The most relatable thing about Ted Cruz—perhaps the only relatable thing left about Ted Cruz—is that in 2016 his world was unmade and he’s had a pretty rough go of things ever since. But why does he have to take it out on us? That year, our state’s most famous Canadian, who began life as the smart, hardworking son of a middle-class family, saw his best-laid plans put to rest by his psychic opposite, an overgrown rich kid with, at best, middling grades who couldn’t even run a profitable casino. It seemed to take the fight out of Cruz: he went soft. Soft around the middle, which is no crime, and soft in spirit. He grew lounge-lizard facial hair and something akin to a mullet. The lean and hungry fighter who was willing to be hated and worked like hell to advance his master plan seemed content to spar listlessly on Twitter and, from time to time, have his photo taken with his former arch-nemesis.
In 2021 we saw Cruz’s old self return on one occasion, and it caused the country serious harm. Serving as the outgoing president’s lackey, a position he had sacrificed much, including his dignity, to obtain, he helped gin up anger in advance of the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol. In his chronically insincere and cynical way, he stood that afternoon on the floor of the Senate and implied that he wasn’t stupid enough to think the election was rigged but that other people thought so. Therefore, he argued, the peaceful transfer of power should be put on hold.
Cruz was widely understood to be positioning himself for primacy in a post-Trump GOP, attempting to outflank Missouri senator Josh Hawley, who had initially led the campaign to overturn the election results. But this wasn’t just another stunt. The stakes were grave and the consequences dire. At least 138 police officers were injured that day; 15 of them were hospitalized, and 4 later took their own lives. The Capitol building was vandalized, offices were ransacked, and the country’s self-image and international reputation took a grievous blow.
But even that was less shameful than what would have happened if Cruz, in violation of the very Constitution that he frequently claims to value, had succeeded in helping an incumbent president who lost reelection stay in power. Bum Steers are normally judged on the basis of an entire year’s worth of bad behavior, but Cruz had earned one six days in.
And then he managed to earn a Steer all over again six weeks later, when he escaped to Cancún during the February blackout, perhaps the worst man-made disaster in Texas’s history. It’s a ritual for elected officials to be seen handing out toilet paper and water bottles in the aftermath of disasters like hurricanes, and it’s a largely pointless one. Presidents have better things to do, and so do senators, though senators don’t have much to do at all. But Americans want to know that their leaders see them—that they see suffering and are doing something about it, even if it’s just scheduling a hearing. Cruz knows that very well. He also knew that Texans, during that miserable week, were bitterly angry and looking to mutilate any scapegoat available. His decision to board a United Airlines flight to the Yucatán, with all the plebs and their incriminating smartphone cameras, couldn’t just be chalked up to stupidity.
It seemed instead like an admission that he had given up the ghost—that he no longer wanted bigger or better things for himself. Like a cheating husband who leaves lipstick on his collar, he almost seemed like he wanted to be caught. As a precocious child, Cruz idolized the infamous North Carolina segregationist senator Jesse Helms—a reactionary troll who took up lifetime tenure in the upper chamber and retired at the age of 81. Perhaps, having realized he would never win America’s love or highest office, Cruz had now become content with courting its disdain.
Which would certainly explain his next move. After an extended period of silence about the Cancún debacle—perhaps caused by the resignation of his communications director after the insurrection—he initially seemed to blame the sojourn on his adolescent daughters, saying they wanted to “take a trip with some friends.” Trying to be “a good dad,” he said, he accompanied the girls to Mexico, planning to return overnight. Ted’s only crime? Loving them too much.
Much of this, it turned out, was a misrepresentation, if not a lie. “Friends” of the Cruz family leaked texts that seemed to indicate that Cruz’s wife, Heidi, had been desperate to get away from the cold. And Ted had planned to stay for three days—he booked the earlier flight home only after he got in trouble.
Protesters gathered outside his home. “Did your kids also make you commit treason?” read one sign. His return, rolling suitcase in hand, was broadcast across the world and, along with the Suez Canal container ship mishap, was one of the most widely memed images of the year. The schadenfreude helped keep some Texans warm that week, for which we should be grateful.
But to longtime observers of Cruz, it was a sad spectacle. He looked like an old dog who had peed on the rug. In the aftermath, he expressed more anger at the “assholes”—that is, his neighbors—who had leaked the texts than at the folks who had ignored years of warnings about our rickety electrical grid, which ultimately killed hundreds of Texans.
If you’re Ted Cruz, there’s a set of questions that must keep you up at night, especially since that hoped-for post-Trump era hasn’t arrived. What was all this sacrifice for? What am I doing? Who am I? Many lost souls have defined themselves against an external enemy; war is often the force that gives us meaning. So in the fall, on Twitter, Cruz laid siege to a nemesis worthy of his particular set of skills: Sesame Street’s Big Bird, who had the temerity to tweet that he’d been vaccinated. Maybe bloodying up the yellow brute will help Ted get his mojo back. Or maybe an award will cheer him up: Ted, you’re a runner-up for Bum Steer of the Year.
This article originally appeared in the January 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Junior Senator From the Great State of Cancún.” Subscribe today.