“These are extraordinary times,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) told the Values Voters Summit on Friday morning, and “the challenges facing this country are unlike any we have every seen.” He was speaking to a relatively small group of religious conservatives, but he might as well have been speaking for the two dominant wings of the Republican Party base. Indeed, understanding the siege mentality that’s captured both of these wings of the GOP is the key to understanding Cruz’s success in shutting down the government.
Contrary to a common belief among Democrats, Cruz’s followers are not all wishful thinking naifs who are unable to read a poll or to understand the results of last November’s election. Rather, they are fully aware of President Obama’s triumphs in his two presidential races, of the weakening position of the GOP, and of the likelihood that socially conservative and Tea Party policies may never again gain a foothold in Washington.
According to a remarkable Democracy Corps memo detailing the results of several Republican focus groups (that’s the “one document” referred to in this post’s headline), evangelical Republicans believe their culture is systematically being destroyed by an alliance of Hollywood, Washington, and public schools. Meanwhile, Tea Partiers believe that freedom itself will soon be extinct in the United States. Together, the Republicans who believe that Obama’s banishing God and those who believe he’s banished liberty make up the most dangerous of armies — the kind that believes it must fight to the end or be vanquished completely. And Ted Cruz is the general leading them to their final stand.
Cruz Against The Apocalypse
The vision Cruz paints in his Values Voters speech would terrify most Republicans. Members of the U.S. military face discipline if they “share their faith” with their fellow servicemembers. Obamacare forces Christian charities to pay for abortions. States rights have been “cut out of every copy of the Constitution in the Library of Congress.” And, of course, “no administration in the history of this country has ever come after guns like this administration.”
The thin red line opposing this assault on faith and liberty, according to Cruz, is the men and women gathered before him at the Summit. “Each of you is called to be here,” he tells the assembled conservatives. And then he compares them to Esther, a Biblical heroine who saved the Jews from genocide.
Any suggestion that Barack Obama compares to Haman the Agagite, the villain from the Book of Esther, is offensive. Yet, to Ted Cruz, America faces a millennial struggle with the President of the United States cast in the role of Nicolae Carpathia. “We have a couple of years to turn this country around or we go off the cliff to oblivion,” Cruz warns. History has seen “great nations rise and fall,” and America sits on the precipice at the edge of paradise.
A Base Under Siege
This vision of America as Jerusalem surrounded by Roman soldiers, or perhaps as Rome itself beset by barbarians, is alien to most Americans. Yet, as the Democracy Corps memo lays out, a similarly apocalyptic vision animates much of the Republican Party base. “[T]he base thinks they are losing politically and losing control of the country,” the memo explains. To many Republicans, the Constitution itself is on the verge of dying, and Obama has already “won his socialist agenda.”
Conservative evangelicals and Tea Partiers, who make up a a third and a fifth of the Republican base, respectively, each have their own reasons to believe that America is approaching its endtime. Evangelical Republicans, according to the memo, perceive themselves as besieged by a culture demanding that they give up their guns and grant equal dignity to LGBT Americans. “We’re having to realize,” one evangelical man lamented, “that we’re going to be in a very politically incorrect minority pretty soon.” Worse than just a minority, rural evangelicals are a despised majority in the eyes of the new ruling class. To President Obama, another evangelical claims, “we’re all a bunch of racist, gun-clinging, flyover state, cowboy-hat wearing yokels.” People who “didn’t go to Harvard,” people who aren’t from “New York,” and those who “go to church” and “like our Bibles” have no place in the emerging America. And their place’s been given away to something they perceive as quite alien.
“Don’t come here and make me speak your language,” one voter demands of immigrants. Another complains about the “gay agenda,” a movement that’s been so successful so quickly that it’s like there is a “vast conspiracy of gays” trying to foist their values on evangelical society. Even the radio’s become a weapon to steal away conservative culture and replace it with Obama’s worldview. One woman lashes out at “the ‘I can’t change’ song,” an apparent reference to Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ marriage equality anthem “Same Love, which serves as a reminder that her views are no longer welcome in the greater part of the country every time her radio plays one of the nation’s most popular tunes. Another evangelical voter sees the government trying to steal away his own children — “It’s hard when the school is directly opposing what you’re trying to teach your kids.”
Yet, while these evangelical voters believe they are on the losing end of a culture war led by public schools, Hollywood and Harvard-educated elites like President Obama, the Tea Party gives the modern day GOP it’s apocalyptic cast. To Tea Party voters, “Obama’s America is an unmitigated evil based on big government, regulations, and dependency.” And this evil must be met with dramatic opposition if necessary. The founders, one Tea Party woman explains, “had to rise up . . . and take over this country and who knows if that has to happen again sometime.” And then she veers off into an even more drastic comparison: “I mean I just feel like we’re Nazi Germany or something.”
Though most members of the Tea Party focus groups do not test the bounds of Godwin’s Law, the Tea Party set is consumed by fears of lost liberties. “Regulations and rules,” according to one man, are draining Americans of their freedom, “and then all of a sudden we’re not going to have any left.” Another Tea Partier worries that Americans will soon “be like [people in] other countries and have to be told what to do and when to do it.” Others tread rather closely to the bounds of paranoia. One man half-jokingly asked the leaders of the focus groups to guarantee that “we won’t be getting a call from the IRS about an audit or anything like that” if focus group members express their views openly. Another man said that “I’m going to get a call from the IRS when this is done.” If anything, the Tea Party focus groups are split between men and women who fear the impending loss of liberty and those who worry Obama’s big government surveillance state has already taken freedom away.
The Last Battle
Yet, while the Tea Party’s inchoate sense that liberty is dying is distinct from the evangelicals’ perception that they are on the losing end of a culture war, both groups echo Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) Randian rhetoric about a culture of “dependency” fueled by government programs. And both groups warn that this dependency places conservatives on the losing end of American democracy.
Obamacare and similar programs are akin to bribes that Democrats offer to get “the votes for the next time.” according to one evangelical voter. A Tea Party voter draws an even crisper line between social welfare and Democratic success at the polls — “we’ll give you insurance, we’ll give you money. That’s why he got elected,” she says of President Obama. And if Obamacare is fully implemented, both wings believe that the Democratic Party could become a permanent majority party. Once Obama adds the newly insured to his base, evangelicals and Tea Partiers will be cut out of Congress and the White House forever.
This is why so much of the Republican base rallied behind Cruz’s shutdown-or-defund-Obamacare strategy, despite the fact that most GOP leaders viewed it as a suicide mission. And this is why conservatives in Congress refuse to abort this mission even as it becomes increasingly clear that Americans at large resent the GOP’s decision to shut down the government. There is a common perception among Democrats that, as more and more polls show the Cruz-inspired shutdown cutting into the Republican Party’s brand, Republicans will step back from the brink and renounce Cruz’s extortionist tactics — and recent signs of progress in the Senate give some credence to this perception. So long as religious conservatives and the Tea Party hold the GOP’s reins, however, key Republican players in the House are unlikely to agree to a truce.
It is one thing to ask Republicans to execute a tactical retreat when they believe they can regroup and rise again to fight another day. But it is another thing to demand a retreat from men and women who have beheld the Great Red Dragon standing upon America’s shores, a crown perched on each of its seven heads.