South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham really detests his Senate colleague Ted Cruz. We know this not because of some off-the-record briefing or the product of an e-mail hack. We know because he’s told us—several times.
If you missed him saying, “If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate and the trial was in the Senate, nobody could convict you,” then there was also, on the choice between Cruz and Donald Trump as the Republican nominee: “It’s between being poisoned or shot. You’re still dead.” And if you missed that, there was: “When it comes to Senator Cruz, he’s exhibited behavior in his time in the Senate that make it impossible for me to believe that he could bring this country together.”
All of this simply made Graham’s endorsement of Cruz, tepid and ambivalent as it was, all the more peculiar. “He is certainly not my preference…but he is a reliable Republican conservative of which I’ve had many differences with.… Senator Cruz would not be my first choice, I think he is a reliable conservative that I can support.”
And so it is that Cruz heads into the final stretch of the Republican nomination process with much the same currency among the Republican establishment as Ernest Harrowden in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray had in London’s social scene. “One of those middle-aged mediocrities…who have no enemies, but are thoroughly disliked by their friends.”
It is not difficult to see why Republicans are now rallying around Cruz, even if none of them like him. He is the largest immovable object that might block Donald Trump from winning the nomination. This isn’t a ethical decision. It is not rooted in an objection to Trump’s xenophobia, ignorance, misogyny, or polemical priapism. If it were, the party establishment would have been moved to action months ago.
It’s motivated instead by the fact that Trump’s shtick is no longer working. They look at the prospect of his presidential candidacy’s both alienating some of the party’s core supporters and galvanizing its opposition, causing them to lose the Senate and even the House, and they press the panic button.
Cruz doesn’t poll better, but he is less of a liability. They’ve belatedly decided they’d rather have a candidate they don’t like who is devoid of all democratic legitimacy than a winner they can’t control who could make them all losers. These calculations make sense only if you’re a Republican grandee. They’re desperate. Like an alcoholic touching bottom, they have binged on misanthropy and now find themselves face-down in a cul-de-sac, in a pile of their own mess. They don’t need new candidates. They need a new party.
But as with most feuds in most dysfunctional families, there is precious little to be gained by outsiders intervening. This is not because there exists no political difference between Trump and Cruz. There is. Trump is a populist vulgarian and unprincipled demagogue; there’s almost nothing he wouldn’t say, and there’s no saying what he’d do. Cruz is a movement conservative and professional politician. There are plenty of things he wouldn’t say—but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t do those things if he got the chance.
This is a difference of strategy and presentation, not morality. Trump is the wolf whistle that replaced the dog whistle, the truth that lost its varnish, the witless tailor to the naked emperor. He has no script and refuses to learn the code. So he blusters and blunders. “We are the sum of the things we pretend to be,” wrote Kurt Vonnegut, “so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” Cruz, like most professional Republicans, pretends to care about labor rather than capital, the Constitution rather than power, and decency rather than demonization. Trump simply isn’t careful enough.
As such, Trump does not pose a threat to democracy; he is the most brazen indication of a democracy already in crisis. An electoral system awash with money, in a country with economic inequalities as deep and wide as America’s, can only keep up a representative facade for so long. Add that to a political culture steeped in racial divisiveness and religious intolerance, and all kinds of misogynistic and racist pathologies can take root.
Take Muslims. Following the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” At the time, Cruz did not condemn him but said, “I understand why Donald made that proposal.” Cruz had already suggested a religious test for Syrian refugees so that Christians, and only Christians, could enter the country, arguing: “There is no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror.”
After the terrorist attacks in Belgium, Cruz called for the strict monitoring and policing of Muslim communities. “We need to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.”
While one might argue that there are marginally worse outcomes depending on who wins a contest like this (I wouldn’t), the bottom line is that there are only bad outcomes, whoever wins. The charge for progressives is not to hope the least bad bigot wins, but that we build the kind of resistance and consensus that marginalizes bigotry, because the Republicans are “bat-shit crazy.” Don’t take my word for it. That’s Lindsey Graham talking.