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Charles J. Reid, Jr. Headshot

P.T. Barnum, Joe McCarthy, and the Rise of Ted Cruz

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If we can speak at all of an American collective memory, there are two archetypes which loom large in those shady mists -- the huckster, and the paranoid demagogue. Ted Cruz, the junior senator from the State of Texas, who has been a member of that august deliberative body for a little less than ten months, captures and distills down to its essence the features of both.

The huckster has deep American roots. An old folk tune, "The Dodger" celebrated this rapscallion. ("Dodger," in the slang of the day, meant something like "scam artist"). "The candidate's a dodger, yes a well-known dodger," is how the song began, as it cataloged all the walks of life that depend on scamming.

American literature is replete with hucksters. Mark Twain gave us those two fun-loving scamps, "the King" and "the Duke," who scammed their way down the Mississippi River. Pulp novels were filled with patent-medicine entrepreneurs and snake oil salesmen. And then there is the figure of Elmer Gantry, the religious scammer, preaching righteousness by day, sinning by night.

But the ultimate archetype was probably the real-life P.T. Barnum. Born in obscurity in Connecticut in 1810, he tried his hand at lottery promotions until they were outlawed. He then traveled the country with an elderly slave woman who pretended to have been George Washington's nursemaid when he was a small boy. He built a mermaid from the body parts of various animals and sold tickets to see the exotic specimen. When a distant cousin was born with dwarfism, Barnum transformed him into "General Tom Thumb," the shortest man on earth. He used hot air balloons and street shows to attract crowds to his exhibits. Always be self-promoting.

And Ted Cruz has successfully tapped into the P.T. Barnum that lies buried deep within the American psyche. His rise has been a single continuous act of self-promotion. In less than a year, he has made it plain that he did not win election to the Senate just to play the role of genial back-bencher, sweetly biding his time, doing deals, and living by the genteel rules of the old Senate. No siree, Ted Cruz does not "do collegial." He is a man on the move.

Consider his campaign for Senate in 2012. It may be hard to remember, but he was the underdog in the Republican primary. His opponent, David Dewhurst, the sitting Lieutenant Governor, was the consummate insider. A plutocrat's plutocrat, Dewhurst had practically unlimited campaign funds and the backing of Governor Rick Perry.

Dewhurst thought he'd win the primary the old-fashioned way, by spending a lot of money shouting "liberal! liberal! liberal!" so as to define the then-unknown Cruz. He did not reckon on Cruz' power to mount an insurgency. In May, 2012, in the first round of voting, Dewhurst narrowly missed outright victory, finishing just shy of 50 percent of the vote.

But Cruz was relentless. He worked the right-wing blogs. He brought in Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum to campaign with him. He looked to the very rich Club for Growth Super PAC for financial support. And in the end he drove the plodding, old-school Dewhurst into the ground and won the July run-off in a romp.

Cruz proudly advertises his membership in and support of the Tea Party movement. And a good half of the Tea Party is pure, old-fashioned American hokum. There are the conspiracy theorists selling their tales of devious plots by the Federal Reserve. And the gold dealers who spin elaborate yarns of out-of-control inflation which the government keeps secret. And there are the Second Amendment fanatics warning ominously about plots to disarm law-abiding American constitutionalists. There are even the patent-medicine folks. Newsmax, a principal Tea Party news organ, is filled daily with claims about cures for everything from diabetes to Alzheimer's.

This is Ted Cruz' natural habitat. These are his people. A Princeton undergrad, Harvard Law School graduate, former Supreme Court clerk and international lawyer, Cruz tries his level best to let none of that show when he launches into his old-time stem winders. There is no doubt that Cruz is an effective orator and with his cowboy boots he sure looks and acts like the Texan he is. And when he gets worked up, his speeches draw their lifeblood from the Tea Party's own scamming heart.

If this is one side of Ted Cruz, the other half hails direct from the fever swamp Richard Hofstadter called "the paranoid style in American politics." This mode of thinking is darkly conspiratorial. The world is sharply divided -- "us" against "them." And those who stand against the heroic defenders of justice and the American way are always secretly scheming to run not just the country but the entire world. In the early days of the Republic, it was the Free Masons. A little later, in the 1840s and 1850s, it was the Jesuits. In the years around 1900 it was the "Money Power."

Periodically in American history there arose demagogues who exploited these delusions of persecution. There was Huey Long in the 1930s with his slogan, "Every Man a King!" There was George Wallace in the 1960s, cynically exploiting racism in a presidential campaign that was nothing but pure mayhem.

And, of course, looming over both men, was Joe McCarthy, the junior Republican senator from Wisconsin in the 1950s. In a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, in 1950, McCarthy claimed to be in possession of a list of 57 known Communists who worked in the State Department. Depending on his audience and the needs of the moment, McCarthy would repeat similar accusations many times, always varying the number of Communists. He accused fellow Senators of being closet Reds. He questioned the integrity of President Truman and claimed the Democratic Party was in league with treason.

Hofstadter published his essay on paranoid politics in 1964, inspired to his theme by that year's Barry Goldwater campaign for president. And while Hofstadter considered the whole panorama of American history, he clearly had one eye on Goldwater.

Goldwater surely attracted his share of paranoids. There were the John Birchers who feared the Communists under the bed; the neo-Confederate segregationists; and the libertarians who denounced the New Deal as illegitimate and viewed it as a long, slow, dismal march down the road to serfdom.

In Goldwater's day, however, the Republican Party's center of gravity was moderate. It even had a lively liberal wing, represented by the likes of Nelson Rockefeller and William Scranton.

But to enter today's GOP base is to cross the border from reality into Glenn-Beckistan. There are the young-earth creationists who see the whole of empirical science as a diabolical plot to conceal divine creation. There are the global warming skeptics, found even in the pages of the formerly great Wall Street Journal.

And then there are the folks who come out of the woodwork at conservative workshops and rallies: The ones who want to abolish the IRS. Those who wish to dismantle whole government agencies. Those who believe Social Security is irretrievably insolvent, an accusation first made by Alf Landon in 1936. Even the next generation of segregationists who once thrilled to Wallace and Goldwater.

And Ted Cruz is their new heartthrob. He has already been credibly accused of McCarthyism -- by Senator Barbara Boxer, after Cruz launched an attack on a member of his own party -- former Senator Chuck Hagel. When Hagel was nominated to be Secretary of Defense, Cruz hit and hit hard. Had he been the recipient of mysterious funds from North Korea? Hagel did an interview with Al-Jazeera. Maybe he's an apologist for terror?

Cruz has all the hallmarks of the demagogic conspiracist. He has played around with Benghazi, that tragic attack on the American consulate which resulted in the deaths of our diplomats there. To the right wing, however, it is a conspiracy so vast it is beyond description to anyone not already in on it.

And now he has turned to the Affordable Care Act. His latest 21-hour marathon speech on the Senate floor, where he displayed astonishing bladder control, was a noisome combination of the huckster and paranoid styles. The ACA, he hissed, raises taxes, destroys jobs, and will even cripple American health care. He accused those Republicans who failed to unite behind him of the same appeasement Neville Chamberlain showed when he bowed and scraped before Hitler.

Half flim-flam man, half demagogue, this man means to be president. And America had better be alarmed about that.