One of the most deliciously despicable characters in literature is Kenneth Widmerpool, the social-climbing anti-hero who wheedles and worms his way through the twelve volumes of Anthony Powell’s roman-fleuve A Dance to the Music of Time (published from 1951 to 1975). To fans of Powell’s novels, Widmerpool is a byword for spiritual grubbiness, a mean-spirited and small-minded man whose remorseless self-promotion combines obsequiousness toward anyone of higher social standing and sniffy disdain for those of lower status, whom he treats as stepping stones for his worldly rise.
Writing in The New York Review of Books in 1998, the late Christopher Hitchens distilled Widmerpool into a tight paragraph:
The shortest way of capturing the essence of this grotesquely fascinating and repellent figure might be to say that he is a monster of arrogance and conceit, but entirely wanting in pride. Bullying to those below him, servile and fawning to those set in authority, entirely without wit or introspection, he is that type of tirelessly ambitious, sexless, and charmless mediocrity that poisons institutional life, family life, and political life. He is the perfected utilitarian and philistine.
In an astute 2016 New York Times column, Ross Douthat contended that Texas Senator Ted Cruz might be “American conservatism’s own Kenneth Widmerpool.” This was a memorably apt comparison, and it has become only more accurate over time. One of Widmerpool’s defining traits is his genius for self-abjection, his willingness to shamelessly debase himself in the pursuit of power. Powell’s achievement is to make us see that there is an affinity between masochism and striving, that in his quest for power Widmerpool knows he’s violating social norms and deserves punishment. In his hidden heart, Widmerpool sees himself as a naughty boy who needs a spanking.
Cruz’s similar compulsive cravenness has been much displayed since the summer of 2016, when he first began prostrating himself before Donald Trump, a man who accused Cruz’s father of involvement in John F. Kennedy’s assassination and insulted the appearance of Cruz’s wife, Heidi.
Cruz’s current Cancún scandal has shown him at his most Widmerpoolian. What’s shocking is not just that Cruz scampered off to sunny Cancún with his family—but also the brazen and obvious lies he’s told in self-defense. Cruz’s pattern of prevarication has become an ongoing public self-humiliation that, if the Texan senator weren’t such a completely loathsome character, would be painful to watch. Given who Cruz is, there is some undeniable pleasure in watching so detestable a man get his comeuppance.
On Wednesday, while the state he represents was suffering from both an extreme weather event and the widespread loss of power, Cruz and his family bolted off to the balm of Mexico. Cruz was born in Alberta, Canada, and his behavior echoes that of a bevy of recent Canadian politicians who have fled to other countries—including the United States during the pandemic. Many of these figures have since resigned in disgrace, as Cruz also should.
The nature of his little jaunt only became public when photos of Cruz at the airport started circulating on social media, igniting a storm of criticism. Cruz scurried back to Texas the following day and issued a deceptive statement that made it sound like he was only planning on dropping off his family there and intended a quick return. Cruz also suggested that the trip was the idea of his daughters, ages 10 and 12.
But evidence quickly mounted that the trip was planned to be much longer. As The New York Times reported, “Text messages sent from Ms. Cruz to friends and Houston neighbors on Wednesday revealed a hastily planned trip. Their house was “FREEZING,” as Ms. Cruz put it—and she proposed a getaway until Sunday. Ms. Cruz invited others to join them at the Ritz-Carlton in Cancún, where they had stayed ‘many times,’ noting the room price this week ($309 per night) and its good security.”
Faced with this new reporting, Cruz changed his tune and acknowledged, “The plan had been to stay through the weekend with the family.” This was, Cruz now said, “obviously a mistake” although he again tried to play the family card, claiming, “I was taking care of my family the way Texans all across the state were.”
But before the day was through, Cruz tried to change his story once again by doing a Fox News interview with Sean Hannity, who reverted to a version of events that Cruz had already rejected. As Max Tani of The Daily Beast noted, “Ted Cruz is now on with Hannity, who is obviously defending him, basically talking about dropping the kids off in Cancún like you’d talk about dropping the kids off at soccer.” New York magazine reporter Olivia Nuzzi shrewdly pointed out that “Cruz knows that the people listening to what he says on Hannity don’t care about what he said anywhere else.”
During the day, some right-wing pundits—who can be seen as a legion of Widmerpool-wannabes themselves—sprang to Cruz’s defense even at the cost of their own dignity. Erick Erickson tweeted, “The fact that people think Ted Cruz, a United States Senator, can do anything about a state power grid, even his own, is rather demonstrative of the ignorance of so many people who cover politics. They’d rather performative drama than substance.” Ben Shapiro argued, “It’s not a real time crisis that Ted Cruz, the senator from Texas, can do anything about.”
This is absurd on the face of it. New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie sarcastically responded to Shapiro’s comments by asking, Why should we expect a federal officeholder with a constituents service office, a wide network of wealthy supporters, and a nearly direct line to federal emergency agencies to do anything about a disaster in his state?”
MSNBC host Chris Hayes tweeted, “I spoke with @alfranken tonight and something he said, with a kind of piercing earnestness, was that being involved in helping people in disasters was one of the most rewarding parts of the job. Because as a US Senator, there’s a lot you can do!”
Cruz’s mealy-mouthed defenders are obviously wrong just on factual grounds. But they also misunderstand the larger moral issue. Even if staying in Texas had been a purely symbolic act, it was still the morally correct one. In a time of crisis, citizens need to see their civic leaders display solidarity. Famously, the British royal family stayed in London during the Blitz in the Second World War. If they had pulled a Ted Cruz and dashed off to some safe haven while fellow citizens bore the brunt of an enemy attack, the nation would have been demoralized.
Cruz’s actions were a profound betrayal of solidarity at a moment when solidarity is the essential glue holding society together. By his actions, Cruz showed himself to be the ultimate egoist, a creature of pure unvarnished selfishness. In other words, a true Kenneth Widmerpool.