“Never had a Presidential campaign flamed out so spectacularly as that of Donald J. Trump in 2016,” wrote Mark Halperin in Game Over: The Shock Cruz Victory. “The object of media fascination in Iowa and a surprise winner in New Hampshire, the ludicrous political dreams of the host of The Apprentice were toast, sunk by the Access Hollywood Tape and the extraordinary revelations of E. Jean Carroll that dropped before South Carolina.”
This left the field wide open for Ted Cruz to build up his impressive lead among Republicans, one that only widened with his choice of Carly Fiorina, the formidable former CEO of Hewlett-Packard as his running mate. With the nomination clinched (“Inevitable,” wrote David Brooks in the New York Times) the pair began an aggressive pivot to the Right. Relentlessly focusing on the looming threat of a “hijacking of the Supreme Court” by Democrats, and a call for an urgent need to pull out of the Paris Climate Accords, the full scale offensive of the Cruz-Fiorina campaign began at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
His call to “Keep America’s Faith,” which was described as “anti-Semitic” by Jon Stewart and was termed “Christian Nationalism” by The Economist, became the rallying cry for an era where leaders like Jair Bolsonaro, Matteo Salvini and Viktor Orban had made strong gains around the world on the back of similar religiously-inflected campaigns. But Cruz’s gambit was not expected to win in America. No one believed there were enough “irrationals” (as Hillary Clinton dubbed them in a candid gaffe) in the United States to carry the day. Right up until election night, with national polls showing a slim majority for the wooden Clinton, few foresaw that Cruz’s religious—some said racially-tinged—message would resonate so deeply in places like Pennsylvania. The scale of the upset even shocked President Cruz at the time, as Bob Woodward detailed in his 2018 bestseller Faith.
For liberal America, his victory was a terrible blow. David Remnick, writing a week later in his New Yorker editorial titled “American Tragedy,” lamented that President Cruz had won without the popular vote and in the midst of an all-out assault of Russian fake news on social media in support of his “Christian Nationalist agenda.” Democratic activists pointed to the Russian hack of the Democratic National Convention as proof, as political consultant Peter Daou put it, “Moscow has always favored Republicans.”
President Cruz, pointing to his hardline policy to beef up the Ukrainian military with offensive weapons, brushed off accusations by John Brennan, Obama’s Director of the CIA, and other Democratic officials, questioning the legitimacy of the result. “Russiagate,” as it came to be called, was triggered by an NSA leak to the Intercept news site, alleging that Kremlin-backed hackers had targeted a U.S. voting software supplier in the week before the vote. Republican commentators closed ranks behind President Cruz. “A conspiracy theory of the highest degree,” Bill Kristol angrily tweeted at The Nation’s David Corn. “Have the Democrats gone mad?” asked David Frum in his Atlantic cover story “The Cruz Doctrine,” citing, amongst other policies, the incoming administration’s aggressive pushback strategy towards Putin.
Cruz’s poorly-attended inauguration, eclipsed by the drama of the Women’s March for Reproductive Rights that followed, was no omen for his successes in Congress that fall. With Mitch McConnell (“The Real Vice-President,” quipped Time) running herd, the new President initiated an impressive, and for the Left devastating, series of maneuvers. There were creative acts, mainly targeted at big business, such as the rebranded Trans-Pacific Trade Deal (“Calamitous,” said Bernie Sanders). But most were destructive. Dismissing late-night calls from a frantic Angela Merkel, President Cruz first unilaterally pulled the United States out of the Paris Climate Accords and then the JCPOA, the Iran deal that formed the core of Obama’s foreign policy legacy.
By fall 2017, the newly-elected French President Emmanuel Macron was lamenting the “breakdown of the norms-based international order” and signalling “the urgent need for European strategic autonomy” as President Cruz moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. His move, three months later, to recognize the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights, triggered a wave of European condemnation. “Rogue Nation,” was the headline in Der Spiegel following the embassy move, while Timothy Garton Ash lamented the “unprecedented break with the postwar consensus” in The Guardian.
Domestically, with the Democratic party locked in internal feuds over whether or not to support what the newly-elected congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders both called “neoliberal corporate trade pacts,” the Republican machine marched on. The marked unity among the party rank-and-file—both the chattering classes and on the Hill—was most clearly demonstrated when Senator John McCain cast the decisive vote consigning the Affordable Care Act to history, only weeks after the biggest tax cut of all time was passed by Congress.
Podcasting came of age as a medium during the Democratic civil war of the Cruz era. Which ones you listened to was seen as a sign of whose side you were on, especially among the younger millennial activist set. Perhaps the most popular was Chapo Trap House, which lambasted the fawning behaviour of the White House press corps and the Washington establishment towards “the reactionary-psycho politics” of the Cruz Administration. Particular targets singled out for overtly deferential behavior included CNN’s Jim Acosta, branded by one of their hosts as “Suckup in Chief.”
But the fact that such podcasts, with their vitriolic claims that “This is not normal!” could be seen as identity badges by a small Leftist fringe known as the “dirtbag Left” underscored the success of President Cruz in channeling the “charismatic authority” of the Presidency—something Barack Obama had so revelled in. Nowhere was this more on display than at President Cruz’s powerful eulogy to continue John McCain’s “mission” at the Senator’s funeral. To quote the Washington Post: “Not since victory in the First Gulf War had official Washington felt such a common bond as following President Cruz’s moving words.”
Yet this Republican satisfaction in Washington was almost dashed completely by the near-derailment of Brett Kavanaugh as nominee for the Supreme Court. “A sexist, misogynist, illegimitate appointment,” said the Washington Post. But the Gorsuch and Kavanaugh victories were not the only achievement for Cruz. “An Evangelical Coup,” was how Rachel Maddow described the administration’s slew of appointments reshaping the lower branches of the judiciary.
Michelle Goldberg’s runaway bestseller, Kingdom Come: America Is Now A Theocracy, captured the intellectual moment. “What began under George W. Bush,” argued Goldberg, “is now completing itself under Cruz. And it may be too late.” A rush of books by Kevin Phillips, Randall Balmer, and James Rudin were derided as “the End of Democracy genre” by commentators like Ross Douthat on the Right, but avidly consumed by readers and magazine editors alike. Backlash was brewing.
The mass “Our Rights” protests, sparked in late 2018 by President Cruz’s ringing endorsement of attempts to pass complete abortion bans by Alabama and 15 other states (“I will do all in my power to help you succeed,” Cruz intoned) sparked a wave of anxiety that gay marriage rights were under threat. Media frenzy reached a peak when the Catholic firebrand Sohrab Ahmari, accused of being a “wannabee Franco-style authoritarian culture warrior” by Bill Maher, was revealed to have taken a job at the White House as an adviser. Rumors circled that Ahmari favored punitive taxes on gay nightclubs. “Save Gay New York,” screamed the iconic cover of New York Magazine.
Nevertheless, acceptance of gay rights kept steadily growing in polls. Neither the Cruz crusade nor the Resistance to it registered as even a blip in the statistics.
But Cruz’s focus on the religious Right was not without its critics among elements of his base. Breitbart.com, fueled by outrage flowing from bulletin boards like 4chan and a small group of nationalist subreddits, accused President Cruz of missing the real issues. Christians were being bought off by religious baubles, Ann Coulter railed, at the expense of “hard-working Americans” being “displaced by uncontrolled mass immigration”. Despite all this, Jeff Sessions, not to mention his notorious adviser Stephen Miller, still cut lonely figures in the Senate; their calls for mass so-called “child separations,” to be enforced at the internment camps on the Mexican border, were politely ignored by the White House, and dismissed by off-the-record officials as “inhumane.”
Dismissive as they were, the steep setback in the midterms saw Cruz lose his working majority in Congress (60 seats changed hands in the House, and four in the Senate) and thus found the President throwing himself into what Barack Obama called, in a shock intervention delivered at the Brookings Institution, a “dangerous new militarism.” Joint “pinpoint” strikes on Venezeulan military infrastructure with President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil were launched in January 2019.
Successive visits of Christian Nationalist leaders to Washington, including Prime Minister Matteo Salvini of Italy (“Cruz is my icon,” he said crossing himself outside the White House) and President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, were denounced as “demeaning to America” by the New York Times editorial board. Meanwhile, in East Asia, relations with China continued to deteriorate following Cruz’s meeting with the Dalai Lama, and a sanctions package on PLA front companies over human rights violations in Xinjiang.
This worsened matters in North Korea. Cruz’s refusal to dialogue with Pyongyang without a total cessation of all nuclear activity, coupled with his snap decision to move an additional 1,000 U.S. troops to bases in Japan and the Korean Peninsula, triggered panic selling in Seoul and Pusan. “Give Kim A Chance,” tweeted Dennis Rodman, before appearing on Vice News promising to broker a summit to avert war. His call was echoed by Ro Khanna and other left-wing members of Congress during the war scare.
Perhaps feeling bulletproof on the back of Cruz’s own claims to moral decency, the era saw an unprecedented era of Republican-commissioned opposition research on the “dirty secrets” and private lives of senior Democrats, including most sensationally Corey Booker and Joe Biden. “Never have I seen such dirt being kicked around,” said President Jimmy Carter at the Aspen Ideas Festival panel on “Decency and Hypocrisy” in contemporary politics. “Things used to be less coarse in America.”
Repeated threats to “put boots on the ground” in Venezuela, delivered by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, rattled the Europeans. Tensions ran high between Cruz and his counterparts at NATO summits, especially after German foreign minister Heikko Maas openly questioned his country’s long-term future in NATO in an interview with the Washington Post. British, Spanish, and French opposition leaders harrumphed approval.
But, perhaps unsurprisingly, the real flare-up was to take place in the Middle East. With tensions with Russia and Iran running high in Syria following the build-up of 20,000 U.S. troops in the country, and the imposition of crippling new sanctions on the Islamic Republic, clashes began in the Persian Gulf. U.S. airstrikes, killing at least 150 people, pounded Iranian naval bases following what American intelligence claimed was an attack on a Japanese tanker.
Events quickly escalated. An all-out assault on the Iranian air force followed a wave of sucicide bombings on U.S. bases in Bahrain, and at a Jewish community centre in Istanbul that killed 43 people. “Cruz has ushered in the end of the American world order,” a frail George Soros warned at a panicked gathering of the GMF Brussels Forum, weeks before his own death. “Insane,” French President Emmanuel Macron was caught muttering on a hot mic after an emergency G-7 summit.
It was like the 1970s has returned to America. It was a commonplace that the country had never been more divided. “Warmonger!” Bernie Sanders yelled in Congress, pledging to start impeachment proceedings against President Cruz, as 300,000 people rallied in New York. But even as protests led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar outside the Israeli Consulate turned violent and Cruz’s poll ratings nosedived, nothing seemed to shake the resolve of the President to finish with the Iranian nuclear program once and for all. Mainstream Democrats, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said that impeachment was off the table—“A distraction from issues that really matter to voters.”
“One thing is certain,” wrote Paul Krugman in the New York Times. “The only beneficiary of a war this expensive will be China, steadily building up economic and trading capacity as the United States wastes its blood and treasure on yet another empty threat in the sand.”
But the attention of the public was elsewhere: on the protests and focused on the solemn, nightly speeches, President Cruz was delivering on national television elaborating the eternal truths of Just War and why, this time, America had no choice.