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Better Off Ted

The Empty Empathy of Ted Cruz

The Texas senator was unique among Republicans in his kinder and gentler response to John Fetterman’s mental health struggles. If only he could be consistent!

Kent Nishimura/Getty Images

When Senator John Fetterman announced that he was seeking inpatient treatment for severe depression, mental health advocates braced for an onslaught of the same callous ableism that characterized Republicans’ responses to Fetterman’s decision to campaign for office through his recovery from a stroke. Back then, leading conservative intellectual lights such as Donald Trump Jr. felt free to riff on Fetterman’s fight through auditory processing issues: “I believe that if you’re going to be in the United States senator, you should have basic cognitive function,” Trump said, asserting that only the Republican party demands its candidates “not have mush for brains.” When President Joe Biden appeared on the stump with Fetterman, Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel mocked both Fetterman’s recovery as well as the stutter that still lurks around the edges of Biden’s speech, theorizing the pitch Biden might have made to the then–Pennsylvania lieutenant governor like so: “Between the two of us, we may be able to finish a full sentence.

And, sure enough, even by the extremely low standards conservatives set for themselves, their reactions to Fetterman’s decision to seek treatment were pretty bad! They ranged from straightforward dismissals (“Unfit to serve,” according to Tucker Carlson) to more elaborate conspiracy theories that added a streak of misogyny to the ableism, casting doubt about the dark ambitions of Fetterman’s wife. As a guest on Laura Ingraham’s show put it: “It feels very much like a Lady Macbeth situation.” (Enjoy those Shakespeare references while you can, Fox viewers! At some point, Republicans are going to find out about cross-dressing in Elizabethan theater.)

But you know who was pretty cool about the whole thing? Ted fucking Cruz, that’s who! “Mental illness is real & serious and I hope that he gets the care he needs,” the notorious asshole wrote on Twitter. “Regardless of which side of the political aisle you’re on, please respect his family’s request for privacy.” I know, right? He added, “Heidi & I are lifting John up in prayer.” Cruz’s grace here is even more notable given that Cruz was only too happy to join in the mockery of the apparent confusion Fetterman showed in his Senate campaign debate, hopping on a stage to introduce a congressional candidate with this line: “By the way, in honor of John Fetterman, I suppose I should start by just saying goodnight!”

Cruz’s restraint and care here are, I should say, noteworthy, but not necessarily surprising if you are—like me—gifted with the kind of iron constitution that can stomach knowing more about Ted Cruz than one gets from general political news. Your average MSNBC consumer probably doesn’t know that when it comes to mental health issues, Cruz has benefited from the precise kind of respect for privacy he invoked regarding Fetterman’s diagnosis and his family.

The paucity of coverage around Cruz’s family’s challenges is almost heartening, considering ::waves hands around::. We mostly know only what Cruz has allowed to be known. In his 2015 campaign autobiography, Cruz revealed his father’s alcohol abuse and his sister’s death from an accidental drug overdose. In 2015, BuzzFeed uncovered a 2005 incident when, late on a Monday night, Austin police picked up his wife, Heidi, after a concerned passerby saw a middle-aged woman in a pink shirt sitting with her head in her hands on the median of a busy highway and the responding officer determined her to be “a danger to herself.” Cruz’s book doesn’t mention the incident but does note that Heidi “face[d] a period of depression” that wound up being “an important spiritual turning point for us both.”

The Cruz family has asked for privacy in the past, and people have respected it. Which is the right thing to do. I feel uncertain even calling attention to his family history now—I agree with him that families should generally be left to work out their health issues (mental or physical) between themselves and their caregivers. Ted Cruz’s respect for privacy when it comes to Fetterman’s and his family’s mental health and lack of respect for privacy when it comes to, say, reproductive organs does make him a hypocrite, but hypocrisy is not what concerns me here. The problem is that while Ted Cruz has been moved by Fetterman’s plight to reach a basic level of humanity, it only seems to be because his family has already suffered so much from the exact same sorts of tragedies.

I suppose it would have taken having a stroke survivor in the family for him to refrain from dad jokes about Fetterman’s verbal flubs? And what about the time Cruz alerted his five million Twitter followers to the pregnancy of a trans preschool teacher? He quote-tweeted a screenshot of the school’s note to parents (which included the teacher’s full name), only adding the snarky riposte: “Not satire.” If he had a loved one struggling to navigate our cis-normative world, would he have found that preschool teacher’s (we are talking about a preschool teacher) plight so dryly hilarious or so worthy of public mockery?

Obviously, a lot of politicians—hell, most people—suddenly discover policy gray areas when their loved ones’ needs run counter to it. I think what horrifies me here is that I’m not talking about policy. I’m not asking what level of tragedy it might take to get Cruz to change his mind, I’m noting the extremity of circumstances that it took for Cruz to just not be a complete dick about things.

Frankly, I’m not quite psychotic enough to imagine what horrors it would take to get Cruz to grow his small nubbin of empathy into a real political conscience. I’m not even going to speculate—after all, this is a man who met with the grieving parents of children who died in the Uvalde shooting (great start!) and then told them the best way to prevent school shootings was “increasing law enforcement presence” on campuses. (I know this is a standard GOP deflection, but to say that to this particular group of parents?)

To ponder Cruz’s evolution from “the absolute least one can do” to “actually helping” is to gaze into the abyss. I don’t know to what God Cruz and his wife are offering up their prayers for Fetterman; I can only hope it’s one who isn’t quite as cruel as Ted Cruz.

* This article has been updated.