On Monday, a few hours before Donald Trump called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” Ted Cruz was asked whether he expects Trump to come after him, now that one leading poll has the Texas senator ahead in the coveted early voting state of Iowa. “Listen, I like and respect Donald Trump,” said Cruz. “I continue to like and respect Donald Trump. While other candidates in this race have gone out of their way to throw rocks at him, to insult him, I have consistently declined to do so, and I have no intention of changing that now.”
True to his word, Cruz refused to join the pack of Republican hopefuls who piled onto the front-runner’s latest obscenity. At a press conference the following morning to announce a Senate bill barring the resettlement of Syrian refugees, Cruz appeared alongside Texas Governor Greg Abbott and continued to dance around the question of Trump’s naked racism, at one point commending the Donald for “focusing the American people’s attention” on the urgency of fending off foreign invaders. Pressed for a direct response to Trump’s ban on Muslims, Cruz finally conceded, “I do not agree with [Trump’s] proposal. I do not think it is the right solution.”
The right solution, you may be surprised to learn, is Cruz’s solution, which he just happened to introduce in the Senate the morning after Trump belched out his own. The modestly titled “Terrorist Refugee Infiltration Prevention Act” would substitute Trump’s blanket, possibly unconstitutional ban with a more targeted—and, in certain senses, crueler—three-year moratorium on the resettlement of refugees from Syria, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, and any other country determined to contain “terrorist-controlled territory.” Where Trump’s answer is typically lacking in nuance, Cruz’s bill is designed to “focus very directly on the threat.” He’s casting it as the principled, measured alternative to a vaguely defined problem that both candidates insist exists.
“This is not about the Islamic faith,” Cruz explained to NPR’s Steve Inskeep on Wednesday. “It is about Islamism, which is a very different thing.” The conservatives Cruz is courting don’t appear to recognize the distinction, and it would be naive to think that Cruz isn’t perfectly aware of that. According to a new Bloomberg poll, two-thirds of likely Republican voters support Trump’s indiscriminate prohibition; one-third say it makes them more inclined to vote for him.
If Cruz truly wanted to set his intentions apart from Trump’s, he could start by refuting the white-supremacist propaganda Trump has pointed to as evidence that “Muslim” is indeed synonymous with “terrorist sympathizer.” But Cruz, the champion debater and seasoned appellate attorney, is careful to present his disagreement with Trump as rooted in policy, not premise. “That is not my view of how we should approach it,” Cruz told NPR. He’s happy to let voters decide what the “it” is.
Trump’s precipitous descent into outright fascism is widely considered to be a problem for the GOP—and in some ways it is. But for Cruz, never a party loyalist to begin with, it’s also created a unique opportunity to channel the energies of racial anxiety into a comparatively palatable, mainstream campaign for the presidency. A number of commentators have noted that Cruz is positioning himself to consolidate Trump’s support in the eventual event of his collapse—which, we keep being told, will be arriving any day now.
But the net, and more dangerous, effect of Cruz’s strategy is to legitimize the racism that informs Trump’s. Two weeks ago, Cruz was on the extreme end of a national debate over admitting people fleeing the ravages of countries the United States has made war on. By allowing Trump to “effectively outbid” him in the wake of the San Bernadino massacre, as NPR’s Inskeep put it, Cruz has come out looking relatively moderate and responsible in an entirely new discussion about whether the basis of U.S. policy should be overt xenophobia or implied xenophobia.
Each of the remaining Republican contenders is cognizant of the need to create rhetorical distance from Trump without disavowing the sentiments he’s churned up from below. Carly Fiorina called closing the borders to Muslims an “overreaction”—a euphemism that became a false equivalence when she compared it to President Obama’s “dangerous” underreaction to the supposed threat. Marco Rubio criticized the form of Trump’s comments but not their substance, saying only that Trump’s “habit of making offensive and outlandish statements will not bring Americans together.” Jeb Bush, who supports imposing a religious test on the admission of refugees, called Trump “unhinged.” Ben Carson, who disagrees with Trump’s proposed ban because he does “not advocate being selective on one’s religion,” has previously stated that a Muslim shouldn’t be allowed to be president.
The other candidates may recognize the dilemma posed by the stubborn popularity of Trump’s ravings, but no one has been as deliberate, or effective, in incorporating the strains of white nationalism into their own overarching strategy as Cruz has. He’s hewed closely—but, critically, not too closely—to Trump’s noxious line on immigration and refugees, which Cruz frequently ties together with warnings of an impending invasion from the south. “Border security is national security,” he said in a statement on Sunday prior to President Obama’s address about terrorism and the San Bernadino shootings. “I will shut down the broken immigration system that is letting jihadists into our country,” he reiterated later.
So far, Trump’s flamboyant nativism has drawn all the scrutiny, leaving Cruz to concentrate on raising money and building out his ground game. He knows better than to openly embrace the most jarring of Trump’s flourishes, but he won’t attack them, either—and when others do, Cruz is right there holding the flank. President Obama sounds like a “condescending school marm lecturing the American people against Islamophobia,” Cruz told NPR’s Inskeep. At the last Republican debate, he invoked his Cuban-American heritage as a cover for the field’s more general shift in the direction of mass deportation and wall-building: “For those of us who believe people ought to come to this country legally, and we should enforce the law, we’re tired of being told it’s anti-immigrant. It’s offensive.” Two weeks later, campaigning on the road in Iowa alongside Representative Steve “Cantaloupe Calves” King of Iowa, perhaps the most aggressively ignorant anti-immigration crusader in Congress, Cruz assured reporters that “tone matters” when it comes to these issues.
In an effort to explain his latest step down the road to the internment camp, some have speculated that Trump is attempting to fend off Cruz’s surging poll numbers. If so, he misunderstands the nature of Cruz’s maneuvering, as well as the depth of Cruz’s patience. With each reflexive lurch toward a darker, more explicitly ugly politics, Trump draws more attention to himself but also clears more ideological space for Cruz. Lindsey Graham, who’s polling somewhere ahead of Louis Farrakhan in the race for the Republican nomination, told the Guardian, “It’s time for Ted Cruz to quit hiding in the weeds and speak out against Donald Trump’s xenophobia and racial bigotry.”
But Ted Cruz likes it in the weeds just fine. He’s made it this far trudging through the muck, and there’s no reason for him to change course anytime soon.