In 1997, Michael Wayne Haley was arrested after stealing a calculator from Wal-Mart. This was a crime that merited a maximum two-year prison term. But prosecutors incorrectly applied a habitual offender law. Neither the judge nor the defense lawyer caught the error and Haley was sentenced to 16 years.
Eventually, the mistake came to light and Haley tried to fix it. Ted Cruz was solicitor general of Texas at the time. Instead of just letting Haley go for time served, Cruz took the case to the Supreme Court to keep Haley in prison for the full 16 years.
Some justices were skeptical. “Is there some rule that you can’t confess error in your state?” Justice Anthony Kennedy asked. The court system did finally let Haley out of prison, after six years.
The case reveals something interesting about Cruz’s character. He is now running strongly among evangelical voters, especially in Iowa. But in his career and public presentation Cruz is a stranger to most of what would generally be considered the Christian virtues: humility, mercy, compassion and grace. Cruz’s behavior in the Haley case is almost the dictionary definition of pharisaism: an overzealous application of the letter of the law in a way that violates the spirit of the law, as well as fairness and mercy.
Traditionally, candidates who have attracted strong evangelical support have in part emphasized the need to lend a helping hand to the economically stressed and the least fortunate among us. Such candidates include George W. Bush, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum.
But Cruz’s speeches are marked by what you might call pagan brutalism. There is not a hint of compassion, gentleness and mercy. Instead, his speeches are marked by a long list of enemies, and vows to crush, shred, destroy, bomb them. When he is speaking in a church the contrast between the setting and the emotional tone he sets is jarring.
Cruz lays down an atmosphere of apocalyptic fear. America is heading off “the cliff to oblivion.” After one Democratic debate he said, “We’re seeing our freedoms taken away every day, and last night was an audition for who would wear the jackboot most vigorously.”
As Republican strategist Curt Anderson observed in Politico, there’s no variation in Cruz’s rhetorical tone. As is the wont of inauthentic speakers, everything is described as a maximum existential threat.
The fact is this apocalyptic diagnosis is ridiculous. The Obama administration has done things people like me strongly disagree with. But America is in better economic shape than any other major nation on earth. Crime is down. Abortion rates are down. Fourteen million new jobs have been created in five years.
President Barack Obama has championed a liberal agenda, but he hasn’t made the country unrecognizable. In 2008, federal spending accounted for about 20.3 percent of gross domestic product. In 2015, it accounted for about 20.9 percent.
But Cruz manufactures an atmosphere of menace in which there is no room for compassion, for moderation, for anything but dismantling and counterattack. And that is what he offers. Cruz’s programmatic agenda, to the extent that it exists in his speeches, is to destroy things: destroy the IRS, crush the “jackals” of the EPA, end funding for Planned Parenthood, reverse Obama’s executive orders, make the desert glow in Syria, destroy the Iran nuclear accord.
Some of these positions I agree with, but the lack of any positive emphasis, any hint of reform conservatism, any aid for the working class, or even any humane gesture toward cooperation is striking.
Cruz didn’t come up with this hard, combative and gladiatorial campaign approach in isolation. He’s always demonstrated a tendency to bend his position – whether immigration or trade – to what suits him politically. This approach works because in the wake of the Obergefell v. Hodges court decision on same-sex marriage, many evangelicals feel they are being turned into pariahs in their own nation.
Cruz exploits and exaggerates that fear. But he reacts to Obergefell in exactly the alienating and combative manner that is destined to further marginalize evangelicals, that is guaranteed to bring out fear-driven reactions and not the movement’s highest ideals.
The best conservatism balances support for free markets with a Judeo-Christian spirit of charity, compassion and solidarity. Cruz replaces this spirit with spartan belligerence. He sows bitterness, influences his followers to lose all sense of proportion and teaches them to answer hate with hate. This Trump-Cruz conservatism looks more like tribal, blood and soil European conservatism than the pluralistic American kind.
Evangelicals and other conservatives have had their best influence on American politics when they have proceeded in a spirit of personalism – when they have answered hostility with service and emphasized the infinite dignity of each person. They have won elections as happy and hopeful warriors. Cruz’s brutal, fear-driven, apocalypse-based approach is the antithesis of that.