One of the strangest things about this bewildering election cycle has been the sudden and seemingly unthinking lurch these past couple weeks to embrace and anoint Ted Cruz as the only savior of the Republican Party. There is good probability, in fact, that within 24 hours of the time I write and post this, this anointment will be something of a fait accompli, with the election results today almost certain to disqualify Marco Rubio as a viable alternative to Trump, and with John Kasich’s candidacy having been, it would seem, condemned to futility from the outset, no matter what he does, in one long long, sustained, self-destructive exercise in self-fulfilling prophecy. If that is what the future holds, I feel compelled, like Hooker, “lest things should pass away as in a dream,” to register and articulate my dissent, in some small hope of changing some minds in the short term, but more importantly, to provide a reference point in the longer term.
I should note that there are many conservative voters out there who, for ideological reasons, do in fact positively support Ted Cruz and what he stands for. I do not expect to convince folks of this sort in the course of this brief post; to do so, after all, would require mounting a persuasive argument against Cruz’s ideological commitments on issues such as immigration, the environment, tax policy, foreign policy, and healthcare. In the interest of full disclosure, I think his views on all of these fronts to range from dangerously naïve to morally noxious, and obviously this plays a significant role in my refusal to support him. That said, I do not think these ideological differences are the decisive issue. I have very profound differences on policy issues with candidates I am willing to support. As I shall go on to argue, the real danger of Ted Cruz lies elsewhere.
In recent weeks, though, I have encountered many other conservative voters and leaders, who, while sharing many of my concerns about Ted Cruz’s policy commitments on various issues, have nonetheless rapidly pivoted to his side on much more utilitarian grounds—namely, that “He has the best chance of beating Trump.” I am far from contesting the legitimacy (as long as one is clear about what one is doing) of such strategic lesser-evil voting. But one has to first be sure that it is in fact strategic and that the candidate in question is in fact the lesser evil. I am not convinced of either in this case.
Before getting to why, however, it is also worth asking just why we should do obeisance to the predictive and calculative judgment of those calling us to make this pivot. After all, most of these pundits and voters did not see the Donald Trump juggernaut coming, insisted it would collapse before voting actually began, insisted it would collapse a few weeks into the primaries, insisted that Marco Rubio would soon rise to the top and consolidate support as the leading alternative to Trump, and also insisted that John Kasich would never have any meaningful support and so shouldn’t be given any. Now all of a sudden (or rather, nearly two weeks ago, all of a sudden—it might be a bit more understandable now), all of their predictions to date having failed, they want to insist that the future course of the nomination contest is transparent and so there is only one transparently-prudent course of action, namely to support Cruz. Pardon me if I raise an eyebrow or two.
The fundamental problem with the calculative, predictive rationality that we are being called upon to embrace this primary season (and that conservatives are in any case called to embrace in almost every general election) is that it must (1) reduce its horizon to the most short-term judgments and (2) must baptize its judgments with an air of false inevitability. Oliver O’Donovan makes some remarks on this subject too penetrating not to quote in full:
“The demand for definiteness may impact on our decisions in one of two different ways. There is, in the first place, a preference for the short-term focus. A regime dominated by anticpation is governed by predictability, and the capacity to predict confers power to decide. But that capacity depends on a narrowed focus on the essentially predictable, on processes that resemble mechanical processes. Because the most certain utilities are short-term mechanical utilities, there develops a prejudice in favor of the mechanical and short-term utility over the long-term and spiritual one. There is, however, an alternative corollary, which may flow precisely from dissatisfaction with that narrowed focus. If decisions are not limited to short-term technical operations, the wider exercise of prudence has to be represented in the guise of a predictable mechanical process. We must pretend to have a scientific statistical prediction, precisely in order to suit our generalized conception of what responsible decision-making ought to be. And so it is that in late-modern society there is constant confusion of speculative anticipation with hard science. We act on predictions that we have no sufficient reason to believe. Speculative projections are taken at face value, simply because we have long since formed the habit of discussing social causes and effects as though they were mechanically determined, a habit formed to help cope with a world where definite predictions are the key to power. We have created a regulative discourse of deliberation in which everything must give grounds for anticipating everything else, since, if it did not, we would apparently be left in a moral vacuum. If consequences are the only justification of policies, a habit of doubting the inevitability of consequences has a threatening, even an anti-social appearance. It is not that bureaucracy makes us think in utilitarian ways, but that utilitarianism makes us govern ourselves bureaucratically. The bureaucracy is an apparatus set up to entitle us to make confident predictions in every field of social policy, because confident predictions are what we have decided we need in order to justify our actions.” (Finding and Seeking 159)
Yeah, wow. One could ask for no better summary of what contemporary election seasons have become, and I am sorry to say that Christians, far from resisting this corrosive instrumentalist mindset, have sunk as deeply into it as anyone else. We are no doubt not many weeks (or days) away from when conservative leaders will begin the public shaming of those threatening, anti-social individuals who have refused to accept and make their decisions based on the “inevitability of consequences.”
Accordingly, I will not make my brief case against Ted Cruz based on predictions of the future so much as observations about the past (with implications, of course, for what we could fairly expect about the future). Let me put my claim as baldly as possible to start with, and then seek to nuance/justify it: the basic reason I cannot accept the case for Ted Cruz as the antidote to Donald Trump is because I think Ted Cruz is a chief cause for Donald Trump. One does not, after all, throw one’s support behind Lenin as the best way of preventing Stalin from coming to power, since Lenin laid the groundwork for Stalin to come to power.
Of course, I have deliberately there chosen a shocking comparison, one all the more shocking to Ted Cruz supporters accustomed to painting the American left as Leninist (Cruz himself referred rather absurdly to the debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders as the Mensheviks vs. the Bolsheviks). The analogy, obviously, is not at the level of economic policy, but in the embrace of anti-politics that all these actors have in common. When thoughtful people are asked to name what it is that is most disturbing about Donald Trump, it is his embrace, as Marco Rubio characterized it this past week, of a “third-world strongman” approach to politics. The political system may be stagnant, corrupt, gridlocked, and broken, but we do not need to worry about fixing it, proclaims the Donald. Why? Because he will cut through all that red tape by the strength of his will and personality. He will not need to work through the slow arduous cogs of government to accomplish his ends; he will accomplish them directly and individually. Compromise is not necessary, patience is not necessary, clear and careful grasp of the situation at hand is not necessary, respect for the laws currently on the books is not necessary, all that is needed is decisiveness. This of course is what makes him so terrifying—not his crudeness or indecency, not his particular policies, inasmuch as he has any, not even his startling naivete about the political realities he will be called upon to navigate, though this is scary enough, but his (and his followers’) disdain for constitutional order and willingness to force through an agenda by whatever means necessary.
Now this preference for decisiveness over due process is, as in the 1933 it so chillingly invokes, a natural response to the indecision, gridlock, and impotence of the legislative system over the last few years. To the extent that Ted Cruz and the Tea Party more generally have consciously helped orchestrate such gridlock, to this extent they are obviously indirect causes for the rise of Trumpism (as, one might plausibly point out, Obama, social justice warriors, and various other agents in recent American political life are also indirect causes in their own various ways). But the connection, I suggest, is rather closer than that. As I have described at length in my recent post, there are very close connections between the psychology of the Tea Party movement (even—or perhaps especially in its evangelical wing represented by Cruz) and Trumpism. Both movements trade above all on a sense of grievance and victimhood, rather than a positive vision for American social order. Inasmuch as both movements have a vision for social order, it is generally a radically individualist one, in which “the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.” Both movements have cultivated a preference for strength of conviction over any evidential basis for that conviction, openly disdaining the opinions of authorities in any field and gravitating toward beliefs precisely because those beliefs run against the testimony of authorities. All this might be fleshed out at length, but for those interested in delving further into such an analysis, I would direct them to my previous post.
Here I want to focus on one key comparison that is too little recognized. Trumpism’s disdain for the machinery of constitutional order is only superficially contradicted by the staunch commitment to the Constitution that one finds in the rhetoric of Cruz and his supporters. For both at heart have no patience for politics. Consider the episode that Ted Cruz was most (in)famous for prior to this presidential run: the showdown over repealing Obamacare that led to a government shutdown. I wrote at the time (see also the series concluding here) about the ultimately anti-conservative disdain for the rule of law that was displayed by this ill-fated adventure or public-relations stunt, whichever it was meant to be. Most mainstream commentators agreed at the time it had been a disastrous failure from both a political and a PR standpoint, as conservatives’ insistence on negotiating at gunpoint simply alienated moderates and made Democrats even less likely to work with them.* But from the standpoint of Cruz and the true Tea Party believers he represented, this didn’t matter. They were not interested in playing the long game of give-and-take, slow and patient negotiation and compromise with the opposition, both in power and out of power, that democratic politics necessarily involves. Committed as they were to their ideology, they could not distinguish compromise from capitulation, and since they obviously weren’t going to capitulate, the other side must. Whether that happened today or tomorrow or next year or several years down the road didn’t really matter, because it was bound to happen sooner or later. Or at any rate, whether or not it did happen, that was the only thing worth fighting for: the capitulation of the opposition and the triumph of their ideals.
Such a movement is, if one takes a sober look at demographics and the state of American political life, is either delusional, nihilistic, or dictatorial. Let me explain. One might earnestly believe that evangelical Christian Tea Party ideals, despite being held by only a small minority of the population, actually would somehow triumph in the nation’s capital through legislative processes and successfully impose a novum ordo saeclorum upon the defeated ranks of secularism, liberalism, socialism, etc. The true believers voting for Cruz in this election clearly think that a Cruz presidency would be a first big step in this direction. Perhaps Cruz himself does believe this—the human capacity for self-delusion, especially among the powerful, is always remarkable. But unless the teeming millions of socially and economically liberal Americans and their political representatives are just going to calmly accept having terms dictated to them, or are going to suddenly and rapidly convert to the gospel of evangelical Christian Tea Party ideals, any such victory, even if it were somehow achieved, would be short-lived and probably would rapidly backfire, as opposing political forces hardened in their resolve and their own positions and prepared to take vengeance.
Alternatively, it is quite possible that this quixotic quest to retake and remake Washington was never seriously intended in the first place. Perhaps people like Cruz, or at any rate many of his followers, do not honestly expect to gain power and put their policies into law. Perhaps they think the purpose of it all is simply as a noble and symbolic last stand, a determination to go down fighting. The unstoppable forces of secularism, liberalism, socialism, etc., are marching on, and if we’re not going to beat them, well then at least we’re sure as heck not going to join them. From this perspective, a vote for Cruz is basically a way of giving a big, baptized, evangelical middle finger to the rest of America.** Which, I suppose, is fine as far as it goes, if you’re convinced that that’s what the state of the union demands. But clearly anyone adopting this posture can hardly insist on a vote for Cruz on consequentialist grounds, because of the practical good that he might achieve.
A final route, for those who refuse to nihilistically accept their defeat but who recognize that any sustained victory for their cause is impossible by purely constitutional means, the nation being what it is now is, is to embrace the dictatorial route, the route of Trumpism. They say, “You’re right. Leftist social-justice is too politically powerful to be conquered by purely political means, by the slow, halting, frustrating machinery of legislation and compromise. That’s why we just need to dispense with the pretense that we’re going to win in any clean or orderly fashion, and just do whatever it takes. Once we take power, we will achieve our ends not so much through law but by cutting through the red tape and just Doing What Needs to be Done, and if anyone objects, they will be bullied into silence.”
The process by which a disgruntled Tea Partier type who supported the 2010-2014 Rebellion (as the 112th and 113th Congresses may perhaps be known to history), and the great Obamacare Insurrection, might come to this authoritarian, Trumpist conclusion is not hard to trace.*** Accordingly, anyone who thinks that we are somehow well-advised to oppose the offspring of this mentality by embracing its source seems, in my judgment, to have either failed to grasp the nature of our present predicament, or to be lacking in their faculties of practical reason.
There is another way of saying all this in a somewhat more positive key, and then I will be done. (This was meant, as all my posts are, to be a very short post!)
People tend to think that pragmatism and compromise necessarily go hand-in-hand with the embrace of moderate, watered-down principles and convictions. It is this, perhaps, which explains the type-casting of John Kasich in this election cycle as a woolly, semi-liberal moderate, when his record is a pretty staunchly conservative one. From this standpoint, anyone who really truly values conservative principles and wants to see them reshape the nation will embrace the hardest-core, most uncompromisingly conservative candidate. But that only works if one is delusionally optimistic or takes the dictatorial route. Our political system is one that, by its very design, oscillates back and forth between more liberal and more conservative administrations. No president is elected for life, and probably no house of Congress can expect again to be controlled by the same party for a whole generation, such as happened until 1994. The current demographics and moral, spiritual, and political values of the American people make it certain that liberal economic and social policies will have a very strong voice in national politics for a long time to come. Even if you hate that fact, you have to accept it as the basic political situation that you have to work within. Accordingly, a staunch conservative who wants to achieve meaningful conservative reforms over the long haul must find a way to achieve short-term victories for his policies while at the same time winning some grudging respect from the opposition. Why? Because at some point, before too long, that opposition is going to be the governing party, and the conservative will find himself again the disempowered opposition. If conservatives set a precedent of a scorched-earth, my way or the highway policy while they control Congress, they can expect nothing but the same from liberals when liberals regain control of Congress, as they surely will before too long. If they do so while in the White House, they can expect nothing but the same when Democrats regain the White House, as they surely will before too long. Any true conservative who really wants to make a difference for the country needs to be willing to play the long game. Ted Cruz, of course, is well-known for the hatred he has inspired among his colleagues in Washington—not just those on the Left, mind you, but among his own party. Among many of his supporters, this hatred is treated as a badge of honor. The Establishment is so bad, we are told, that anyone it hates must be singularly virtuous. Again, if you’re adopting a “Let’s at least go down fighting” mentality, I suppose this is understandable. But in that case, don’t lecture me about consequences. Don’t talk to me about policy. Any conservative who actually wants to make a positive long-term difference has to be keen-eyed enough to recognize that Cruz isn’t going to do it, however much they personally like his policies.
Until conservatives realize that their anti-politics approach is backfiring—is alienating not merely their opponents but even possible allies, and is at the same time creating monsters they cannot control, like Trump—they cannot hope for lasting political (or indeed cultural) success on any front. And it is for this reason that I think a Trump nomination would in many ways be a better thing for conservatives than a Cruz nomination. It would at least force them to come face-to-face with the reality of what their rhetorical posturing and reflexive insurrectionism has wrought, rather than enabling them to continue in their delusion that somehow if they just keep pushing harder and shouting louder and voting No more and more, they will somehow achieve any positive aims. In other words, 2016 needs to be the year of corporate repentance for the GOP and its conservative evangelical backers. And repentance usually doesn’t come until after divine judgment. Perhaps Donald Trump is a divine judgment upon us—we certainly deserve one. We can only hope that God is merciful and confines his Trump-judgment to the Republican party, not to the country as a whole or indeed the world, for that matter.
* I am well aware that many conservatives will blame Obama and the Democrats for the anti-politics, the forcing of their agenda down their opponents’ throats, that I am condemning at various points in this post. Like the five-year-old caught red-handed in the midst of a brawl with his sibling, they have no better defense than to yell, “Well he started it!” From an empirical standpoint, I must confess, I am disposed to doubt the claim somewhat. But even granting it for the sake of argument, it is irrelevant. Immature and fractious behavior is still immature and fractious behavior, regardless of who started it. If Obama and the Democrats embraced dirty strong-arming tactics, it was a great opportunity for Republicans to gain credibility with the American people by adopting a posture of gracious statesmanship in response, and since it is Christian conservatives that I am here concerned to address, it is their failure to do so that primarily concerns me.
** Which also at least has the virtue of being larger than Donald Trump’s.
*** I am aware that it may seem hard to trace to those inclined to think of the Tea Party movement primarily as a more-or-less intellectually coherent set of values, convictions, and policies (from which standpoint many of Trump’s views are anathema). I am inclined to doubt that even at the level of most of its leadership it was quite this, but in any case, I think it is clear that among most of its rank-and-file partisans, it was much more of a viscerally-felt but fairly contentless gesture of protest against “the Establishment” (whoever exactly they were) and in favor of “freedom,” “commonsense,” and “the ordinary American” (whatever exactly they were). That being the case, the transition, for the ordinary rank-and-file Tea Partier, was not difficult at all.