Politics & Policy

American Democracy Survived Ted Cruz’s Demagoguery—This Time

Texas’s junior senator shares responsibility for inciting the mob that breached the U.S. Capitol. That’s brought him scorn from much of the country—but might win him fresh support from Trump Republicans.

Senator Ted Cruz talks with House members during a joint session of Congress to certify the 2020 electoral college results, on January 6, 2021. Erin Schaff/Getty

By the middle of the afternoon, January 6, 2021, had become one of the most shameful days in the history of the United States. There have been many deadlier days, but few have featured more grievous injury to the country’s sense of itself as a beacon of constitutional democracy. At times, watching Wednesday’s livestreams from the Capitol felt like witnessing the Visigoths’ sack of Rome—a sensation heightened by the common understanding that it probably wouldn’t be the last time such a blow was struck.

There were actually two tragedies. In Congress, a majority of the House Republican Caucus (including sixteen from the Texas delegation, more than any other state) and a handful of senators voted repeatedly to overturn lawful and transparently obtained electoral college results, seeking to nullify a democratic election by claiming a power not granted in the Constitution. In conjunction with that, a rampaging mob overwhelmed an unprepared or collaborative police force and stormed the Capitol, the first time that has happened since the War of 1812.

Rioters ransacked and looted congressional offices, took shirtless photos on the floor of the Senate, waved Confederate flags in the building Abraham Lincoln helped finish, and strutted in clothing emblazoned with pro-Holocaust messages. They nearly breached the floor of the House of Representatives, where members of Congress and staffers lay huddled as officers drew guns. The mob and congressional Republicans were incited by the same person, the president, and they had the same aim—to override the will of the people and keep in office a man whom the country had not elected.

Some in the mob seemed to be fascists, or far-right-wing extremists, which you could divine from one rioter’s “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt. But many, including the QAnon-loving woman who was shot by capitol police, were dangerously deluded Americans convinced that the election had been stolen from them. That some believe this sincerely—and were behaving rationally from within the framework of their conviction that democracy was at stake—does not excuse their actions. But it does mean that the blame for what happened lies also with political leaders who have lied to them and incited them to violence.

So if January 6, 2021, was a shameful day for the country, it was also the most shameful day of the political career of the junior senator from the state of Texas. Ted Cruz, who played up the anger of the rioters-to-be for months before they stormed the U.S. Capitol, has had many embarrassing days in politics, including the time he elbowed his wife in the face on national television. But Wednesday is a stain that will never wash off and that will figure prominently in his obituary, whenever it comes. His grandchildren will sit their children down, when the time is right, to have a Talk about some of the less savory aspects of the family tree, and Cruz’s role in this disaster will be among them.

How did Cruz get here? The senator, universally acknowledged to be a smart guy, showed a great deal of political aptitude in the first part of his political career, when he won a long-shot bid in a many-candidate field to obtain his seat. He had an excellent sense of what movement conservatives wanted to hear from moment to moment and what was possible with their support. He desperately wanted to be president, and he seemed to be making the right moves to win the Republican nomination.

Then Donald Trump showed up. If Cruz’s internal compass guided his ambitions, Trump was a lightning storm who made the Texas senator’s needle go screwy. Trump was not a movement conservative, nor were his fans. They were something else entirely, and Cruz did not understand them well enough to manipulate them. He mistimed and misjudged every move.

Cruz spent much of the first year of his presidential campaign buddying up to Trump, his opponent, in the hopes that he’d benefit when The Donald failed. When Trump failed to fail, Cruz tried to take him down, much too late, and suffered profound humiliation in the process. Trump charged that Ted’s beloved father had been involved in the JFK assassination, retweeted fans who called Cruz’s wife ugly, and stood by smirking as allies circulated dirt about the senator, his family, and his friends.

At the 2016 Republican National Convention, Cruz withheld support from Trump during a prime-time speech, misreading the mood of the party that had nominated the man. Later, chastened by the immense GOP backlash to his stand, he endorsed Trump. Shortly after, the Access Hollywood tape dropped, ensuring that Cruz was subjected to a month of questions about why he supported a man who bragged about sexually assaulting women.

Throughout the campaign, Cruz had argued Trump would lead the party to defeat. He alleged that the media elevated Trump because he was the candidate Hillary Clinton would have the easiest time beating. Perhaps he would be there to help pick up the pieces in 2020. But then Trump won and became a once-in-a-generation conservative hero. Cruz was relegated to the status of a Senate backbencher, whose main accomplishment in the last few years has been securing a pardon for a hacky right-wing polemicist Dinesh D’Souza, who was guilty of violating campaign finance laws. Cruz grew facial hair, gained weight, and took on the appearance of something like a late-period Orson Welles.

Trump’s failed reelection bid should, in the natural order of things, create space for Republicans such as Cruz to center themselves in the party again. But there are no policies behind Trumpism to co-opt. There is only Trump’s personal appeal to his voters, and politicians such as Cruz have to find a way to graft themselves onto it.

GOP presidential prospects for 2024 are struggling to position themselves as Trump’s foremost supporters, even as he has repeatedly threatened not to leave office peacefully—and vows to run again next time. Missouri senator Josh Hawley, who has become the kind of right-wing wunderkind that Cruz was in 2013, was the first to announce that he would object to the certification of electoral votes from certain states, in an attempt to change the election result. Once he did, it became only a matter of time before Cruz said the same. He would not be outflanked. This was the man who had pledged, in December, to represent one of the premier legal challenges on Trump’s behalf in front of the Supreme Court.

Indeed, he bested Hawley. He produced a letter signed by a dozen senators who vowed to object to the results too. He framed his objection as an attempt to bring “clarity” to the election results and instill confidence in the process, but this was window dressing. In one of the most cynical statements made by an American politician in recent memory, he argued that the election had featured “unprecedented allegations of voter fraud.” He and those like him, of course, were the ones making those allegations, without a shred of evidence. This was poor logic for a man who prides himself on his debating skills. Ted Cruz has been subject to an unprecedented level of allegations that he is the Zodiac Killer. In the spirit of consistency, he should call for an investigation.

Cruz, like everyone else in Congress who has eyes to see and ears to hear, knows that the states with “disputed” results—Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—all have Republican legislatures. Georgia’s secretary of state, who was pressured personally by the president to “find” enough ballots to secure his victory, is a Republican. These states have already audited the results and, in many cases, recounted ballots by hand. Cruz knows that dozens of federal and state courts, including those with judges nominated by the president, have laughed out of the room some sixty unsubstantiated challenges to the results. He knows that there is no reason to suspect that the outcome of the election was fraudulent.

The question of whether Congress should accept election results is not a partisan one. It is about whether the Constitution, which Cruz has long claimed to venerate, means anything at all. Some Republicans acknowledged this when debate began on Wednesday. Republican majority leader Mitch McConnell spoke as strongly against Cruz’s effort as did his longtime opponent, Democratic minority leader Chuck Schumer. “The voters, the courts, the states have all spoken. If we overrule them, it would damage our republic forever,” McConnell said. “If this election were overturned by mere allegations from the losing side, our republic would enter a death spiral.”

Cruz was the first of the objecting senators to speak. McConnell’s warnings, he said, amounted to preening. “We have seen and we will continue to see a great deal of moralizing on both sides of the aisle,” he said. “I would urge both sides perhaps a bit less certitude and a bit more recognition that we are gathered at a time when democracy is in crisis.”

The crisis was revealed by the fact that “recent polls show that 39 percent of Americans believe that the election that just occurred was rigged,” he said, calling it “a reality for almost half the country.”

But it isn’t reality. It’s a fantasy spread by prominent officials, from the president on down, who disrespect their followers enough to lie to them. A little while after Cruz spoke, protesters rushed the building, Representatives evacuated the chambers of Congress, and the proceedings collapsed. A new reality had intruded. While the rioters roamed the halls, Cruz’s campaign sent out a fund-raising appeal.

Many hours later, when order had been restored and senators resumed the proceedings, Cruz’s effort had collapsed. Several of the senators who had signed on recanted—among them Georgia senator Kelly Loeffler, whose emotional speech about why she had changed her mind garnered bipartisan applause on the floor. Cruz did not speak again. His colleagues had occasional venomous words for “the senator from Texas” but chose not to speak his name. He voted to overturn the Arizona and Pennsylvania results, but withdrew his name from other challenges.

Feeling the heat, Cruz went into damage control. “#EPluribusUnum,” he tweeted. “We are one nation.” And on Thursday, he began to tell others that the whole thing was Trump’s fault—that the president had been “reckless” and “irresponsible.” This did not help explain why Cruz had spent the last several months attempting to help Trump steal a second term. He has also tried to shift the conversation by focusing on left-wing critics of his actions, especially New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

But the harshest words spoken about Cruz and his colleagues in the aftermath of the riot came from Republicans. Utah senator Mitt Romney, who shouted “this is what you’ve gotten, guys,” at Cruz and associates when officers cleared the Senate floor during the attack, chastised him again later that night. “Those who choose to continue to support this dangerous gambit by objecting to the results of a legitimate democratic election will forever be seen as being complicit in an unprecedented attack against our democracy.” While the rioters roamed the Capitol, Trump’s former Defense Secretary James Mattis blasted the president’s “enablers” in stoking mistrust in the election, calling them “pseudo-political leaders whose names will live in infamy as profiles in cowardice.”

In the wake of the attack on the U.S. Capitol, Republican Party donors and the business lobby have started to distance themselves from Cruz. He might have gone too far this time, even by his own standards. But it’s too early to say that. When Trump called into the winter meeting of the Republican National Committee on Thursday morning, he was applauded. Right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh compared those who stormed the Capitol to minutemen at Lexington and Concord. One poll taken Wednesday reported that more Republicans supported the breach of the Capitol than opposed it.

It’s not out of the question, in other words, that Cruz did the right thing, in terms of winning the Republican presidential nomination in 2024. Some men would rather reign in hell than serve in Heaven.