would endure this ordeal and make this bargain?
The answer, all too often, is someone who finds the spotlight so mesmerizing that the ugliness on its periphery doesn’t matter, or someone whose hunger for validation is so prodigious that only Air Force One will sate it.
Here in Iowa four years ago, I marveled at the Everest of vanity that was Newt Gingrich. But he doesn’t even reach base camp on the slopes of Trump, whose campaign is one bottomless, boundless soliloquy of self-congratulation. On Sunday he stunned journalists by sitting through a church service, but it wasn’t really the religious gesture that impressed them. It was the fact that for a solid hour, he assumed a posture of deference, and he couldn’t brag.
Cruz is cut from the same flamboyant cloth. It’s striking how many explorations of his past wind up focusing on the magnitude of his confidence, the scale of his ambitions and the off-putting nakedness of both.
As a cocky teenager, he said that his life goals were to “take over the world, world domination, you know, rule everything.” He separately wrote of plans to “achieve a strong enough reputation and track record to run for – and win – president of the United States.”
That last detail comes from a recent story in Politico whose themes included Cruz’s zest for attention, quickness to grab credit and utter self-consumption. It opened with a scene in which Cruz, gearing up to run for the Senate, visits George W. Bush to get his backing, then holds forth at such tone-deaf length about his disruptive plans for the Republican Party that the former president is appalled and repelled.
In The New York Times on Monday, Matt Flegenheimer noted discrepancies between Cruz’s accounts of his vital contributions to Bush’s legal team during the 2000 Florida recount and the memories of others. “There are a lot of people who claim to be in Florida at the time of the recount,” Joe Allbaugh, Bush’s campaign manager, told Flegenheimer.
Every successful politician is a self-promoter. Every campaign is a sequence of boasts. In an ideal political environment, the narcissism is tempered and the worst narcissists foiled.
But the current ecosystem is toxic, and Trump and Cruz flourish. Neither demonstrates an especially robust appetite for listening, though listening is important. Both are full of a great many things. Humility isn’t among them.