On the occasion of longshot presidential candidate Ted Cruz's campaign launch back in March, The Onion published a satirical piece about subscribers to TIME magazine bracing themselves for the awful, "inevitable" day when they would open their mailboxes to find themselves staring at a picture of Cruz on the cover under a headline like “The Game Changer” or “The Firebrand.” It was an absurd joke that went so meta that this week when TIME actually put Cruz on the cover, they also ran a story about The Onion's piece from a year ago. Our politics have become very, very surreal.
TIME's cover story is headlined, "Likable Enough?," accompanied by a fetching portrait of Cruz with a mischievous look on his face and a lovely ice blue tie. He looks exceedingly likable and once you read the stories within, you'll have to conclude that the man whom virtually everyone with the misfortune of knowing him finds repulsive is terribly misunderstood. Where you might have thought the man was a doctrinaire rightwinger, steeped in religious fanaticism and radical free market extremism, you will find out that he's actually a good old boy, a salt of the earth populist. (One hopes for his sake that nobody leaves a copy lying around on the yachts of some of the billionaires who've been writing ten million dollar checks on his behalf. It could get awkward.)
In an interview entitled "Ted Cruz Embraces Economic Populism," a very slick Cruz says:
[B]oth parties, career politicians in both parties get in bed with the lobbyist and special interest. And the fix is in. Where Washington’s policies benefit big business, benefit the rich and the powerful at the expense of the working men and women.
Now the point that I often make, and just a couple of days ago in Wisconsin I was visiting with a young woman who said she was a Bernie Sanders supporter. And I mentioned to her that I agreed with Bernie on the problem.
But I said if you think the problem is Washington is corrupt, why would you want Washington to have more power? I think the answer to that problem is for Washington to have less power, for government to have less power over our lives.
This has always been the American right's clever little take on "populism." Sure, sure, folks, those rich guys and big business are bad, very bad. But it's all because they're bribing politicians to give them what they want. The best thing to do is slash taxes, reverse all regulations and get rid of consumer protections so they won't need to bribe politicians because they'll have everything they want! Then the power of the markets will be unleashed and you can be rich too!
Throughout the interview, this wily Ivy League educated lawyer presents himself as the champion of the working class, the guy whose only concerns lie with the single mom who works as a waitress and the dad who lost his job down to the plant and can't get ahead. But in reality his record on economics is one that only a Koch Brother could love. And even they can't stand him.
Still he's presented as some sort of iconoclast who defies the usual right-wing classification because he opposes the Import-Export Bank and ethanol subsidies, both of which are obscure little libertarian totems that will have exactly zero effect on the lives of those waitress moms and unemployed dads for whom he purports to care so much. Most of his economic agenda will actually devastate them and everyone they know.
For instance, he's one of the few Republicans to actually believe that the U.S. should return to the gold standard. This is a fringe position held by acolytes of Rand Paul and Glenn Beck, which the Washington Post WonkBlog noted is held by virtually no experts anywhere. The Post quotes University of Chicago professor Anil Kashyap saying that "love of the gold standard implies macroeconomic illiteracy." (And needless to say, calling a goldbug a populist is to take a hallucinogenic trip down the yellow brick road, if you know what I mean.)
Cruz is not just a run-of-the-mill deficit hawk --- he is for a balanced budget amendment combined with monumental tax cuts (and the total abolition of the IRS) which would require disastrous cuts to thousands of vital programs. Everyone knows he favors repealing the Affordable Care Act; he led the quixotic rightwing hostage taking effort to shut down the government and default on the debt in order to make that happen. It doesn't take much to imagine the chaos and pain that would ensue as tens of millions of waitress moms and unemployed dads lose their insurance.
He plans to completely deregulate Wall Street and has been endorsed by the Club for Growth, which describes its mission as "cutting taxes, controlling federal spending, personal accounts for Social Security, ending the death tax, eliminating the capital gains tax, fundamental tax reform, providing true school choice and minimizing government's role in our daily lives." Every one of those goals are designed to benefit the wealthy at the expense of the average citizen.
Those are just some of his economic policies, all of which are as conservative as it gets. For all we know, he may even believe his own hype -- conservatives have been selling trickle down as a great boon to the middle and working class for decades. It's possible that he just hasn't noticed that all of this hocus pocus has been tried and has failed miserably to benefit anyone but the 1 percent. But Cruz is a very cunning politician and the smooth way he uses populist-style rhetoric to sell a plutocratic agenda makes it likely he knows exactly what he's doing.
Ted Cruz saying he's fighting the elites on behalf of the working man sounds very nice. But let's just say that the big money boys won't be disappointed if his agenda is enacted. Indeed, they'll be ecstatic. And surely the media must know this. Calling him a "populist" because he trash talks Washington just like Bernie Sanders shows just how eagerly the press allows themselves to be gulled into a sexy story line. And this one looks distressingly like something we might see cooked up in Grover Norquist's basement: The "everyman" populist Cruz, slayer of RINOs, vs. the ancient establishment drudge Hillary Clinton, defender of the corrupt Washington cartel. And that's ridiculous. Ted Cruz is so deeply wedded to laissez faire, free market ideology that he makes any Democrat, whether Clinton, Sanders or even Joe Lieberman look like William Jennings Bryan by comparison.
All presidential finalists get an opportunity to be looked at with fresh eyes by the press when it starts to look as if they have a serious chance. But it behooves the media not to get carried away into total fantasy in order to set up a preferred story line. Ted Cruz is a very smart guy and has been underrated throughout this campaign. But ultra conservative Republicans aren't voting for him because of his winning personality or "populist" economics. They're voting for him because he a far right fanatic just like they are. Just because he isn't Donald Trump it doesn't mean he isn't also a demagogue. He's just a different kind.