There is a boisterous Oath Keeper leaking alcohol from every pore sitting three seats away from me in a Nashua, New Hampshire, middle school auditorium hosting a Ted Cruz town hall. I’m wondering if it’s too late to change seats.
The guy is wearing a camouflage jacket that doesn’t quite hide the bulging middle-age belly straining at the faded Patriots T-shirt underneath. He’s carrying a sign that reads “Like a Cruz missile, Ted will destroy ISIS” on one side and “Cruzin West” on the other, a plea for the Texas senator to pick former Florida congressman Allen West as his vice-presidential candidate. He’s loudly telling everyone within earshot that we need to start a Cruz/West chant at some point and is met with approving responses from some of the people around me.
I decide not to move. If the Oath Keeper or anyone else spies my reporter’s notebook and asks what outlet I’m with, I’ll say World Net Daily and hope no one pulls out an iPhone to check.
It’s all part of the carnival atmosphere of a Ted Cruz event being held at Elm Street Middle School, an imposing Gothic building that, as I drove up in the dark amidst a driving rain, made me think of an insane asylum in a movie, a comparison that felt more than appropriate once I was inside. Old men in baseball caps bearing the names of military units, moms holding babies in one hand and Ted Cruz signs in the other. Three people by the stage waving flags (from left to right: American, Israeli, Gadsden). Two flat-screen TVs on either side of the stage are showing a campaign film of more cheering crowds, backed by patriotic music and conservative activist Brent Bozell talking about all the reasons he loves Ted Cruz.
This is the New Hampshire I came to find. This is the polished and professional political rally of the true believers, ecstatic in their fervor and their belief in the rightness of their cause. It’s exhilarating and terrifying. As the late great Hunter S. Thompson might have said, this is the belly of the beast.
Cruz is often described as “oily,” but that word doesn’t really do him justice. In fact, he’s so oleaginous he reminds one of the puddles covering the stained cement floor of a Jiffy Lube. It’s not just a physical characteristic – though there is that; the man has a sheen about him – but also one of affect. When he strides out to a rapturous greeting from the crowd and walks along the edge of the stage slapping hands with people in the front row, it feels so studied that I can picture college-age Ted Cruz practicing this move in his Princeton dorm room.
The speech is filled with the usual bullshit that no one will call him on, even in a GOP debate, because all the candidates are trying to appeal to a base that has gone beyond reason and Earth’s orbit. But it’s worth rebutting a few of the lies here, if only for the benefit of future archaeologists picking through the ruins of our civilization if Ted Cruz winds up leading it.
For economic policy, Cruz has a plan to turbocharge the American economy. It seems to go something like this:
- Repeal Obamacare
- Institute a flat tax on all personal and business income
- Economic growth!!!!!
Never mind that this plan would yank health insurance from millions of people and blow a hole in the deficit, adding mountains to the nation’s $19 trillion debt that he decried elsewhere in his sermon. “Repeal Obamacare” and “flat tax” are words that appeal to the deepest, most primitive part of the conservative lizard brain. Any downsides can just be blamed on liberals later on.
Another Cruz proposal involves eliminating five major government agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service. Which raises the question: Who will collect the taxes that people and businesses would still be paying even with a flat tax in place? You may as well just tell the crowd you’re eliminating taxes altogether.
On his proposal to “carpet-bomb” ISIS, Cruz has been getting blasted by military leaders for weeks for a) not seeming to know what carpet bombing actually is, and b) not knowing that it’s a war crime. But he hasn’t changed his pitch. In Nashua he tells the crowd that during the first Gulf War in 1991, the United States flew 1,100 sorties a day against the Iraqi army, “carpet-bombing” it into oblivion so that all our ground forces had to do once the invasion began was mop up the shattered remnants of Sadaam Hussein’s forces. This understanding of carpet bombing is wildly inaccurate. Cruz either does not know this, or more likely he does not care. I’m betting on the latter.
That's because he needs this audience, and every other audience, to believe in the holy rightness of his crusade. And if this crowd is any indication, he’s succeeding. This rally has the feel of a campaign that could go all the way, no matter how dangerous the proposals driving it are.
Because these are the true believers, and true believers know that they are right and everyone else is not only wrong, but evil and stupid. (When Cruz mocks some environmental protesters who briefly interrupt him, the man sitting directly behind me yells with unsuppressed fury, “They’re Bolsheviks!” I can almost feel the spittle on the back of my neck.) This is a darker place than the Donald Trump rally I attended the night before. There, one got the sense Trump’s support was a mile wide but an inch deep. This, though, this is something more primal.
It’s all enough to make one despair, and to pray to a God you don’t believe in that something can stop this train, that some part of the GOP establishment can still rally to knock down this campaign or that there is a very finite percentage of even conservative voters to whom it will appeal. And also to get out of this auditorium before Cruz pulls a couple of vipers from a sack and everyone starts speaking in tongues.