By Jonathon Van Maren
When we pulled up to the toll booth just outside Rochester, New York, the graying, paunchy fellow inside was complaining to one of his colleagues. “Ted Cruz is here, and I’m stuck at work.” He thrust his hand out of the booth for our cash.
“Hey, we’re going to see Ted Cruz!” I said from the second seat, to a chorus of agreement from the rest of the van’s occupants.
“Good!” he nodded as he waved us through. “As long as you’re not going to see her.” She, I presume, was New York’s very own Arkansas Senator and presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton.
We arrived an hour before the rally was scheduled to begin at Monroe Community College, but there was already a line snaking from the front door, down the sidewalk, and past two buildings. Hundreds of people were chatting pleasantly to one another. One middle-aged woman was wearing a Revolutionary War tricorn hat. I presumed that she was the entire Tea Party in New York State. A young, fair-haired teenage boy was holding a sign reading “Ted Cruz Is Our Constitutional Conservative.” Another teen sported a homemade t-shirt reading “Cruz Has Gutts.”
The crowd seemed relaxed, very unlike the palpably angry, shouting mob I’d encountered at the Donald Trump rally I attended in Charleston on the eve of the South Carolina primary. The Cruz crowd seemed like the sort of people who would show up at a neighborhood block party. The Trump supporters, many of whom had gotten into screaming matches with protestors outside the rally, seemed more like the type of people concerned mothers might warn against associating with.
One of the cars in the parking lot was plastered with left-wing bumper stickers, including the infamous COEXIST sticker. I had to chuckle. In my experience, left-wing protestors make it as difficult as possible to coexist with them. The protestors who showed up at the Monroeville Community College, however, seemed a docile, even lazy bunch. One scraggly man biked up with a sign reading “9/11 Truth” taped to the bike basket. He parked the bike on the sidewalk facing the lineup, and then sprawled out on the grass without further explanation.
Another, younger fellow with his head wrapped in a faded blue bandanna showed up holding an unspecific homemade sign that said “No Hate In My State.” He didn’t elaborate. A stern-looking police officer wearing completely unnecessary aviator shades swaggered past the lineup, walking as if he had recently dismounted a horse. His services, it seemed, would not be needed today.
Inside the lobby, I turned over my seven tickets to the organizer at the table for myself, my fiancée, my father, sister, younger brother, and two colleagues. The lady smiled cheerily and waved us on in. Cruz T-shirts, buttons, and caps were being sold in the lobby just outside the gymnasium, featuring various Cruz 2016 slogans as well as wistful depictions of Hillary Clinton in a federal penitentiary and acronyms like D.A.D.D.D.—Dads Against Daughters Dating Democrats. It seemed particularly popular.
I asked one tall, middle-aged man sporting a black goatee, shaved head, and a leather jacket why he supported Ted Cruz. He stopped looking through the buttons and looked at me like I was an idiot.
“Why do I support Ted Cruz?” he repeated, half incredulously. “Because Ted Cruz is the only constitutional conservative running!”
When I asked a young woman holding a beautiful blond toddler in her arms why she supported Cruz, she seemed somewhat suspicious of me, eyeing my notebook. “Ted Cruz shares the same values as me,” she said softly.
“Which values?” I prompted.
“Abortion,” she replied, somewhat vaguely.
“Oh! So you’re pro-life?”
“So am I,” I told her.
Her face brightened, clearly relieved. “Oh, meet my husband!”
Aside from one middle-aged woman who said she hadn’t yet decided between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, and seemed unaware of John Kasich’s existence, that seemed to be the theme among Cruz supporters: They wanted him to be president because he was an actual conservative in a race featuring a megalomaniac liberal businessman and a Midwestern governor that is still campaigning for reasons that are mysterious to virtually everyone else in the United States of America. It was encouraging to meet families that were willing to take their children to a political rally on a Friday night because they opposed abortion and were concerned about the state of the culture.
The gymnasium filled up rapidly, with hundreds of folding chairs set up around a raised stage backed by huge screens reading TRUSTed and Cruz’s three-point platform: Jobs, Freedom, and Security. Against the back walls, I spotted my fiancée Charmaine waving at me from one of the top risers and weaved my way up the benches, trying valiantly to avoid stepping on anyone’s arm or coat. Cruz campaign volunteers passed up stacks of signs to hundreds of reaching hands and squawking fans. Over here! Over here!
After about a half hour, in which my friend Devorah valiantly attempted to get the crowd to chant, stomp, and clap, two young Republicans came onto the stage to a roar of approval, which died down at the realization that neither of them were Ted Cruz. They led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance, and everyone rose to their feet with a clatter, placed their hands over their hearts, and faced an American flag hanging on the wall above a basketball hoop. As the auditorium fell silent, a video began to play on the huge screens.
First, MSNBC hosts Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddow appeared, chuckling and sneering at the idea that Ted Cruz could attain the Republican nomination. The crowd booed loudly in disapproval. Then, one by one, news reports flashed across the screen, announcing the Cruz campaign’s primary victories. Iowa! ROAR. Oklahoma! ROAR. Utah! ROAR. Wisconsin! ROAR. Colorado! ROAR. A mighty cheer went up when the bearded face of conservative radio superstar Mark Levin filled the screen, urging people to vote. “We’ve been waiting for a conservative for all these years,” he intoned passionately. “Now, it is time to do the right thing. I think you know what I mean.” ROAR. They most certainly did.
In anticipation, the crowd began to chant. TED! TED! TED! TED! The man himself bounded out on to the stage and waved as the cheers reached a crescendo. “God bless the great state of New York!” he bellowed.
As the cheers quieted, Ted Cruz smiled. “You know what politics means, right?” There was a murmur of anticipation. Many, I suspect, had heard the joke before. I certainly had. “It has two parts—poli, meaning many. And tics, meaning blood-sucking parasites.”
There was a roar of laughter. This is what they had come for—not to support a politician, even though Cruz is obviously a very good one. Rather, they were here to support a man who would take their side against the politicians—against, as he so often puts it, the Washington Cartel. It is a testimony to the Republican establishment’s sweaty fear of Donald Trump that Cruz came armed with a list of the politicians who were coalescing behind the Cruz Campaign—Jeb Bush, Scott Walker—even Lindsay Graham, a man who once compared voting for Ted Cruz to taking poison.
Trump was in Ted’s crosshairs. “It’s easy,” he said to affirming murmurs, “to say, ‘Let’s make America great again.’ It’s even easy to put it on a baseball cap.” There were chuckles. “Made in China,” muttered one fellow in front of me to a ripple of laughter. “But to do that,” Cruz continued, warming up, “you have to actually know what made America great in the first place!”
To cheers, Cruz began to run through campaign promises that sounded like a conservative’s Christmas list.
We’re going to abolish the IRS!
Implement a flat tax!
Stand with the State of Israel!
Combat Islamic terrorism—and in me, you’ll have a president who actually dares to say those words!
I couldn’t help but contrast Cruz’s conservative war cry with Barack Obama’s Second Inaugural Address, which I had attended in Washington, DC four years earlier. That had been an unabashedly left-wing vision for America, a promise that America’s Second Reconstruction would soon begin in earnest. Listening to Ted Cruz’s campaign speech felt like a political event calculated to be precisely the opposite in every way. Whether or not Cruz will take the oath of office next January, of course, remains to be seen, and there are many miles left to travel before we or he will have even a vague idea of whether that will come to pass.
Cruz knew that, and he was prepared to warn the crowd what would happen if it should be a Democrat moving into the White House once again. “With Justice Scalia’s passing,” he said sombrely, “We are one justice away from a radical left-wing five justice majority on the Supreme Court of the United States. We could see our religious liberties erased.”
It’s true, and the crowd cheered at his defiant promise to ensure that on his watch, religious liberties and Judeo-Christian values would be protected. We live in fearful and uncertain times, but rallies like this provide a catharsis for those who watch Christians and conservatives get pushed back, back, back, day in, day out, on the flickering screens of their televisions. People were here to find out what Ted Cruz would do to protect them. He was more than happy to tell them.
When Cruz finished excoriating Trump, he had some choice words for the Democrats, too. On the Republican side, he noted, there were young faces, fresh ideas. On the Democrat side, he said with a grin, “You have a wild-eyed socialist—and Bernie Sanders!”
He finished his speech with a list of his primary victories, and an invitation: “Everyone’s watching New York!” From the bleachers, the goateed fellow I’d talked to earlier in the lobby bellowed, “I’m voting for you, Ted!”
Ted Cruz plunged into the crowd to shake hands. I headed into the crowd, watching hundreds of people strain to shake his hand, get their campaign signs autographed, take selfies. But everything ground to a halt for a moment when Ted Cruz came upon a little girl in a wheelchair. He clasped her hand, bent over, and talked to her for a few minutes, completely focused on her. She beamed up at him, thrilled.
It was, I thought, a touching and revealing moment, and one I was glad to witness. Ted Cruz had not been, initially, my first choice in the Republican field. As I wrote earlier, I loved what he had to say, but for some reason when I watched him say it on television, something struck me as a bit phoney. When he smiled, it appeared contrived—like he was a televangelist with a bad habit of expensive nocturnal recreation. But seeing him up close, it was different. Charmaine remarked on it—it was his smile, she said. His smile was tight because his lips pulled back when he grinned—but it was genuine. It reached his eyes.
Cruz shook hundreds of hands, stopped for dozens of pictures, and paid special attention to his younger fans. My little sister called out to him from the crowd, and he stopped to autograph her campaign sign. She squirmed back through the crowd, beaming. I couldn’t help but notice—Trump’s rallies may be huge, and they may sound like a rock concert. But Cruz’s fans, hundreds of them—and in New York, no less—seemed incredibly loyal to him. “Are you going to repeal Common Core, Ted?” one woman called out from the crowd. Cruz looked up, searching for her face. “Every. Single. Word.” he promised emphatically. She nodded, believing him.
As I watched him, I believed him, too.