The Political Sociopath

Ted Cruz’s autobiography reveals a man with few values and infinite ambition.

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For someone who is so thoroughly disliked by anyone who ever meets him, for most of his life Ted Cruz has done inexplicably well at the political popularity contest. Political campaigning is supposed to be the art of winning people over, yet in his ascent to the U.S. Senate Cruz somehow managed to pull it off despite a total lack of charismatic warmth. Bill Clinton always had to be the most well-liked guy in the room; Ted Cruz will almost certainly be the least-liked guy in any room he ever enters.

It’s almost impossible to overstate the Texas senator’s off-putting qualities. Cruz’s senate colleagues unanimously despise him, and Sen. Lindsey Graham once made a “kidding-but-not-kidding” remark that if you killed Ted Cruz on the Senate floor, and the trial was held in the Senate, not a single Senator would vote to convict you. Cruz’s college roommate from Princeton has been asked to explain why he didn’t take the opportunity to smother Cruz in his sleep, and a neurologist has attempted to posit a biological theory for why Cruz’s face is so unsettling. Seemingly, the only real debate around Ted Cruz’s personal qualities is whether he’s better described as a “creep” or an “asshole.” Those who went to college with him knew him as a creep (it was the word most frequently offered when The Daily Beast interviewed his old classmates), citing his habit of lurking in the women’s hallway in his paisley bathrobe. On the other hand, those who worked with him on the Bush campaign in 2000 seemed unanimous in thinking him an asshole. Profiles of Cruz are filled with first-person accounts confirming his unpleasantness.

Consider a few:

  • “A classmate confided in Ted Cruz that her mother had gotten an abortion. Ted called her mother a whore.”
  • “We hadn’t left Manhattan before he asked my IQ…When I told him I didn’t know, he asked, ‘Well, what’s your SAT score? That’s closely coordinated with you IQ.’It went from, ‘Nice guy,’to ‘uh-oh.’”
  • “Ted’s style was sneering, smirking, condescending, jabbing his finger in your face—a naked desire to humiliate an opponent. No kindness, no empathy, no attempt to reach common ground.”

None of this is especially noteworthy in itself; the Ivy League and the Senate are swarming with the condescending and cretinous, though it must take a special kind of arrogance to make one’s self stand out as being uniquely insufferable among the Princeton undergraduate class. The real question is how someone this toxic could end up winning friends and influencing people. How could a man so downright eely (as Matt Taibbi memorably called him) get people to spend time around him, hand him money, and fill out ballots with his name on them? How could he get volunteers going door to door in support of him, people who have lives and families and surely some other things they could do than advance the career of a man so personally repellent?

This is a mystery that goes beyond Ted Cruz. Plenty of politicians are terrible people; this is universally acknowledged. But the voting public actually selects these people to be in charge. Nobody in Texas was forced to vote for Ted Cruz. George W. Bush, who makes a policy of never speaking ill of another Republican, was moved by the existence of Cruz to break his affability pledge for the first time, saying “I just don’t like the guy.” Indeed, nobody does. Yet Cruz won a Republican senate primary against Texas’s Lieutenant Governor, then a general election. The question, then, is how people that nobody likes can become extremely successful. We might predict that such people would be “losers”; because Ted Cruz is arrogant and nobody likes being around him, he has few friends and nobody wants to hire him to work with them. But the opposite is often true: they not only win, but rise and rise indefinitely. How do they do this? By what process does raw ambition subvert the ordinary rules of social success? Why do losers win, why do assholes finish first?

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Ted Cruz’s autobiography is as useful a place as any to begin the search for clues, to figure out how he has managed to make people give him whatever he wants without making any effort to get them to like him. To be sure, it’s a propaganda book, written specifically to aid his campaign for the presidency, but it’s clear that it wasn’t ghostwritten, and it therefore contains a number of useful insights into how Ted Cruz thinks about and presents himself. The first striking thing is how open Ted Cruz is about his prioritization of personal ambition over any kind of deeply held moral conviction. Cruz doesn’t speak very much about the formation of his conservative worldview. He does not portray himself as being concerned with the issues first and himself second. Instead, he sees aspirations toward humility as essentially dishonest:

Anyone considering running for office, as I was at the time, is supposed to act totally disinterested in the political process, to pose as the reluctant public servant only answering the call because the people need him or her so desperately. But that wasn’t the truth. Not for me.

For Cruz, then, ambition is a given; the only question is whether you’re going to pretend you don’t have it, or honestly admit that you do. Cruz gives himself points for telling the truth, but it’s notable that his worldview doesn’t allow for the existence of a genuine public servant, one who isn’t “posing.” Cruz cannot even conceive of the idea that someone would genuinely wish to serve others, would care about politics as something useful to society rather than the mere pursuit of personal success. This view of the world, in which everything is a game and the aim is to win, has been with Cruz since the beginning:

Midway through junior high school, I decided that I’d had enough of being the unpopular nerd. I remember sitting up one night asking why I wasn’t one of the popular kids. I ended up staying up most of that night thinking about it. ‘Okay, well, what is it that the popular kids do? I will consciously emulate that.’

Of course, Cruz doesn’t seem to have done a good job of emulating popularity, but it’s again notable how cynically he thinks about it. Popularity is desirable, thus you should ape the popular, then you will have the desirable thing, and thus you will have won. There’s not a moment’s thought that friendship is something intrinsically enjoyable, that people might like each other for reasons that go beyond their pursuit of particular self-interested ends.

So even as a teenager, Cruz’s only motivating force was political ambition. The 18-year-old Cruz spoke on camera of his desire for “world domination,” and he listed his life goals as: go to Princeton, go to Harvard Law, start a successful law practice, enter politics, become the President. Not a word about actually making the world better, understandable since Cruz thinks anyone professing a desire to serve others is lying.

The lack of talk about values in the book is almost stunning. Cruz describes what he has done, and how he did it, but he almost never talks about why he did it. Most politicians use the opportunity of a campaign book to explain and justify their principles; Cruz seems to believe that such an exercise would be dishonest. Indeed, if you don’t actually believe anything, it certainly would be.

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So one of the most surprising aspects of Ted Cruz’s book is that he doesn’t actually come across as being particularly conservative, at least not in the sense of believing that being a conservative is about holding a particular set of moral convictions that one thinks are beneficial to society. In fact, as he describes the world, he can offer facts that make him sound almost like a left-winger. Consider the way he talks about his grandparents’ indenture in Batista’s Cuba:

The store gave the families credit, and the sugar mill paid their salaries through the general store, which then took the money to pay their debt and (in theory) give them any remaining money. But, of course, no money ever remained, and the arrangement led to perpetual servitude.

Or the hope offered by America to his destitute immigrant father:

It is difficult for many of us to fully comprehend what a beacon of hope this country offers the rest of the world. There is no other place on earth that would have welcomed so freely to its shores a man like Rafael Cruz. He was eighteen, penniless, and spoke no English… Barack Obama, noting his own rise from humble beginnings, has observed that ‘in no other country on earth is my story even possible.’ My family can relate to that sentiment. In no other country would Rafael Cruz’s story even be possible.

The framing of these anecdotes is strange. In the first, Cruz describes a scenario in which ostensibly free market employment relationships created “perpetual servitude” for workers. In the second, Cruz speaks positively of America allowing poor, uneducated Hispanic immigrants to enter the country. Yet this is a man who supports untrammeled capitalism and massive new restrictions on immigration. Cruz’s official immigration platform proposes to evaluate potential new entrants to the country so as to “prioritize the interests and well-being of Americans,” with an immigrant more likely to be admitted based on their “language skills,” “formal education,” “resources to create jobs,” “ties to the United States,” and “lifetime earning potential.” It’s hard to see how Rafael Cruz, a broke teenager who spoke no English, would ever be admitted under such a regime, yet Cruz the younger is proud that America made his father’s story possible.

Such paradoxes occur repeatedly. Cruz’s background, as the child of an immigrant raised in a home with some family difficulties, has infected him with the kind of personal experiences that turn one left-wing. Yet he is committed to a rigid conservatism that prohibits him from allowing these facts to change his mind.

Consider an especially bizarre example of the tension between Ted Cruz’s knowledge and his behavior. Here, Cruz describes the sexism his mother experienced as a female computer programmer in the 1950s:

One need not be a devotee of Mad Men to understand what faced working women in the 1950s. Coming out of college, my mom deliberately didn’t learn how to type. She understood that men would stop her in the corridors of the Shell offices and ask her ‘Sweetheart, would you type this for me?’ With a clear conscience she could answer ‘I’d love to help, but I don’t know how to type!… I guess you’re just going to have to use me as a computer programmer instead.’

Later in the book, Cruz relates an anecdote from his time working alongside his wife, Heidi, on the Bush presidential campaign:

One day [Heidi] went into the office of Robert Zoellick, who was serving as Jim Baker’s de facto chief of staff. Sitting at his desk with his glasses perched on the tip of his nose, Bob peered up, and Heidi said ‘Bob, I just wanted to see, is there anything I can do to help?’ He said, ‘Yes. Grapefruit juice. I want grapefruit juice.’ And with that he went back to work.

Heidi came into the office where I was working hopping mad. ‘Damn it,’ she said. ‘I’ve got a Harvard MBA. I’ve worked on Wall Street as an investment banker. And his request for me is grapefruit juice!?’

After a moment, she asked me, ‘What do I do?’ I sympathized with her completely. Then I said, ‘Sweetheart, here are the car keys. Go get him grapefruit juice, right now.’

Cruz isn’t an idiot; he knows from what happened to his mother that being called “sweetheart” and told to perform some mindless task is miserable and demeaning. And yet he can talk about “what faced working women” in one passage, and participate in the replication of that very same behavior later on.

Isn’t this bizarre? Well, not really. It’s actually not much of a paradox at all; it just requires you to accept the twin conclusions that Ted Cruz is (1) quite perceptive and (2) not very nice. That should be easy enough to admit, and is in fact confirmed throughout the text.

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The thing about the autobiography, as others have noted, is that as a book it’s really not bad. It’s well-constructed and it isn’t boring. Cruz is a good writer, insofar as writing consists of selecting appropriate words and combining them into pleasingly rhythmic sentences. But that only serves to reinforce the point: Cruz is an intelligent person whose pathological ambition and ego keep him from allowing that intelligence to do any good. He should know better, but because he was born incapable of feeling inclinations other than self-interest, he will never follow his observations through to their implications if doing so might unsettle his convictions and cause him to stray from his path.

All of the observations of classmates and colleagues confirm this. Cruz at Princeton is described as someone who arrived with a sense of purpose and never strayed from it; he wanted to win, and he would do anything it took in order to do so. A reporter who met him during the Bush campaign said Cruz “was all pure unbridled ambition,” coming across as “a guy who would use whatever means necessary to get on top.” All of that makes Cruz much more frightening than a sincere conservative.

If you want snapshots of Cruz the asshole, you’ll find them in the book. Consider the following account of the birth of his child:

As she lay in the hospital bed, in labor, Heidi was typing furiously on her Blackberry, still tending to the needs of her clients. I admired her tenacious work ethic—it’s one of the many qualities that made me fall in love with her—but this was too much. I gently pulled the Blackberry out of her hands. “It will be here later,” I said. She had more important things to do.

To be fair, when it came to leaving work at the hospital steps, I wasn’t completely innocent. During much of the time were there, I was studying cases for an oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court scheduled for two days later. I was appearing in support of a Louisiana law that allowed capital punishment for the very worst child rapists… So just hours after Caroline was born, I said a prayer of thanksgiving, kissed my beautiful wife and baby daughter, rushed to the airport, and flew to Washington to argue the case.

So he made his wife feel bad for checking her work messages after the birth of their child, then immediately ditched her because he felt his own work was more important. (In fact, throughout the book one is astonished at how somebody so successful and attractive as Mrs. Cruz could tolerate a lifetime of being entwined with such a man. The Universe seems to have attempted to send her a warning; her first date with Ted was at a restaurant called “The Bitter End.”)

But if Cruz is an “asshole,” made of pure self-interest and guile, we must wonder the extent to which he has any real political convictions. His ex-college roommate, who loathes him, has insisted that Cruz believes nothing, and that his every attempt to insist otherwise is calculated. But it’s impossible to see inside Cruz’s brain, and figure out the extent to which he is driven by conviction versus self-aggrandizement. What we can ask is a hypothetical: if Ted Cruz were given the choice between enacting a conservative utopia (while sacrificing his political career in the process, becoming a powerless nobody), and becoming the President of the United States (but guaranteeing that a conservative utopia would never come about), which would he choose? Again, we can’t resolve it, but based on the evidence presented in Ted Cruz’s book, in which his life seems to consist of the pursuit of success (as opposed to the pursuit of good conservative outcomes), it’s hard to think that he’d turn down the Presidency for the sake of realizing his ostensible ideal political outcome. For Cruz, there is only one ideal political outcome, which is “world domination” (to quote 18-year-old Ted) by Cruz himself.

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Hillary Clinton is not Ted Cruz. Nor is she much like Ted Cruz, in any of the obvious ways. But she is a person about whom it is instructive to pose that same question: do we believe that, given the choice between becoming the President and enacting a liberal utopia (but being forgotten), Hillary Clinton would choose power or principle?

Clinton’s supporters have long insisted that her reputation as being underhanded and power-craving is unwarranted. The charge, they suggest, is sexist; it creates an image of Clinton as a conniving shrew, when any fair-minded examination of her record reveals this isn’t true. But it’s certainly the case that Clinton shifts her professed principles in accordance with the political needs of the day. Even a Clinton-supporting newspaper columnist admitted that her stance on trade had shifted to better align with the populism of Bernie Sanders:

When it comes to campaign trail flip-flops, Hillary Clinton delivered a doozy this week. On Wednesday she announced her opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal reached between the United States and Asian nations. Clinton says that any new trade deal must “create good American jobs, raise wages, and advance our national security” — and this one doesn’t. Clinton, however, has long been a proponent of the TPP, particularly when she was secretary of state just a few years ago (by one estimate, she expressed support for it 45 times). It’s doubtful she has suddenly become a protectionist or that, as president, she won’t find some way to support a different version of the TPP. So let’s be honest, this isn’t about jobs; it’s about one job, president, and Clinton’s desire to be the next one.

Clinton’s stances on other matters have shifted similarly. After defending gun rights in her race against Barack Obama, and pitching herself as a defender of the 2nd Amendment, Clinton used guns as a way to make herself seem more progressive than Bernie Sanders, going after him for coddling the 2nd Amendment. Her views on gay marriage seemed to change in accordance with its popularity among the public; after steadfastly insisting for years that marriage should be between a man and a woman, Clinton suddenly became a major gay marriage supporter when it seemed to be a nationwide inevitability. Clinton even wavers on women’s rights; she will steadfastly defend Planned Parenthood to progressive audiences, but will then suggest that conservative sting videos against the organization offer “disturbing” evidence. She has been consistently inconsistent, morphing herself skillfully to fit each political circumstance. Is she a friend or an enemy of Wall Street? The answer seems to depend on whether she is standing on a stage next to Bernie Sanders.

In this respect, Hillary Clinton is a kind of mirrored opposite of Ted Cruz. Each of them is driven by ambition over principle, but each has chosen a different orientation: for Clinton, it’s to adopt any position necessary to get votes. For Cruz, it’s never to let the temptation toward compromise and harmony get in the way of the quest for domination. Yet both of these figures clearly wake up in the morning attempting, above all else, to win. Their goals are about them. Even right out of law school, Hillary Clinton was bragging that Bill would be the president. Once Bill did in fact reach the highest office, he and Hillary devised a plan for the presidency: “8 years of Bill, 8 years of Hill.” It’s hard to see this kind of strategizing as in the service of progressive goals; it seems much more like a Machiavellian quest to maximize one’s time at the top. There’s something very strange indeed about people like Cruz and the Clintons, who even in their 20s were openly plotting their political dominance.

Which brings us back to the original question: why do ambitious people succeed to begin with, if they depend on the support of others to achieve that success, and if those others know perfectly well that the ambitious people are lying about their beliefs and only in it for themselves? Yes, such people are “climbers,” but they are enabled at every stage by the people who voluntarily hand them the power they seek.

One problem is that truly humble people rarely step forward, precisely because that humility is true. Ted Cruz is right to identify something suspicious in the “reluctant” public servant; for being so reluctant, they often seem quite eager. When most of us think of the truly decent people we have met, they are rarely in politics. They are teachers, social workers, public defenders, counselors, nurses, janitors, and aid workers. They are not in the public spotlight, precisely because they would actually refuse it if it were offered to them. There is nothing false in such people’s apparent lack of ego; it’s just how they are.

The old saws about politicians, then, contain some truth: nobody should be elected President who wants to be the President, for there is something astonishingly egotistical in wanting to become the President of the United States. The reason all of our politicians are so sociopathic and self-obsessed is that it takes a sociopathic and self-obsessed personality to seek political power over others. The success of a person like Ted Cruz, then, is a function of the structures that determine social achievement. In politics, as in business, you are rewarded not to the extent that you bring about decent outcomes, but to the extent that you screw the other guy. The people who float to the top of such a system are therefore destined to be the people most willing to screw the other guy, the people most willing to jettison thoughtfulness, principle, and selfless compassion when they get in the way of one’s goals. Thus people who are thoroughly disliked, friendless even, like Ted Cruz or Richard Nixon, get rewarded with high office. Until we readjust our mechanisms for allocating success, and consign such people to the obscurity and ostracism they deserve, the political sociopath will continue to win the game. Until we reward people on the basis of how decent and principled they actually are, rather than how well they can feign decency and principle, Ted Cruz will continue to win popularity contests despite being universally disliked.

Ted Cruz photograph by Jamelle Bouie.

Author: Nathan J. Robinson

is the editor of Current Affairs.