Mitt Romney, once a Massachusetts moderate, was mocked four years ago for describing himself as “severely conservative”. Romney was undoubtedly a conservative, and his presidential platform would put him way on the rightmost edges of mainstream political discourse in the UK. But to see a genuinely “severe” conservative, we only had to wait for the four-year cycle to roll around once more.
No, not Donald Trump. Ted Cruz, the Texan Senator. Cruz is very, very conservative. His policy positions are broadly archetypal of the modern Republican party, but taken to their most extreme limits.
He is, of course, anti same-sex marriage, but he went further by also supporting “unequivocally” Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who was jailed for contempt of court after refusing to issue marriage licences to same-sex couples.
He is, naturally, opposed to reducing carbon emissions – in fact, Cruz doesn’t believe that global warming is even happening.
He believes so strongly that American foreign policy has failed over the past eight years that he claimed that, on account of “Obama-Clinton” policies, “the whole world is on fire”.
Yes, Cruz is a severe conservative. What’s more, currently running in a not-too-distant second to Trump in the delegate tally, he may also be the Republican party’s best chance of stopping the business magnate. On Saturday, Cruz won contests in Kansas and Maine, and took the same number of delegates as Trump from Louisiana after finishing a close second. His path to the nomination is still difficult to see, but he is clearly in second place, with nearly double the number of delegates as Marco Rubio.
Trump, by contrast, is not really a conservative. He is a populist, an aggravator, and a narcissist affecting various extreme stances for a disillusioned Republican electorate. In fact, Trump does particularly well among self-identified moderate Republicans, perhaps because of his lack of interest in cutting social security, and his qualified defence of Planned Parenthood, the biggest provider of reproductive health services, including abortion, in the US.
Whose proximity to the presidency is more terrifying? Ted Cruz or Donald Trump’s? Severe conservatism or insincere populism? Or, as leftwing commentator Owen Jones puts it, TB or cholera?
Some liberals appear to think that Trump is the more benign, or rather less malevolent, force. The argument runs something like this. Yes, Trump has said some horrifying things. But he doesn’t really believe it, as his repeated switches in party registration show (since 1987, he was registered as a Democrat, then a Republican, then Reform, then a Democrat, then an Independent, then a Republican). Indeed, when he left the Republican Party in 1999, his stated reason was “I just believe that the Republicans are just too crazy right”.
So, not only is Trump more moderate on some issues than Cruz, but if he were to become president he would abandon some of the more unsavoury and unenforceable parts of his prospectus. He wouldn’t actually build a wall along the Mexican border, and he wouldn’t actually ban all Muslim immigration. These are just radical initial negotiating positions, mere affectations from a clever but nasty man with a good idea of what the poorly educated and the desperately poor want to hear.
By contrast, Cruz believes what he says. Sure, his policy platforms involve the usual finesses of a politician running for elected office, but his trenchant conservatism was honed at Princeton, at Harvard, as an adviser to George W Bush and as Texas’ solicitor general. He has thought hard about what he would like to do as president, and this is what he has come up with. Trump plays on voters’ fears because he thinks it will curry support; Cruz plays on their fears because he harbours the very same fears.
I follow that reasoning, I just draw the opposite conclusion. Trump is the more worrying prospect precisely because he doesn’t believe what he says.
First, there is the pragmatic electoral case. If Trump secures the Republican nomination, it would be little surprise to see him tack to the centre and make a serious play for the votes of Democrats and independents. It’s still likely that Hillary Clinton would be able to repel that challenge, but Trump has shown a remarkable ability to cloud out accusations of hypocrisy with pugilistic rhetoric and abrasive charisma.
Were Cruz the candidate, there would be scant moderation of his views. Clinton can go into battle against Cruz armed with liberal ideas; a contest with Trump, whose populist appeal is far more nebulous, would be less straightforward. Either way, it will be a dirty campaign that will aggressively target the personality of the first woman presidential candidate, but there’s plenty of reason to think that Trump would fare better than Cruz.
Second, and probably more importantly, there is a principled case for Cruz over Trump. Cruz wants to be president to do something, and we broadly know what that something is. Trump doubtless never expected to get this far and it’s still unclear what he would actually do if he became president, other than paint the White House gold and rename it the Trump House.
The motivation matters. It may be worrying for American liberals to see so many endorsing Cruz’s ideals. It is surely far more worrying to see people finding their political salvation in a man who does not even believe what he is telling them. A Cruz presidency would threaten many central tenets of the post-New Deal American state. A Trump presidency would threaten American democracy. I hope neither transpires, but I know which I’d prefer.