One is a billionaire with a luxury Boeing, the other's rarefied resume is a tour of exclusive America
Yet Trump and Cruz have emerged as vessels for the livid Republican grass-roots
Before they rejected the establishment with such fervor, co-opting the fury of heartland voters at distant elites, both spent decades rubbing shoulders with its power brokers and benefiting from its web of connections and credentials.
One is a billionaire with a luxury Boeing and a portfolio of extravagant golf resorts. He speaks for the struggling masses while boasting how rich he is and how he opened his wallet to bend politicians to his will. The oversize persona that could make him president was nurtured by the big media complex he now derides.
The other’s rarefied resume is a tour of exclusive America. First the Ivy League Princeton for undergrad and Harvard Law for an advanced degree, then a clerkship for a chief justice of the Supreme Court. In his professional life he returned to argue before the High Court, and then, still only in his early 40s, won a ticket to the clubbiest political enclave of them all: the U.S. Senate. And he married a woman who was a Goldman Sachs executive before leaving to work for his campaign.
Yet remarkably, and to the impotent frustration of their rivals, Trump and Cruz have emerged in a logic-defying election season as vessels for the livid Republican grass-roots, fanning flames around illegal immigration and the plight of blue-collar workers left behind by globalization. They’ve harnessed despair at the failure of establishment GOP leaders to subvert what they see as Obama-era power grabs, condescension from the “liberal media” and loathing for political correctness on race, gender and sexuality.
This success poses a question that gets to the heart of the 2016 race as Trump and Cruz, one and two in national polls, seem poised to share the spoils in early voting states: Just how did two men so familiar with the inside become avatars for the outside?
Their methods differ, and perhaps to some degree they are simply benefiting from being in the right place at the right time. But it’s indisputable that both Trump and Cruz spotted and then exploited an opportunity thrown up by a singular moment in U.S. political history that in retrospect both seem to have been working toward for years.
“The establishment believes the goal of politics is simply to control the levers of power,” said Michael Needham, CEO of the conservative advocacy group Heritage Action for America. “Right now, there are two candidates in the GOP race vying to be the most anti-establishment: Donald Trump based on personality and words, and Ted Cruz based on conservative principles and an unwillingness to be co-opted in Washington.”
The concept of the establishment – the idea of a group of influential power brokers running government and politics, the media and the law, big business and finance – has become a dominant theme in the 2016 White House race so far.
Trump and Cruz have used it to devalue the resumes of traditional “governing” candidates like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and current Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who were once the conservative radicals of their day.
Candidates with a foot in the insider and outsider camp have meanwhile struggled.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, for example, was a rabble-rouser himself just six years ago when he rode the tea party wave to usurp establishment favorite Charlie Crist in the GOP primary for their state’s open Senate seat. Yet now, after dabbling in immigration reform, Rubio has been branded by his foes as just another turncoat Washington politician.
Trump: A way with words
Trump has effectively leveraged a persona refined on reality television; a mastery of direct, simple language; and an uncanny ear for the economic and philosophical grievances of Americans a million metaphorical miles removed from his Manhattan penthouse.
He might have made his billions in the boardroom, but there has been no more forceful spokesman for many Americans disaffected with the political system, and who, a major new CNN investigation shows, feel he speaks for them in a way no seasoned politician can.
His scrappy, bullying, back-alley schtick is the antidote to the political correctness that people in his base so disdain. He might be loaded and rarely seen in business hours without a suit and tie, but he doesn’t hang with the CEO crowd that flocked to Davos for the World Economic Forum last week.
From the gold-plated seat belts in his personal airliner to his helicopters to his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach to his beautiful wives, Trump is hardly old money and revels in his wealth and fine things like someone who has won the lottery. It’s an image that can resonate more with Main Street than the studied indifference of a Wall Street tycoon who hobnobs comfortably with other members of the 1%.
And by being so direct about his riches, Trump has taken the issue of wealth off the table as a political weapon. He’s avoided the fate of 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney, a former private equity executive who was vilified by the Obama campaign as apathetic about the sufferings of everyday Americans while he installed car elevators in his house.
And in a neat trick, Trump has actually made the case that his wealth solidifies his outsider appeal by giving him immunity to pressure from establishment donors.
In retrospect, Trump’s long “birther” crusade, seeking to prove that Barack Obama was born abroad and therefore constitutionally disqualified from being president, was more than the “carnival barker” distraction of the lunatic political fringe that the Hawaii-born President dismissed it as.
It was a shrewd political base-building strategy that connected Trump with a seething community of Americans susceptible to a populist, even demagogic, message based on race and class that he would later mobilize for his presidential campaign.
To connect with his “silent majority,” Trump avoids the soaring campaign poetry of Obama, the eye-glazing wonkery of a Jeb Bush or Democratic national front-runner Hillary Clinton, or the gassy lingo of a candidate baked in the conventions of Capitol Hill.
Instead, he holds forth spontaneously, unfurling outrage-laden streams of consciousness from his podium. He seems to have no filter between his brain and his mouth.
It’s an intimate and effective form of communication, even when delivered in a stadium, and has much in common with the confiding monologue of another wealthy spokesman for the common man, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh. This blunt, outspoken style also happens to be tailor-made for Twitter, Trump’s conduit direct to his faithful flock.
“He speaks like a guy down at the loading dock,” said Dave Shiflett, who ghost wrote one of the billionaire’s first political manifestos, “Trump: The America We Deserve,” published in 2000.
“He comes across as a man of the people because he is voicing their anger with the political class and all of the elites,” he continued. “He is always a hydrogen bomb going off and there is no subtlety to what he says.”
Trump hinted at his magic political formula in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on January 20, in a speech torching Republican aristocrats. He said George Will, a veteran conservative Washington Post columnist, looked “stupid” without his glasses and mocked Karl Rove, a former George W. Bush White House political director, as a “boiler waiting to explode.”
But he also indulged in a rare moment of self-reflection, explaining how, despite coming from a different universe than audience members, he had become their champion.
“They always say, ‘He is so plain spoken,’” Trump said of the political commentariat. “Plain spoken? I know more than any of these guys. Plain spoken? I went to (an) Ivy League school, the whole thing,” Trump said.
“I can come up with extremely nice words, except there is no better word to describe our leader and our administration than the word … what? … stupid. Stupid.”
He went on to use the word several times: “These are stupid people. These are stupid people. What is going on in Washington is purely stupid. Give me a better word than that and I will use it.”
He concluded, “All the Ivy League I have, the Wharton School of Finance, somehow they have never come up with a better word to describe what we are going through.”
For Shiflett, such language is the root of Trump’s appeal.
“All these politicians are people who everybody thinks are just double-talk and they won’t say what they mean,” he said. “Trump says, ‘To hell with that. I am a regular guy.’”
Cruz: Always on the outside
Few people would refer to Rafael Edward “Ted” Cruz as a regular guy.
But it’s his good fortune, or perhaps a sign of how he’s molded his political persona to his times, that he finds himself on the rise in a turbulent political season.
Whereas Trump’s anti-elite persona is based on performance art, Cruz relies mainly on ideological positioning.
Superficially, Cruz’s life seems one long parable about the value of insider connections.
His intellect and ambition greased his path from Princeton to Harvard Law and to a clerkship in Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s chambers. He worked on the Florida recount operation for GOP candidate George W. Bush in 2000, which the Bush dynasty packed with establishment titans like James Baker III.
As solicitor general of Texas, Cruz became a star advocate at the bar of the Supreme Court, then made his way to the U.S. Senate.
But a closer look at his past reveals a man who always gravitated to the outside and offers clues to the bond he has established with voters over suspicion of elites.
He was a constitutional conservative even when surrounded by liberal academia. At the Supreme Court, he represented Texas, a perpetual rebel state.
In the Senate, he did what he said he would do: tear away at what he reviles as the “Washington cabal.”
“How do we win elections? In the contrast between corrupt Washington and the American people,” Cruz told the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2014 in a speech that would provide a political blueprint for his presidential campaign.
Cruz did nothing but infuriate the party establishment once he arrived in Washington. He tried to shut down the government over Obamacare, and he angered then-House Speaker John Boehner by crossing the Capitol to fan an insurgency among radical lawmakers over budget issues. Eviscerating the Senate’s courtly manners, he accused Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a fellow Republican, of lying.
His attitude has made him toxic to his colleagues but seduced those who feel much the same way about the GOP leadership.
“The establishment dislikes (Cruz and Trump) for various reasons, but they fear Cruz because he has not been able to be co-opted by the corrupt system in Washington,” said Needham of Heritage Action.
The unimpeachable anti-establishment credentials that Cruz built up in Washington, combined with his natural affinity for evangelical Christians and existing popularity among tea party Republicans, have built him a powerful political base.
The revolution fights itself
It was inevitable, given their success in the polls and the similar anti-elite trajectories of their campaigns, that in the end Trump and Cruz would clash over who is the true anti-establishment champion. Their revolution is turning on itself.
Trump is calling Cruz “nasty” and a Canadian who is not eligible to run for president given that he was born in Calgary, Alberta. And as he seeks a knockout punch that could stall the Cruz campaign with a defeat in Iowa, Trump has also defended his own anti-establishment credentials.
“The establishment, the media, the special interests, the lobbyists, the donors, they are all against me … they are really trying to stop me,” Trump said in a Facebook video posted this week.
His move may have been partly designed to defuse Cruz’s own emerging attack that Trump’s anti-establishment persona is all a front and that once in power his natural, deal-making instincts would reassert themselves in an accommodation with party leaders.
“The establishment … is consolidating around Donald Trump. The establishment has now picked Donald Trump,” Cruz spokesman Rick Tyler told CNN last week, after former Republican presidential nominee and Senate leader Bob Dole said Cruz would be worse for the GOP than Trump.
“Why? Because the establishment in Washington, the dealmakers, they know that Donald Trump will make a deal. He will play ball with them. He will keep them all in power. He’ll keep the gravy train rolling,” Tyler claimed.
It’s an argument that voters will begin to weigh in on Monday in Iowa.