Ted Cruz’s cringe-inducing “humor”

In today’s conservative America, rhetoric fires up a crowd -- even when it’s empty words with no articulated policy

Topics: Ted Cruz, rhetoric, CPAC, The Right, humor, Ronald Reagan, Ron Paul, Language, Michele Bachmann, Chris Christie, Editor's Picks,

Ted Cruz's cringe-inducing "humor"Ted Cruz (Credit: Jeffrey Malet, maletphoto.com)

Lack of restraint. It’s all too common among our elected representatives as they go in search of a public. Democracy invites it.

The problem these days is that most politicians’ quotable lines are neither clever nor well-informed. Yet they love to hear themselves speak. When Texas Senator Ted Cruz reads from Dr. Seuss, or imitates Jay Leno in order to relate some overlong joke about Obamacare, the banality of his humor emerges. His tone is off, his point falls flat and he looks like a rube — this despite the superiority he is said to hold over others as a Harvard man. “He never really had an off switch with his debater’s demeanor,” said a former Harvard Law Review president who knew Cruz back then. As a poker player, he would go “all in,” and it was hard to tell if he was bluffing. He excels at one thing only: degrading others who share the political stage.

In the “good old days,” it was Virginia, not Texas, that boasted its bigness and brashness. It was Virginia that produced the headline-grabbing Southern politicians who took to the hustings with the greatest fervor. From Jefferson to Jackson administrations, the antics of John Randolph were legend. Known to all as “Randolph of Roanoke,” he was an Ivy-educated debater, hard to fathom and just as full of himself as Cruz. A bookseller who encountered him in early adulthood described Randolph as “gawky… with as much assumed self-confidence as any two-footed animal I ever saw.” Henry Adams explained how he attracted attention: “His method of attack was always the same: to spring suddenly, violently, straight in the face of an opponent… In the white heat of passionate rhetoric he could gouge and kick, bite off an ear or a nose, or hit below the waist.” His voice was “shrill and effeminate,” said a Harvard professor.

To be careful in speech or considerate before his Capitol Hill colleagues was simply impossible for the rambling, old-school orator with a gift for satire. Randolph was a bona fide eccentric. His most recent biography, capably written by David Johnson (during his tenure as Deputy Attorney General of Virginia), makes it clear that among modern-day conservatives who know of Randolph, this small-government advocate of times past remains beloved for his refusal to be cowed when he stood up, stood alone and stood for his small-government principles.



Introducing the opening act at CPAC 2014, Marji Ross, the publisher of Regnery Books, inadvertently revealed where the emphasis in conservative oratory lies these days when she announced: “The speakers you will hear from will shock, delight, amaze, inform, incense and inspire you.” Only one of her six verbs, “inform,” evokes substance. If we think back to the series of televised Republican debates of 2012, we have some idea of 2016: they will shock, delight, amaze, incense and inspire. But will they inform? What’s the gain in doing that?

“So what better way to start off this conference than with a man who has provoked every one of those emotions in just his first year in Washington,” said Ross. As she yielded the stage to Senator Cruz, he crowed: “God bless CPAC!” A day later, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee would pronounce, in the same venue, that God served as the “midwife” at America’s birth. Comfort food for those who feed on simple, imaginary formulas for security and stability.

Cruz wasted no time stoking the fires of all who agree that government is the enemy: “The stakes in this country have never been higher … our country is at a crisis point … Liberty is under assault.” He paced excitedly. “Under President Obama the American Dream is harder and harder and harder [not one “harder,” but three] for anyone to achieve.” Anyone? No need to break it down into demographics. “We have a corrupt and broken system.” Yes, and the free market is the simple solution. Applause.

Cruz credited two Ronalds – Reagan and Ron Paul – because they were honest about where they stood, impossible to be misunderstood. Not like the Washington politicians Cruz branded for their heads hung low and principles compromised. Reagan and Paul were refreshing voices that naturally appealed to the young and young of heart: “They painted a bold, inspiring vision for America, for how all of us can be better. And young people came out by the millions and said, ‘That’s the vision I want to be behind.’”

The problem that went unspoken at CPAC is that the small-government, budget-tightening proponent Ronald Reagan actually gave us large deficits. He compromised his principles. “We need to stop the lawlessness,” Cruz railed against President Obama, while forgetting the lawlessness of Iran-Contra, circa 1986. It was enough to hearken back, as Cruz did directly, to the “vision” Reagan inspired in 1980, the one sure thing in America’s remembered past: that incomparable, if intangible, thing called “morning in America.” More applause.

Language fires up a crowd, even when it’s empty rhetoric with no articulated policy that justifies it. Cruz was perfectly aware of the contradiction, because he mocked candidate Obama’s ultimately empty call for “Hope and Change” in 2008 with his own cynical call for “Hope and Change” to be wrought by conservative Republicans. Twenty-odd minutes into his speech, Ted Cruz said, finally, “I have never been more inspired than I am now.” His words had succeeded in inspiring himself. “We need to turn this country around!”

Is this blankness what passes today for inspired oratory? Randolph of Roanoke peppered his hours-long speeches with pompous classical references. He took detours into metaphors beyond the understanding of most – and he didn’t care. With voluble inefficiency and still a greater sting than Ted Cruz can muster, he loosely protested the “tricks and quackery” and “pillaging” that took place in Washington. Leading the charge to impeach a Supreme Court justice, he railed at “a man whose violent temper and arbitrary disposition perpetually drives him into acts of tyranny… an unrighteous judge thirsting for blood.” Randolph was plenty nasty when he wanted to be. The public was drawn to the raw emotionalism of his rhetorical depredations. He had about as much of a chance of winning the presidency as Michele Bachmann or Herman Cain – but at least he never imagined he could run. Nineteenth-century clowns and crazies knew that their place was in the House – not in the White House. That said, Andrew Jackson was not exactly a brainiac either. Indeed, the glories of the past are few.

As the nineteenth century’s version of a reality TV star, Randolph of Roanoke wove his autobiography into his storied speeches: “May I hope to be pardoned for this,” he prefaced one emotional appeal, “in consideration of a defect – whether of nature or education, it is perfectly immaterial – perhaps proceeding from both – a defect which has disabled me, from my first entrance into public life, to the present day, to make what is called a regular speech.” He knew he was a crank. No ill-humored, self-loving politician of today would so unabashedly indulge in self-deprecation until he was out of office and auditioning for Donald Trump’s next self-aggrandizing show.

Many of those who knew Randolph seriously doubted his sanity, as did many who merely read his excerpted speeches in the newspapers. Yet he was re-elected time and again, over decades, by a fawning constituency. As brusque and vitriolic as he was, he charmed. He was abused by his critics, and folks loved him for it. He spoke to those who liked bluntness in a politician, who feared the permanent loss of simpler times and the imagined good government that came with it. That seems to be what Ted Cruz is reaching for with his crass reconditioning of the Reagan Revolution.

Perhaps the analogy is best drawn this way: What voters used to like about New Jersey Governor Chris Christie before the bridge scandal is what they liked about Randolph of Roanoke: the audacity that rolled off his tongue, the seeming steadfastness of his will. Cruz has a bit of that; but he cannot speak to the sense of community that old-school orators or even new-school panderers affect. It’s Gingrich’s problem, too. And Rand Paul’s. And Bobby Jindal’s. It’s hard to even think of them hugging their constituents; it seems unnatural, uncomfortable. They’re in it for themselves.

Randolph, in contrast, did not lack for warmth. Anyone in politics can command attention who says outlandish things – otherwise no one would ever have heard of Michele Bachmann. But Randolph was never angry for anger’s sake. Under the pretense that they know what’s wrong and how to fix it, today’s right-wingers offer only anger-based bromides covered in patriotic platitudes, ad hominem attacks on an at once “weak” and “lawless” president at the helm in “corrupt” Washington. “It’s time for a little rebellion,” proclaimed Texas Governor Rick Perry at CPAC, amid a tumultuous roar. And just what, in concrete terms, does he imagine that rebellion would consist of? How would it make the economy, or social relations, better?

We know what conditioned Reagan’s success: not any reality, but the idea of that bright “morning in America.” Humans are prone to imagining a better time, a better prospect, than the one we immediately face. A spokesman for an ideal reaches out to us through the TV screen, or from the pulpit, and says “liberty” or “God,” and the hearer will interpret these malleable concepts in some particular way that he or she finds soothing. Just as narratives about God’s love aim to convince a majority that the post-corporeal unknown is less to be feared, narratives that reconfigure historical events, or recover a glorious past, attach themselves to a possible future that is better than our present.

Words are received as charged impressions. They feed the fictions that potential voters are, consciously or subconsciously, looking for when they choose a leader whose word-produced symbolism comes closest to mirroring their worldview. The Obama phenomenon of 2008 is a perfect example, remarkable for its almost hypnotic effect on millions. Absent of such a “buzz,” people vote, less enthusiastically, against the candidate whose language can be painted as threatening to the stability of their fictional construction of an elusive “better” world. Will there be a Reaganesque Republican whose cheerful message catches on? It doesn’t look that way. With no discernible plans to improve infrastructure or deliver health care or negotiate a truce with women, they’ll be running against the Obama “tyranny” and other such hyperbolic constructions.

And let the buyer beware. Bully pulpit bullies like Ted Cruz invariably offend even their supposed friends and co-conspirators. Arizona Senator John McCain took grave offense last week when Cruz lumped the ailing Bob Dole together with failed Republican presidential aspirants McCain and Mitt Romney, as losers of a sort. War heroes don’t take kindly to loose-lipped attacks from self-promoting, microphone-stealing colleagues whose heroics take place in their own heads.

One day in Congress, in the spring of 1826, Randolph of Roanoke bit off more than he could chew by caricaturing Henry Clay of Kentucky as a “blackleg,” or pirate. It led to a duel on the banks of the Potomac between the then-secretary of state and the hyperactive Virginia senator. Clay’s bullet tore through the spindly-legged Randolph’s overcoat, narrowly missing his frail frame.

The “affair of honor” can be construed as the “stand your ground” law of an earlier America. Or, if you will, a “Second Amendment solution.” We like to imagine ourselves civilized, because intra-congressional revenge plots are confined to acts of shaming – a politically charged censure, an ill-founded impeachment – followed by a return to the affectation of civility that even radical members can be made to exhibit on occasion. (Tell Darrell Issa.)

Thomas Jefferson said the example supplied by the iconoclastic Randolph should serve as a cautionary tale to those of his own party, whereby “all honest and prudent men” might, as a result of one man’s excesses, see their way to “sacrifice a little self-confidence and go with their friends although they sometimes think they are going wrong.” Republicans are saying the same about Ted Cruz. They want to pull together and be the party of ideas. Or so they say, because it’s easy to say.

They have to. Today’s political conservatives can only airbrush away the problematic Bush presidencies and talk about 2016 as a return to a purified “morning in America.” That is where the unctuous, lumbering Cruz, the evasive, petulant Paul Ryan and the compulsively sniping Rand Paul will be obliged to go amid the next nomination fight if they are to come across as anything other than malicious. But their model of good is a pipe-dream. There is no conservative dawning on the way. Inconstancy is the only reality we will ever know from the current crop of Republican showboaters.

Randolph of Roanoke fought for slavery-based pastoralism when his present was building canals and steamboats. He did not lead in Congress; he forestalled. Ted’s tough talk, even if he tries to marry it to a sunny nostalgia for what never was, does not equate to leadership. Nor is it any more valid a critique of government than that old John Randolph bespoke.

Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg are professors of History at Louisiana State University. Burstein is the author of Lincoln Dreamt He Died: The Midnight Visions of Remarkable Americans from Colonial Times to Freud and coauthor of Madison and Jefferson. Follow him @andyandnancy.

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