The Paranoid Style of Ted Cruz

Shouting fire in a room crowded with New Hampshire conservatives sends them running—not for the exits, but straight to the polls.

Joel Page/Reuters

Last weekend, as Ted Cruz gave a speech in New Hampshire, the likely Republican presidential candidate was interrupted by a three-year-old named Julia. “The Obama economy is a disaster, Obamacare is a train wreck and the Obama-Clinton foreign policy of leading from behind—the whole world is on fire,” Cruz told the crowd. “The world is on fire?” replied the obviously concerned Julia. “Yes,” Cruz said. “Your world is on fire.”

Multiple media outlets pounced on the exchange, with headlines ranging from “Cruz Scares Young Girl With Fiery NH Speech” to "Ted Cruz’s Speech Terrifies 3 Year-Old-Girl." The girl’s mother, Julie Trant, took to “Fox and Friends” to set the story straight, explaining that her daughter wasn’t afraid of Cruz. “She thought he was a firefighter,” Trant said. “She looked at him like he was a hero.”

It’s easy to dismiss the exchange between Cruz and his three-year-old supporter as sensationalism. But the interaction also highlights Cruz’s ability to rally support by using apocalyptic or even conspiratorial language. Although many in the media find Cruz’s use of such hyperbolic language alienating, there’s strong reason to believe that it actually has the opposite effect on his audience. In fact, throughout his career Cruz has relied on fire and brimstone rhetoric to create a world that trades ambiguity for absolutes. What’s more, Julia’s reaction to Senator Cruz as a hero—a firefighter, according to her mother—offers insight into why Cruz (and politicians in general) choose to employ this type of overly exaggerated speech in the first place.

Historian Richard Hofstadter described the use of “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” in American political life. Hofstadter called this phenomenon “the American paranoid style,” built on the perpetuation of conspiracy theories and the use of apocalyptic prose.  “[The] demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals,” Hofstadter wrote. “Since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration.”

While this style has been employed by both the right and the left, one place it finds current expression is in Cruz’s appeals to conservative and Tea Party audiences. The freshman senator’s willingness to stand up and fight for “hopelessly unrealistic goals” was perhaps clearest during his 21-hour-and-19-minute Senate filibuster to defund Obamacare in 2013. "I will say standing here after 14 hours, standing on your feet, there's sometimes some pain, sometimes some fatigue that is involved,” Cruz told the Senate chamber. “But you know what? There's far more pain involved in rolling over, far more pain in hiding in the shadows, far more pain in not standing for principle, not standing for the good, not standing for integrity."

Although Senator Cruz’s speech had no serious chance of derailing the Affordable Care Act, his hours-long rebuke of Obamacare resonated with supporters. “I’m proud of our good friend Ted Cruz, who is doing what he promised voters he would do, which is fight at every turn to protect American families and businesses from the President’s disastrous health care law,” wrote Tea Party Express Chairman Amy Kremer afterwards.

Last week, on Late Night, Seth Meyers chided Cruz on the filibuster. “How’d it go?” Myers asked. “It actually went fabulously, because right now, Obamacare has 37 percent approval rating and as a result of Obamacare, Harry Reid and the Democrats lost the Senate, and in 2016, I think we're gonna see a very different election result," Cruz said. Whether or not Cruz’s rhetoric actually helped the GOP in 2014, it’s clear that Cruz’s virulent opposition to Obamacare (and virtually any other Obama policy) has given him a strong base of conservative support ahead of a possible 2016 presidential campaign. Cruz came in third in last month’s CPAC straw poll behind Rand Paul and Scott Walker.

Senator Cruz has also followed another tenet of Hofstadter’s paranoid style with his use of selective evidence and subtle innuendo to insinuate possible widespread liberal—and often foreign—conspiracies. “One of the impressive things about paranoid literature is the contrast between its fantasied conclusions and the concern with factuality it shows,” Hofstadter writes. “It produces heroic strivings for evidence to prove that the unbelievable is the only thing that can be believed.”

In 2010, the former Texas solicitor general claimed that Harvard Law School had employed a dozen communist professors during the time he studied there. Running for office in 2012, Cruz warned supporters about a George Soros-led United Nations environmental initiative to banish golf courses from the local American communities. And during former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s nominating hearing in 2012, Cruz earned rebukes from both Democrats and Republicans for questioning Hagel’s character. Among other things, Cruz insinuated that Hagel had taken money from foreign governments, didn’t fully support Israel, and that his nomination was being “publicly celebrated by the Iranian government” (a claim that was, at the very least, exaggerated). These intricate conspiracies avoid the ambiguity of reality in exchange for simple and easy to understand narratives. Instead of wading into complex issues and weighing ramifications, Cruz sets up straw men, which are easy—indeed, necessary—to oppose.

While Cruz’s style may have irritated some in the Republican Party’s more moderate center, his rhetoric has turned the freshman Senator into a conservative rock star virtually overnight. After less than two years in the Senate, Cruz has positioned himself to make waves on a Republican debate stage in 2016  and to compete as a more conservative alternative to Jeb Bush or Scott Walker. What’s more, it’s likely that Cruz’s popularity among the conservative base in Texas will ensure his re-election should he decide to run for a second term in the Senate in 2018. Although media pundits and the Washington establishment may assume that Cruz’s apocalyptic rhetoric is alienating to audiences, his success would suggest that it is having the opposite effect. By creating a world that deals in black and white, the Texas freshman provides his supporters with a comforting degree of clarity amid the bewildering complexities of reality.

Like the three-year-old Julia, supporters may conclude that if the world is on fire, Ted Cruz is just the man to put it out. Cruz is well aware that shouting fire in a room crowded with New Hampshire conservatives doesn’t send them running for the exits, but rather, running straight to the polls.