09/28/2015 08:38 am ET Updated Sep 28, 2016

Ted Cruz, The Lone Stranger


Armchair psychoanalysis of political figures can be a dubious and even disreputable business. But one presidential candidate presents the following symptoms: feral aggression, reflexive demagoguery, self absorption, paranoia, grandiosity, disdain for social norms and an inability to cooperate with others. When such a person habitually imagines himself as Winston Churchill, the effect is truly destabilizing. So let us add to the DSM a newly discovered malady: Ted Cruz Syndrome.

For the historic figure Cruz most evokes is not Churchill, but a nascent Joseph McCarthy. It is not his fault that he resembles the young McCarthy (though he does), but that his words and actions bring the vulpine loner from Wisconsin to eerie recall. Like McCarthy, Cruz is capable of a casual cruelty which is startlingly gratuitous. Hard upon the death of Beau Biden, Cruz chortled to an audience, "Joe Biden. You know what the nice thing is? ... [J]ust walk up to someone and say,' Vice-President Joe Biden,' and just close your mouth. They will crack up laughing."

Shortly after Jimmy Carter revealed his grim diagnosis with admirable grace, Cruz ridiculed Barack Obama and Carter as having identical failed presidencies, as if merely attacking Obama was not pleasure enough. Sometimes, it seems, all one has to do is cross the senator's radar screen, no matter how tragic the circumstances. For with Cruz, like McCarthy, merely calling his endless array of self-selected opponents wrong does not suffice to slake his psychic need to demean and disparage.

The targets of these rhetorical drive-by shootings are often his fellow Republicans. During Chuck Hagel's confirmation hearings, Cruz implied that Hagel had received money from North Korea. In the skirmishing over the Export-Import Bank, Cruz accused his own Majority Leader of telling a "flat-out lie." And when John Boehner resigned under fire from hard-right House members whose ire Cruz relentlessly stoked, without citing any source the senator danced on the Speaker's political grave, suggesting that Boehner had "cut a deal with Nancy Pelosi to fund the Obama administration for the rest of the year -- and then presumably to land a cushy K St. job."

As for his policy pronouncements, they seem contrived to feed the gnawing victimization felt by those most alienated from society. His claim that there is a "war on faith in America today, and that those "who are persecuting [Kentucky clerk] Kim Davis believe that Christians should not serve in public office," suggests an ignorance of law and history too profound to be credible in a graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law. Just as dubious is that Cruz believes his comparison of scientists concerned about climate change to the flat -- Earthers who branded Galileo a heretic. Asked to measure Cruz against his understanding of McCarthy, a prominent Republican professional with four decades experience makes this troubling distinction: Calling Cruz "the most calculating man I've seen in this business," he posits that the newer version is much more "calculating and Machiavellian" than his predecessor in recklessness.

Unsurprisingly, beneath such venom and demagoguery lurks a man who dramatizes himself as beset by venal Republican colleagues, bent on punishing him for his lonely and courageous efforts to save America from the abyss. "Sometimes," Cruz writes, "people ask me 'when you have a room full of Republican senators yelling at you to back down and compromise your principles, why don't you just give in?' I just remember all those men and women who pleaded with me, 'Don't become one of them.'" It never occurs to Cruz that his colleagues' uniform contempt stems from a deeper reason -- that he has made the Senate a sound stage for his own psychodrama, good only for garnering money and attention while he pursues his larger ambition with relentless monomania.

As his colleagues suffer, so do we. In 2013, he infuriated his fellow Republicans by
prompting a government shutdown without the slightest hope of achieving his stated purpose -- defunding Obamacare. He preceded his 21-hour filibuster by quoting Churchill that "we will fight on the beaches," then went on to compare his GOP peers to "Neville Chamberlain, who told the British people, 'Accept the Nazis.'" When his efforts ended in political disaster, he blamed his fellow Republicans in order to inflame the right wing base, dishonestly ignoring that a presidential veto made his alleged goals impossible. Now, still blithely dismissing the separation of powers, he again proposes to force another government shutdown -- drawing a rare public letter from Senator Kelly Ayotte asking him why this effort will be any less disastrous for the party or the country.

Cruz hears no voices but his own, and it has ever been thus. A college classmate has been quoted as saying, "it was my distinct impression that Ted had nothing to learn from anyone else... Four years of college education altered nothing." His rise to prominence on the national stage personifies the degree to which our politics is gripped by a political distemper, drowning our capacity to seize the future in a tsunami of nihilism and fury. For our own sake as well as their party's, his colleagues need to seal off his path to power, inflicting on Cruz the public ostracism which befell McCarthy, sent skulking to the political margins with Joseph Welch's famed admonition still ringing in his ears.