This is my dark secret: I don't hate Ted Cruz.
I'm not being fully honest: I sort of like Ted Cruz.
That’s not quite right: I don't like Ted Cruz, but I do sort of love Ted Cruz.
I have to, at least a little, because I am Ted Cruz.
When I look at Ted Cruz I see the same grade-grubbing, smugly oblivious prick that everyone else sees. But, to be honest, that's also what I sometimes see in the mirror.
The chilling parallel first dawned on me while reading his memoir-cum-manifesto, A Time for Truth.
"Midway through junior high," Ted writes early on, "I decided I'd had enough of being the unpopular nerd." Which, fine, that’s as unique a teenage experience as acne or unrequited love. But then he says this: "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.’"
Quibble all you want with the probability of a seventh grader using the phrase "consciously emulate," much less formulating such a plan. But I believe this anecdote is true. I believe it because I lived it.
In high school, I, too, tired of being unpopular and came up with a plan. I still have the notebook that records its beginnings. I listed the people I thought I should be friends with, made a goal of trying to befriend a specific person every week, and then sketched out the steps for how I should go about it. "Remember names" was No. 1, so I might have been slightly less sophisticated in my approach than Ted was.
His far more detailed strategy included "try[ing] to be less cocky. When I received a test exam back,” he explained further, “even though I'd probably done well, I would simply put it away, I wouldn't look at it. It wasn't rocket science, but it was interesting to see what these sorts of small conscious changes could produce." You get the feeling that young Ted scurried into a bathroom stall to make notes on his anthropological experiment: "Day 23: The humans have come to accept me as one of their own."
My empathy for Ted stems from recognizing not just a shared freakish compulsion to quantify human interaction, but sensing that it comes from the same source: We were both smart kids who changed schools a lot and had driven, professional parents. Ted’s book shows he fits that criteria. His parents were energy-industry entrepreneurs; he was in a new school every three years or so. His half-sisters were much older, "so [he] was mostly raised as an only child."
Growing up like that, we acquired the forced independence of latchkey kids without any of the stabilizing buoyancy of multi-year friendships. We acted like little adults to cope and were rewarded for our maturity, cobbling together a self based on good grades and praise. Intensely self-aware of our utter social cluelessness, we recontextualized uncomfortable situations as living word problems: analysis over approachability. Throw us in the deep end of adolescence and it wasn’t so much sink or swim but "What is this swimming you speak of? What does it mean to swim? Are there really only two choices? Will I get extra credit if I figure out a third?"
Ted's and my paths diverged very shortly after we came up with our respective crusades of middle-school Machiavellianism. After I put together my "Mission: Popular" plan, I didn't go through with it. In part, I think I realized that refashioning myself to "become popular" would defeat the purpose — would I feel any more well liked if I was pretending to be someone else? But even more obvious to me was that it wouldn't work. As it was, I was already a victim of the highly tuned difference-seeking radar of the "in" crowd. To think I could fool them with a front of feigned personability was folly. I would probably just make it worse.
Cruz, on the other hand, not only went through with his plan, but — to this day — believes it worked. He thinks it’s still working. The Most Hated Man in the Senate is convinced that this says something about everyone else, but not about him. In his book, his belief in his successful manipulation of others is mostly implied. What he says is that he wound up transferring from his cosmopolitan junior high to a very small Christian school, where "I achieved something that had long eluded me: I was relatively popular."
A neutral observer realizes that doesn't mean his plan was a success. All that means is that he found a much smaller pool of more inherently sympathetic people to sell himself to. I would call this misapprehension a sad coda to a single childhood incident except, of course, that this delusion — confusing targeted pandering with actual popularity — is the story of Cruz’s life, right up to his delegate-courting presidential campaign.
Cruz's belief in his own hype suffuses his memoir. Every time he's faced with evidence that his personality actively repels the people he's trying to attract, he walks away convinced of his own righteousness. The Princeton basketball players who invite him to play poker, only to team up and take him for $2,000? Well, "it never occurred to me that they didn't actually want to be my friends," and instead of learning anything about his own gullibility or lack of humility, he writes that the experience "left me with another important lesson about the perils of trying too hard to be popular." He walks away suspicious of friendly overtures but no more aware of the arrogance that made him an easy mark.
And when his time with the 2000 Bush campaign doesn't deliver the expected plum White House perch, he reflects with ersatz regret that he's being punished for having "foolishly thought it was my job to provide my best judgment on the right policies for our candidate." Instead of the White House, he's diverted to the Justice Department, where "I never seemed able to earn [my colleagues'] trust," because — does this sound familiar? — "It had not occurred to me … that supporting the president was deemed inconsistent with the workings of the Bush Justice Department."
Rejection, it would seem, doesn't prod his vulnerability; it reassures him. It's an infinite loop of ego and insensitivity: If he never sees himself as being rejected, there’s no neural path for empathy; he never has a chance to recognize what rejection feels like in others. Basically, Cruz went from being a teen who felt like an outsider to an adult blind to the existence of outsiderness in general, much less his own. So of course he's turned out to be a bigot and a scold, exploiting homophobia and racism with the same calculating ambition that he turned toward being popular, finding it "interesting to see" what "these small conscious changes" can produce.
Behind his graceless confidence, however, one can also see traces of the alienated, perplexed youngster whose insecurity prompted his original mission. "Okay, well, what is it that the popular kids do? I will consciously emulate that" doesn't just explain his politics, after all; it also explains his stale pop-culture riffing and his bizarrely consistent speechifying tics (applause line, pause, smirk, repeat).
I suspect the only thing Cruz has genuinely unfiltered enthusiasm for is science fiction, and even that he deploys like someone trying and failing to cosplay: "A message that I give to folks on the campaign trail, sometimes they'll say we tried," he told ABC. "And my response is straight out of Yoda: ‘There is no try. Do or do not.’ And likewise if someone does something very impressive, I'll turn to them just like Vader and say, ‘The Force is strong with this one.’"
I'm sure that goes over great, especially the sixth or seventh time.
But that's the Ted Cruz I identify with. Hey, maybe you do, too. Did you cringe when he had to barrel through a speech to which clearly no one was listening? Did your heart break a little when he stood in an Indiana gym and referred to a "basketball ring"? Did the image of his wife grimacing at his hug make you remember an unresponsive crush and think, Oh, man, same?
If so, that's the real difference between Ted Cruz and me, and between Ted Cruz and you: the ability to see discomfort and share in it, the impulse to see yourself in someone else's pain. Decry it as a liberal impulse, maybe, but it's also a human one. It's what brought the country gay marriage and expanded health care, introduced transgender-friendly bathrooms and brought down the Confederate flag. Cruz is against all of those things, of course. And I bet, deep down, he doesn’t even really understand why.
Right now, I can't hate Ted Cruz, because I see too much of myself in him. But the more he hates on others, the easier hating him becomes.