It was late out. So late it was almost early. Almost, but not yet—the timers on the upside-down soft-serve lightbulbs that lined the balconies and shone down on all the little stairwell moths still having a few hours life left in them. From my bed, through a gap by the door where the curtains didn’t quite meet, I could see broken branches sitting on the tired sidewalks, cracking with their untreated off-ramp blues. The worn out husk of Tommy James of Tommy James & The Shondells fame looked out at me from the TV screen as he narrated clips of himself as a young man along with all his other once young, now old friends, telling me that I could buy, for a one time special offer of just 5 easy payments of $29.99, a piece of his past or my past or somebody else’s past that I didn’t know I wanted, but now need.
78 channels on the TV, Wi-Fi on my laptop, an app on my phone filled with every song known to man and I was watching a damn Time-Life infomercial. 10 seconds of a song and switch; each one on the screen just long enough to dig into my ear before the next song replaced it. Every so often, the infomercial would switch over to Tommy and his QVC Stepford co-host sitting in the back of a refurbished VW Microbus waxing nostalgic about be-ins and love-ins and protests and all the other revolutionary ideas much of his generation at least dabbled in during their day—much, but not all. Because for every Kent State student that grew old after risking their lives in protest, there was a National Guardsman who tried to snuff out that life and grew old all the same.
Just a few hours earlier, I found myself surrounded by the ideological progeny of those Guardsmen and the conservative counter-revolution which they embodied. Against my better judgment, I had traveled that day from my home in Cincinnati to the northeastern corner of Iowa with the express purpose of attending a fundraiser organized by The Dubuque County GOP and headlined by 2016 Presidential candidate and Tea Party darling Ted Cruz. After 500 miles of driving on interstates and state routes and, eventually, a long stretch of gravel road, I arrived at the Park Farm Winery—a shining vineyard on a hill in the middle of nowhere and, most importantly, sufficiently removed from the streets of Dubuque itself, which is lousy with all manner of Democrats, liberals and progressives.
By the time I got there, a small flotilla of luxury land yachts, SUVs and the odd pick-up had spread themselves across every square foot of parking space, the overflow spilling onto the winery’s front lawn and down the sides of its long, sloping driveway. I wheeled my car around and managed to find my way down a service entrance in back that took me down to the bottom of another hill, where I parked in the shadow of a maintenance shed next to some farm equipment. Once I made my way up to the reception area, I was given a stiff greeting and told to go over to the registration table to sign in. There, a sour faced woman scoured a spreadsheet looking for my name and, having found it, gave me a name tag that I was loathe to put on as it was adorned with a watermark of the GOP elephant.
Ted Cruz after an applause line during his remarks at the Dubuque County GOP Fundraiser(AP Photo/Telegraph Herald, Nicki Kohl)
Thus branded, I ducked into the billowy white party tent that had been set up for the bulk of the crowd as the “VIPs” mixed and mingled with the presidential aspirant behind closed doors and sat down at a table to wait. Not long after I had settled in, a young man took a seat beside me. He wasn’t like most of the folks there, who were very much at home sipping wine at a fancy vineyard in their button-downs and high-waisted chinos. No, this boy was straight country. He may have owned a few collared shirts and a pair of dress slacks, but those things we probably reserved for weddings and funerals and christenings and the like. An American flag t-shirt and a pair of Wranglers were sufficient for a presidential fundraiser in his eyes and, when paired with his tousled hair and scraggly chinstrap beard, the boy’s get up made him look like some sort of hillbilly satyr.
“Hell of a turnout, don’tcha think?” the satyr declared fiddling about with a belt buckle the size of my fist as he talked. I told him that I did indeed think it was one hell of a turnout and he smiled, rocking back onto the hind legs of his white wedding reception chair. “And they say conservatives can’t attract young people,” he remarked, his voice equal parts proud and derisive. “Look around here, man. There’s got to be at least two dozen folks around here that are college age or younger. We’re gonna get the youth vote this time around, I’m telling you.”
“And how old are you, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“I’m 19.” the kid said. “But I’ve been doing this sort of stuff since I was 15 or 16—however old you are when you’re a freshman in high school. That was around the time the whole Tea Party movement got off the ground and I guess I just got caught up in it.”
“You got a horse in this race?”
“Not really. I mean, I’m a big fan of Senator Cruz, but I don’t know how much of a chance he’s got to win. He might be able to come out on top after the primaries are over, but he’s just too principled to beat the Democrats in the general election. Cruz doesn’t pander to all the RINOs which is why I like him, but it’s also why he ain’t got much of a shot.”
“So, if it’s not gonna be Cruz, who would you want to see nominated?” I asked. “Carson? Rubio? Bush?”
“I’m a big Rubio fan.” he told me, “but I’d say Bush gives us the best chance to win. I really think he can help us out with the hispanic vote—what, having been the governor of Florida and all. Plus, I think his wife’s a Mexican, right? That’s got to be worth a percentage point or two in the general election.”
We talked for a couple minutes more about some of the other candidates—in addition to being Pro-Cruz and Pro-Bush, he was a supporter of pretty much everyone with an R after their name not named Chris Christie— before the event organizers opened up the winery doors to the rest of the fundraising rabble. As I made my way the event room, Senator Cruz was just finishing his prepared remarks to the swarm of reporters and local media assembled around him and was beginning to glad hand his way up to the front of the room. With campaign spokeswoman Catherine Frazier and a sizable press corps in tow, Cruz spoke with few supporters before reaching the makeshift stage, where he was introduced to the crowd by Rod Blum, the newly elected representative for Iowa’s 1st District who, if his false modesty and ideological obstinacy were any indication, was trying to become to the House what Cruz was to the Senate.
In person, Ted Cruz looks no more or no less goofy than one would expect after watching him on television. That night, he was dressed in standard upper-middle class dadwear: formless, navy windowpane suit jacket, blue oxford shirt and a pair of beige khakis. A more comely faced politico could have pulled it off just fine, but with his corn niblet front teeth and Happy Days haircut, Cruz came off looking more like a high school chemistry teacher than a serious threat to win the White House. However, while he didn’t look all that presidential, he certainly did his best to act the part. From the moment he started to speak, the senator from Texas had the rapt attention of everyone in front of him. His political cadence and rhythms were flawless. His anecdotes and stories were funny, but always delivered as the prelude to a talking point. He knew when to hit the gas and pump the brake, and the faithful in attendance rewarded him for it.
“We all know how bad things are. People are ready to move on. They’re ready to move on to turn the page and to bring things back.” Cruz told his audience at the beginning of his speech, echoing the refrain that has encapsulated the GOP’s messaging since the day President Obama took office. “What I want to talk to you about is reigniting the promise of America—getting back to the principles that made America strong. Getting back to the understanding that our rights, they don’t come from government. They come from God.”
It was jarring, even knowing the absurd ways in which Cruz regularly contorts the Constitution, to hear so blatant a falsehood uttered at a campaign event, with media all around to document his every word. As one could be forgiven for not knowing, considering the ideologically charged times we live in, the word “God” appears in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution a grand total of 0 times. The very first words of the first amendment of our nation’s most treasured document say, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The majority of our founding fathers were Deists, devotees to a branch of Christianity that completely eschewed the supernatural in favor of the enlightenment ideals of reason and observation; a faith that believed God to be like some great clockmaker in the sky who created the universe and, having wound it up, stepped aside to let the affairs of the earth and the cosmos work themselves out of their own accord. Hell, Thomas Jefferson—a man widely considered to be the intellectual and philosophical heart of our nation’s formative years—spent his free time cutting all of the miracles and otherworldly events out of the gospels with a razor blade to create his own, realist version of the Bible. Hopefully no one in the room was looking my way when Cruz was talking, or else they would have seen me shiver and softly shake my head, unable to hold my poker face as a US Senator referred to the Bill of Rights as a Christian document.
And thus it went for nearly an hour: Cruz makes a joke—the crowd bursts out in laughter—I try to smile and nod so as not to arouse suspicion. Cruz outlines a portion of his platform—the crowd applauds heartily—I make a half-assed, half-clap with my hand and my thigh, sipping on my Diet Coke to conceal the sadness and revulsion etched across my face. At the beginning of his speech, Cruz’s contradictions and falsehoods were easy enough to swallow. I could deal with the fact that he was using the Roaring Twenties and the Reagan Eighties as proof of the efficacy of eradicating government regulation of financial markets without mentioning The Great Depression and Black Monday that followed. I didn’t wince when he said that he wanted to institute a flat tax or when he went on a diatribe about how President Obama’s foreign policy had weakened America in the eyes of the world and opened her up to attack from Russia, Iran and the forces of radical Islamic terrorism. These remarks were consistent with everything I knew about Ted Cruz’s character and ideological outlook before that night. What I wasn’t ready for was the fear, delusion and naked hate that inhabited his remarks and which was emanating from the crowd assembled before him.
“The next 20 months are going to be a very dangerous 20 months,” Cruz told his supporters, “because we are right now in a state of nature—it is like Lord of The Flies—the limit of every bad actor is the limit of their own strength.”
The limit of every bad actor is the limit of their own strength. Those words rang in my ears for the rest of the night to the almost universal exclusion of every remark that followed because they illuminated in ways I had never considered the frightened heart of the Texas senator’s fundamentalist conservatism. To hear it from Cruz, America had devolved over the past quarter century from a bucolic champion of Christian freedom and free enterprise into some Hobbesian dystopia, ruled by an invasive tyrant and beset on all sides by malevolent, corrupting forces whose capacity for harm was capped only by the limits of his own imagination. This—this belief that all those who did not share his worldview were in cahoots to destroy the nation that he so loved with the reckless abandon of savage beasts—is what fuels the persecution complex that allows Cruz to earnestly believe that the white, Christian man is the most oppressed element of American society.
While Cruz was finishing up his remarks, I looked around the room at the sea of white faces that surrounded me. They seemed receptive to everything that the senator from Texas was saying, but their eyes grew wider and their applause louder whenever he would talk about getting back to the things that made America great. In fact, the only direction it seemed like Cruz wanted to take the United States was back. On at least a dozen occasions during his speech, Cruz invoked this idea of bringing America back to “common sense” principles—a phrase that has become a stand-in for every racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, oligarchic platform they happen to be pushing. Common sense principles—like the arguments for “states’ rights” and “religious liberty”—are little more than dog whistles Cruz and his right wing brethren use to advocate a return to the America of Ronald Reagan and George Wallace, where the poor were treated like pariahs and uppity minorities knew their place. They are the Trojan Horse that, if wheeled past the White House gates, will go about dismantling every last civil liberty and safety net our society has to offer. When Ted Cruz says he wants to take America back to its founding principles, he is not pledging to hold dear to the ideals of democracy and equality and tolerance advocated by our founders, but to resurrect all of the faults that made such ideals the luxury of propertied, white men.
After his speech was over I didn’t bother to stick around. All that talk of bringing back America’s star-spangled glory days might have pumped up the rest of the crowd, but the only place I wanted to go back to was my apartment in Cincinnati—or at the very least the faded floral insides of a cheap motel room where I could lie down under some starch stiff sheets and chain smoke the night away, watching clips of Janis in Monterey and Richie Havens at Woodstock and wondering why the place we want to go back to doesn’t look a little more like that.