Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal started quite a stir last fall when he labeled his fellow Republicans “the stupid party.” Jindal was referring to the medieval reproductive views of two failed GOP Senate candidates, but he echoed liberals’ pet phrase for the climate-change-and-evolution-denial crowd—which is what former Florida governor Jeb Bush evidently had in mind when he complained to this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference that Republicans were seen as “anti-science” (as well as “anti-immigrant,” “anti-woman,” and “anti-gay”). Then came the post-election autopsy issued by the Republican National Committee, which dinged the GOP campaign apparatus for failing to foster an “environment of intellectual curiosity” and a “culture of data and learning.”
The Republican party’s struggle to clearly define “stupid” raises an even more salient concern: If you take science, immigrants, women, and gays off the table, then what’s going to be the GOP’s new stupid—that is, the successor to the dumbed-down, incendiary cultural issues that have historically been such winners at the ballot box? Well, please do ask us, because when it comes to politics, we Texans own stupid. And right now Texas has a rising political star who is already reinventing stupid in ways that could give the GOP the smart new direction it so desperately seeks.
Texas Democrats were the first to demonstrate that stupid can be a very clever political play. Lyndon Johnson was a gifted child who went on to graduate from Southwest Texas State Teachers College back when many of Texas’s most powerful men didn’t have a college degree. Yet as president, LBJ bitterly resented John F. Kennedy’s legacy Ivy League advisers, who called him “Rufus Cornpone” behind his back—a sobriquet Johnson appeared to encourage by amping up his oafish personal style and flaunting his gaudy ranch. But Rufus the doofus—part act, part acting out—provided cultural camouflage for the ambitious liberal agenda that “those Harvards,” as Johnson referred to JFK’s brain trust, never could have finessed through Congress. LBJ—described as a “political genius” by his biographer Robert Caro—transformed the nation by way of a time-honored Texas trope: the good ol’ boy wheeler-dealer who winks, grins, and spits while outfoxing the supercilious city slickers.
Though a Yalie and a Harvard MBA, George W. Bush improbably reanimated Rufus Cornpone, buying a ranch just as he began his first bid for the White House and quickly convincing even the preeminent presidential skeptic Bob Woodward that Texas soil was the source of a profound gut instinct that guided him in the months after 9/11. But Bush’s war turned against him, as LBJ’s had, and he too left the White House deeply unpopular. Bush, however, also bequeathed to his party the antediluvian culture—anti-gay, anti-science, anti-modernity—that so many outside the GOP, and not a few within it, now regard as out of touch, if not just plain dumb.
But Bush 43 didn’t single-handedly end the career of Rufus Cornpone. Rick Perry, a throwback rural Texan who grew up in circumstances even more modest than LBJ’s, began his presidential campaign with a risky stupid-smart balancing act, pairing aggressive Bush-era science denial with state sponsorship of high-tech businesses. When Perry’s brain froze onstage, good ol’ Rufus Cornpone suffered a fatal blow—thus bringing an epoch in Texas politics to an end.
Yet just when that door closed, Ted Cruz came in through the window. Our junior U.S. senator is one of “those Harvards” (he attended the law school), and he doesn’t even pretend to be stupid. Instead Cruz earnestly addresses us as if he’s Mr. Rogers and we need the same patient tutelage as his colleague Dianne Feinstein, who admonished him for treating her like a “sixth grader.” But Cruz didn’t become the Senate’s most notorious newbie with his boring civics-class boilerplate. What sets him apart are the obscure conservative blogoconspiracies he’s injected into the Capitol Hill mainstream, such as suggesting that secretary of defense nominee Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam war hero, might be a paid stooge of the North Koreans.
Already drawing comparisons to legendary Senate demagogue Joe McCarthy, Cruz has within a few short months brought the paranoid style in American politics back into fashion. And the issue that defines his new look is Agenda 21, the nonbinding United Nations manifesto on global sustainable development that President George H. W. Bush and more than a hundred other heads of state signed in 1992. A lengthy document written in dense yet toothless bureaucratese, Agenda 21 provides abundant fodder for nerdy conspiracists like Cruz, who last year wrote that “Agenda 21 attempts to abolish ‘unsustainable’ environments, including golf courses, grazing pastures, and paved roads,” in the process subverting “[our] liberty, our property rights, and our sovereignty.” Cruz’s buddy Glenn Beck fleshes out the whole frightening scenario in Agenda 21, his best-selling science-fiction novel in which Americans are fed starvation rations in the concentration camp–like cities they’ve been herded into by UN storm troopers.
But there’s something about Cruz’s wacko-bird Agenda 21 alarmism that brings to mind a next-gen Rufus Cornpone, wearing a tinfoil hat instead of a Stetson. Steadily catching on with the GOP rank and file, Agenda 21 anxiety taps into the dystopian mood of today’s popular entertainment and opens a largely secular front in the culture wars, pitting exurban sprawl against new urbanism, the SUV against mass transit (in The Hunger Games, the city is the sanctuary of the perverted and privileged). And you don’t have to believe that cavemen saddled up dinosaurs to worry that a handful of secretly scheming elites could unleash a global catastrophe—you need only have lived through our ongoing economic crisis.
Regardless of whether Agenda 21 sparks a grassroots wildfire, it’s a good opening act for Cruz, who warns that “liberty is under assault from every direction.” Instead of asking us to fear the GOP’s usual “other” (which in the last election turned out to be most of us), Cruz-style paranoia is more inclusive. Even ACLU liberals can buy into Cruz’s “drone from the sky hitting you in a cafe” at the same time they’re contemplating entirely plausible global pandemics and civilization-crippling cyberattacks (in which case they’ll wish they bought that AR-15 with the thirty-round magazines). In telling us the future is rife with perils we all share yet can scarcely imagine, Cruz has already given his party the answer to its most pressing question: paranoia everyone can believe in—classless, color-blind, and potentially crossing party lines—is the new stupid. And like Rufus Cornpone, it may be a lot smarter than it looks.