The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

David Brooks’s choice words on Cruz — ‘satanic,’ ‘pagan’ — draw fire and a little brimstone

Ted Cruz exits the presidential race

Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks with his wife, Heidi, by his side during a primary night campaign event, Tuesday, May 3, 2016, in Indianapolis. Cruz ended his presidential campaign, eliminating the biggest impediment to Donald Trump's march to the Republican nomination. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Is it appropriate for one of the most respected newspaper columnists in America to describe a major presidential contender as “satanic” in his tone? For better or worse, that is the phrase David Brooks of the New York Times used to describe Republican Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) — and the brash declaration from the typically unflappable author, an apostle of civility in politics, has kicked up an unholy ruckus Beelzebub might appreciate. So has his latest column on Cruz, “The Brutalism of Ted Cruz.”

His words on TV jarred the sensibility of “PBS Newshour’s” gentle Judy Woodruff. On the right, one less gentle conservative critic is calling Brooks “unglued” by Cruz.

Brooks’s poisoned arrows have flown at Cruz from the pages of the Gray Lady and from his perch as a moderate Republican television commentator. At first, his message, like Brooks himself, was relatively restrained.

The exchanges underscore the much-discussed chasm between the few moderate Republicans of prominence in the party and the likes of newcomers such as Cruz and Donald Trump, whom old Washington hands not only consider too extreme but uncouth and even dangerous. While GOP flamethrowers such as former congresswoman Michele Bachmann of Minnesota could be dismissed, Cruz, with his Harvard Law School and Supreme Court clerk pedigree — not to mention his appeal to many Republicans — cannot.

“Republicans used to be split between economic and social conservatives. But this year the big fight is tactical,” Brooks wrote in September. “One group wants to rip up the political process and disrupt everything. Renounce the Iran deal on Day 1, no matter what our allies say. Ignore the Supreme Court and effectively disallow gay marriage. Shut down the government to defund Planned Parenthood. Magically deport the 11 million illegal immigrants. This is more or less the Bobby Jindal-Ted Cruz wing. … The others, like Lindsey Graham, John Kasich and Jeb Bush, live within the confines of reality.”

Around Halloween, Brooks got a bit more personal.

“Ted Cruz looks likely to emerge as the candidate of the disaffected white working class — the noncollege-educated voters who are now registering their alienation and distrust with Trump,” Brooks wrote. “But there aren’t enough of those voters in the primary electorate to beat Rubio, and Cruz just isn’t likable enough to build a national campaign around.”

As the holidays approached, the spirit did not move Brooks. Quite the opposite.

“There are two types of Machiavellians in politics,” Brooks wrote in December, “Selfish Machiavellians and Kind Machiavellians. The Selfish ones are the ones we usually think of — the nakedly ambitious people who are always strategizing, sometimes ruthlessly, for their own personal advantage. The Kind Machiavellians realize that it’s smart to get along with people, so they pick their friendships strategically, feigning affection toward those who might be useful. In Washington and maybe in life, there are many more Kind Machiavellians than Selfish ones. But Ted Cruz has always stood out for being nakedly ambitious for himself.”

And just days ago, Brooks all but threw down the gauntlet in a column called “The Brutalism of Ted Cruz,” which focused on a court case in which Cruz was involved while solicitor general of Texas.

“Ted Cruz is now running strongly among evangelical voters, especially in Iowa. But in his career and public presentation Cruz is a stranger to most of what would generally be considered the Christian virtues: humility, mercy, compassion and grace,” he wrote. He added: “Cruz’s speeches are marked by what you might call pagan brutalism. There is not a hint of compassion, gentleness and mercy.”

But the words that attracted the most attention were not in the New York Times, but in a Jan. 8 appearance on “PBS Newshour,” where Brooks is a weekly regular.

“Cruz is somehow beginning to get some momentum from Iowa and elsewhere,” Brooks said. “And so people are either mimicking him, which Rubio is doing a little by adopting some of the dark and satanic tones that Cruz has, and so —”

Host Judy Woodruff heard a needle scratch. “What did you — let me just ask, what did you just say?” she said.

Brooks tried to explain.

“Well, if you go to a Cruz — if you watch a Cruz speech, it’s like, we have got this enemy, we have got that enemy, we’re going to stomp on this person, we’re going to crush that person, we’re going to destroy that person,” Brooks said. “It is an ugly world in Ted Cruz’s world. And it’s combative. And it’s angry, and it’s apocalyptic.”

After some laughter among the panelists and further consideration, Brooks retreated. A bit.

“Well, I withdraw the satanic from Ted Cruz,” he said. “… Mephistophelian, maybe.” He added: “It’s dark and combative and, frankly, harsh. It’s a harsh — he gets some jokes in the beginning, but then it’s just, we have enemies. We’re in an apocalyptic situation. We’re on the edge of the abyss. You need a tough guy to beat that back. And that’s his personality.”

Brooks, along with most of Cruz’s Republican colleagues in the Senate, has never hidden his contempt for Cruz, a first-term Texan who came to Washington with the promise of being disruptive, a vow he’s kept.

“It doesn’t help that he has a face that looks a little like Joe McCarthy, actually,” Brooks said of the senator in 2013. “I just — I find him a little off-putting.”

Cruz noted the remark when responding to the “satanic” imbroglio. “When I was elected [Brooks] said he ‘didn’t like my face’ and now he says I’m ‘Satanic,'” the candidate wrote on Twitter.

Coming from Brooks — considered a “RINO,” a Republican-in-name-only, by some in the GOP — such broadsides are a bit out of character. While people have said a lot of nasty things about Cruz, no columnist of Brooks’s stature has been quite as vivid — critics would say vitriolic.

[Nikki Haley: The ‘GOP’s Obama’]

“This man is not the one to lecture about ‘answering hate with hate’ and ‘losing all sense of proportion,'” Brent Bozell wrote on the conservative news site, quoting from Brooks’s recent “Brutalism” piece on Cruz. “He comes unglued when he talks about Cruz.”

“David Brooks’ all out assault on Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) has reached unforeseen heights,” Ben Shapiro wrote in the Daily Wire, “with a column in which he labels Cruz ‘brutal’ and un-Christian for his harsh rhetoric against the left.” He called Brooks’s attack “reprehensible” and “religiously bigoted.”

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