In 2016, he gave it a shot — only to see Donald Trump emerge from the world of celebrity to more effectively speak to Cruz’s intended voters. Cruz was at a disadvantage, to be fair; he was still bound to at least some degree by his constituents and by some sense of what was and wasn’t acceptable in politics. Trump was simply adhering to right-wing rhetoric and cable-news commentary, as were many of the people who wound up supporting him.
As the Trump presidency unfolded, Cruz largely stood by him. After all, someone, at some point, would inherit that base of political support. Why not him? So over and over, Cruz has leveraged his college-debate-champ savvy on behalf of the president he once described as a “sniveling coward.”
After Trump lost the 2020 presidential election, Cruz stood with Trump as the president repeatedly misled his supporters about alleged voter fraud. As weeks went on and no evidence of said fraud emerged, Cruz and other Republicans on Capitol Hill were silent, betting that it was politically safer to stick with Trump than to stand with reality. When Trump’s efforts to seize a second consecutive term by subverting the will of the voters narrowed down to an effort to obstruct the formal counting of electoral votes on Jan. 6, Cruz jumped to the front of the line to promote the effort in the Senate.
On Wednesday, the time came for Cruz to make his case for why the transfer of power mandated by the Constitution should not occur.
“Mr. President,” he began, referring to the president of the Senate, “we gather together at a moment of great division, at a moment of great passion.”
“We have seen and no doubt will continue to see a great deal of moralizing from both sides of the aisle,” he continued. “But I would urge to both sides, perhaps a bit less certitude and a bit more recognition that we are gathered at a time when democracy is in crisis.”
How? Not because the president of the United States was lying to the public to seize power. No. Because the president’s supporters believed him.
“Recent polling shows that 39 percent of Americans believe the election that just occurred, quote, was rigged,” Cruz said. “You may not agree with that assessment. But it is nonetheless a reality for nearly half the country.”
After noting that this wasn’t limited to Republicans, he continued.
“Even if you do not share that conviction, it is the responsibility, I believe, of this office to acknowledge that it is a profound threat to this country and to the legitimacy of any administrations that will come in the future,” he said.
Cruz went on like this for a while, including claiming that the deeply corrupted determination of the 1876 presidential election might serve as a positive example of what could be done. He then lamented that some might not treat voters with the respect they deserve.
“For those who respect the voters, simply telling the voters, go jump in a lake, the fact that you have deep concerns is of no moment to us?” Cruz said. “That jeopardizes, I believe, the legitimacy of this and subsequent elections.”
All of this, from start to finish, is dishonest opportunism. Trump — and through omission, Cruz — misled the public in service of their own power. It’s no more complicated than that. Trump and Cruz made obviously untrue claims to an aggravated electorate, knowing that the claims were inaccurate, so that they could maintain power (in Trump’s case) or soon gain it (in Cruz’s). Even as temperatures rose and even as Trump encouraged massive protests at the Capitol in an effort to pressure legislators, Cruz did nothing more than nod along.
“Let me be clear,” Cruz said in his speech: “I am not arguing for setting aside the result of this election.”
Senators faced two bad choices, he said, including that moving forward with certifying the electoral votes would mean that “tens of millions of Americans” would get the message that “voter fraud doesn’t matter, isn’t real and shouldn’t be taken seriously.”
Voter fraud at the scale being claimed by Trump isn’t real. In electoral terms, voter fraud almost never matters at all. Trump’s ostensible concerns about fraud should, in fact, not be taken seriously.
This was not Cruz’s first attempt to slyly thread the needle between what the far-right base wanted to hear and what was considered within the bounds of proper senatorial activity. But it was the first such attempt that took place against the backdrop of looming violence, of far-right protesters who had been actively discussing an armed insurrection making their way to Washington. Cruz, like Trump, figured he had a way to endear himself to the viper, to use it for his own advantage.
Within an hour of Cruz’s speech, a violent pro-Trump mob broke through a police line and forced their way into the Senate chamber itself. As of writing, the Capitol remains out of law enforcement’s control.
Cruz’s effort to walk the line failed. The viper devoured him. His speech Wednesday — a cynical effort to undermine democracy, some of the last words to echo in the chamber before he and his colleagues had to flee — will be one of his primary legacies.