The "Ted Cruz is smart" trap: Why this garbage is false -- and dangerous

The Texas senator convinces all of his enemies to praise his intellect. Here's why they're wrong -- and should stop

Published July 28, 2014 5:44PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Joe Mitchell)
(Reuters/Joe Mitchell)

Even Ted Cruz's critics seem to concur on one point: whatever else you might say about him, the man is very smart. Mother Jones magazine has called him the “thinking man's tea partier.” Josh Marshall, in a mostly withering assessment, made the same obligatory concession to his being an “incredibly bright guy.” Jeffrey Toobin’s recent, ostensibly critical New Yorker profile of Cruz is full of quotes about his being “the smartest guy in the room,” his “sophisticated” constitutional views, and the “extraordinary” erudition of his senior thesis.

Cruz likely finds all of this very pleasing indeed. In his interview with Toobin, Cruz quotes Sun Tzu, saying that “every battle is won before it’s fought. It’s won by choosing the terrain on which it will be fought.” In getting those who despise him to genuflect to his intelligence, Ted Cruz has already won one battle. Jeffrey Toobin may lace his piece with dismissive sneers, yet somehow he still contributes to the ever-growing heap of liberal respect for Cruz’s mental acuity.

But there’s no reason to keep this up. For one thing, it doesn’t seem especially true. It can’t really be that we think Cruz has a sophisticated mind, given that the only thoughts he produces are angry pants-on-fire platitudinous drivel. Even those who lavish praise on his oratory seem to agree that his heat-to-light ratio nears the infinite, and that “thoughtfulness” and Ted Cruz cannot exist in the same room. His only memorable quotes appear to be cheap jokes, and the most notable speech of his entire career is not his own, but Dr. Seuss’. Nobody who has witnessed a few minutes of Cruz’s piece of senatorial performance art would have thought to label him a thinker, were it not for the preexisting consensus that he is one.

Cruz has become notorious for using distortive, misleading rhetoric that no sober-minded individual could apply. Cruz says Obamacare’s “intent is to destroy the private insurance business,” despite the fact that the whole progressive complaint about Obamacare is that it is a massive windfall to insurers. He says a campaign finance amendment attempting to rein in spending literally “repeals the First Amendment.” But even more alarming are the straightforward factual errors. He has mistakenly claimed that most premiums have risen under the Affordable Care Act and that states with gun control have the highest murder rates, among other elementary blunders that earned him a rating on PolitiFact of 10 falsehoods for every one truth.

One may respond that Cruz is shrewd and knows better, that these are calculated political lies by a devious plotter. But for a savant merely playing an imbecile on television, Cruz is strangely inept when it comes to policymaking. He has alienated all of his colleagues, and wants to revive the gay marriage fight at a time when it couldn’t be more unwise. His major act of strategic maneuvering over the government shutdown proved a colossal high-profile failure, the result of which was that as his name recognition improves, his favorability ratings actually drop. Even the Wall Street Journal has labeled him part of a “kamikaze caucus” that is dooming conservatives’ prospects. If Ted Cruz’s misstatements are deft politicking rather than idiocy, then where, one might ask, are the successes?

Ultimately, though, the most damning evidence against Cruz's intelligence may actually come from his law school roommate and college debating partner, David Panton. “Ted’s views today politically are almost identical to when I met him,” Panton said. “There’s nothing he says today that I didn’t hear in college.” That assessment, spoken about anybody, should be convincing enough evidence for shallowness of mind. Can there be such thing as a learned person who has discovered nothing new since freshman year?

In fact, the stories about Cruz's younger days show the marks of someone profoundly insecure about his intelligence. Quizzing others as to their SAT scores, wanting to limit his law-school study group to graduates of the "H-Y-P" schools (a charge Cruz has denied), an unrelenting and discomforting argumentative aggression: He’s missing only a Mensa application to complete the full package of desperate IQ-dork self-affirmations.

Of course, a chorus of people from Cruz’s student years has vouched for his brilliance. No less a heavyweight than Alan Dershowitz has commented on Cruz's precocity at Harvard. Now, one could somewhat unkindly argue that Dershowitz, too, has in his career relied on people’s confusion of credentials and bluster for depth of intellect. More to the point, though, is that the evidence put forth doesn’t support the claim. Nobody doubts that Cruz has the gift of gab, and can be formidable in an argument. But sophistry is not philosophy, and being the loudest, most driven, and most shameless guy in the room does not necessarily make one the brightest.

Any definition of intelligence is destined to be highly contestable. Yet it is hard to imagine a plausible one that does not include large measures of critical thinking and self-scrutiny. As Bertrand Russell put it, it’s always a central problem that "the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt." Intelligence necessitates doubt, for doubt is the origin of wisdom. One whose mind is clamped shut cannot be intelligent, and yet Ted Cruz does not in his life ever seem to have taken on board a single challenge to his worldview.

In fact, the consistent overgenerous assessment of Cruz’s brains may stem from a deeper problem with the values of the elite legal community. If Newt Gingrich is “a stupid person’s idea of what a smart person looks like,” Ted Cruz is a lawyer’s idea of what a smart person looks like. Jennifer Rubin at the Washington Post puzzled that someone she had been assured has a “sharp legal mind” could be so blisteringly lacking in common sense. But success in the legal world does not depend on common sense. Ambition and confidence can more than make up for it. Law schools pose as Socratic institutions, where preconceptions are left in tatters on the lecture-room floor, but in practice they reward sparring ability far more than reflection and careful scholarliness (the haphazard, un-peer-reviewed world of law journals can attest to the legal academy’s prioritization of argumentative formalism over a sober-minded quest for enlightenment). A person with one or two core principles, and a ruthless willingness to bend any truth that gets in the way, can do very well for himself at law school. Certainly, this requires skill. But it would be a sad day for the progress of human knowledge if we called it intelligence.

Cruz's outsize ambition means that this narrative makes a difference. So long as those who oppose him nevertheless dutifully incant praises to his intellect, Cruz has them right where he wants them. Josh Marshall summed up the opinion surrounding Cruz as “Arrogant Asshole, Super Smart.” But who cares about being called an “arrogant asshole,” so long as they admit you’re super smart? Assholes finish first, don’t they? That kind of consensus makes the haters seem petty and lets Cruz keep playing the scholar. The key is to admit what is obvious from a few minutes of listening to him. The man is arrogant, but he doesn’t actually seem very smart.

If the loveliest trick of the devil is to convince you he doesn’t exist, the most incontestably brilliant trick of Ted Cruz is to convince you of his incontestable brilliance. There’s no need to keep falling for it.

By Nathan Robinson

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Dumb Editor's Picks Gop Intelligence Jeffrey Toobin Josh Marshall Media Criticism Senate Ted Cruz Texas