The Republican groveled to Fox News and then posted an overly apologetic thread on Twitter, but he’s still learning all the wrong lessons
The problem with building a reputation as an unscrupulous troll is that when you put a foot wrong, you’ll never be allowed to forget it. So it goes with election-denier and snowstorm-dodger Ted Cruz, who this week made the astonishing faux pas of describing the deadly 6 January riot at the Capitol as an act of “terrorism”.
Of course, the self-described conservatives furious at him for doing so seem to have forgotten that he used the same word multiple times last January as the dust cleared. Nonetheless, by daring to use it this week, just as Democrats (and a bare handful of Republicans) prepared to commemorate both the riot and the lives it claimed, put Cruz at odds with the party line. So intense was the backlash from Republicans that he ended up in an on-air atonement appearance with Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, who tortured him with sassy chyrons and confined him to a tiny box before allowing him to speak.
Situated above the words “CRUZ’ING FOR A BRUISING: WHAT WAS TED CRUZ THINKING?”, Carlson began with a sugar-coated torpedo: “There are a lot of dumb people in the Congress. You’re not one of them. I think you’re smarter than I am, and you never use words carelessly. And yet, you called this a terror attack when by no definition was this a terror attack. That’s a lie. You told that lie on purpose, and I’m wondering why you did?”
“The way I phrased things yesterday,” Cruz replied, “was sloppy, and it was frankly dumb.” Undeterred, Carlson insisted, “I don’t buy that.” He reiterated his opinion that Cruz is too in control of himself to have used the word “terrorism” by accident – thus making him a liar. And so the tone was set.
It’s rare for Fox News to actually host someone it holds in this much contempt, rather than just carping about them to its audience — so the impetus to tangle with Tucker came from Cruz himself. And for someone who’s deliberately cultivated a persona of slick composure and smirking arrogance, Cruz sounded uncharacteristically desperate – not just in the on-air segment itself, but in the Twitter thread he put out as part of his flailing damage control effort.
“I was NOT calling the thousands of peaceful protestors on Jan 6 terrorists,” he tweeted. “I would never do so; I have repeatedly, explicitly said the OPPOSITE—denouncing the Democrats’ shameful efforts to do so & to try to paint every Trump voter in America as ‘terrorists’ & ‘insurrectionists’. I was ONLY talking about the limited number of people who committed violent assaults on police officers. For over a decade, I’ve referred to those who violently attack police officers as terrorists. If you assault a cop you should go to jail.”
The problem, of course, is that Carlson and his ilk are working hard to popularize a bizarre conspiracy theory in which those assaults on police variously did not happen, were deliberately staged, or only occurred because shadowy federal agents incited them – all the spearhead of an apparent plan to lock up “half the country” in gargantuan prison camps.
For them, the issue isn’t that Cruz called the riot an act of “terrorism”; it’s that he dared acknowledge that anything violent that occurred at the Capitol on January 6th was the volitional and independent action of a self-proclaimed “patriot”, no matter how many of them plead guilty to what they did. Whatever the reality, the rationale goes, this simply is not true.
One of the deepest paradoxes of the mainstream far right – for want of a better term – is that for all it insists on the supremacy of what passes for conservative common sense (particularly when it comes to race, class, sexuality and gender), it increasingly operates according to a morally untethered postmodern logic. This logic says the truth of an event doesn’t exist independently, but is instead determined by its context.
A police officer beaten by one person is a martyr to law and order, but the same officer beaten by a Trump supporter is a crisis actor deployed to facilitate what the Russian government and Matt Gaetz would call a “color revolution”. A left-wing anti-racist who throws a tear gas canister back towards a police line is a rioter, but a Trump supporter who carries their own bear spray into the US Capitol is a peaceful protester. And of course, a self-proclaimed multi-billionaire facing multiple legal investigations for alleged rape, alleged fraud and alleged complicity in a violent self-coup is the safeguard of law and order against a brutal crackdown led by a senile, milquetoast communist.
This looks like the same playbook of whataboutism and double standards used by political factions all over the world whenever they realize they’re losing an argument. But in reality, it’s something far crazier and more insidious. This is a cutthroat mentality whose organizing principle is the triumph of strength and authority over weakness and deviance. And the definitions of strength and weakness, authority and deviance, are changing all the time — sometimes by the hour.
Who deserves to win, or to lose? Who is today’s hero, villain, victim, perpetrator? Ted Cruz has been all of the above in just a matter of days. He is learning the hard way not just how easily triggered Carlson et al really are, but that no matter how much elbow grease you put in, as far as the conservative right are concerned, almost nothing and almost no one is sacred.
If he was ever in doubt, the sight of Donald Trump himself being booed by his own supporters for daring to get a Covid-19 booster shot should have been warning enough. And yet heeding warnings has never been a strength of this particular set of Republicans.