Ted Cruz’s Friends in Low Places

It’s only Wednesday, but I suspect the funniest and most telling story of the week is going to be this one from Jonathan Chait about Ted Cruz’s musical tastes and their intended signification:

In an interview with CBS This Morning, Ted Cruz divulged that he used to love classic rock, but switched over to country because of 9/11. “My music taste changed on 9/11,” the presidential candidate said. “I actually intellectually find this very curious, but on 9/11, I didn’t like how rock music responded,” he said. “And country music, collectively, the way they responded, it resonated with me.” The inevitably boring interview question of what music a politician listens to has, in this case, yielded a fascinating and revealing answer.

Of course, the thing about classic rock is that it mostly didn’t respond to 9/11 at all, since most of it was written in the decades beforehand. To the extent that it did respond, it was in keeping with the patriotic spirit of the moment. Many of the biggest classic rock stars participated in “America: A Tribute to Heroes” ten days after the attacks. As the name of the event implies, the event was not exactly a Chomsky-esque exercise in attributing the attacks to blowback caused by imperial overstretch. The single biggest classic rock star, Paul McCartney, wrote a song the next day, “Freedom,” the proceeds of which he donated to families of the victims and the NYPD.

It is true, however, that, in general, rock stars did not reach the jingoist heights of their country brethren. The rockers were mourning victims and celebrating freedom; country stars were demanding blood. That was a real partisan cultural divide.

And it was in order to identify with that partisan cultural divide, suggests Chait, that Ted Cruz gave up (or at least pretended to give up) his own musical tastes for something more–and I use this term very precisely–politically correct in his peer group.

He needed that, because his own background wasn’t as “populist” as his poor-drunken-parents-find-Jesus-and-avoid-the-abyss autobiography is supposed to show:

Raised by a militant conservative for a career in political activism, Cruz initially channeled his ambitions through formal education, which bred an intense intellectual snobbery. People who knew him recall Cruz asking them about their IQ and refusing to study in grad school with anybody who didn’t attend Harvard, Yale, or Princeton (a cutoff that only a Princeton grad would define).

At some point in his career, this snobbery became not only unnecessary but a hindrance to advancement. In George W. Bush’s Republican Party, populist authenticity, not Ivy league credentialism, was the cherished social currency. That Cruz was both willing and able to reorder his musical preferences to conform to the party line in the cultural struggle is an incredible testament to his personal willpower.

Well, that’s the charitable way to put it, I guess. Another way is to say Ted Cruz needed some friends in low places for the first time in his life, and proclaiming himself a country music fan was one way to reach for that.

It all seems kind of mechanical and unimaginative for a man of Cruz’s supposed brilliance–certainly less interesting than Marco Rubio’s interest in hip-hop–and largely unnecessary. Huge efforts have been made over the years to justify conservative appreciation of rock-and-roll; in 2006, in fact, National Review‘s John J. Miller published a list of the “50 Greatest Conservative Rock Songs.” One of them, Metallica’s “Don’t Tread on Me,” a jingoistic classic released a full decade before 9/11, strikes me as an almost ideal Ted Cruz theme song. (But what do I know? My suggestion of Fairport Convention’s “Now Be Thankful” as a 2004 theme song for John Kerry drew blank stares from his staff).

In any event, the thing to remember is that Ted Cruz’s entire pitch to voters is that he is absolutely, authentically, 100% of the time, the True Conservative whose values and goals and willingness to fight for them can be relied on like the Rock of Ages. So any evidence of calculation and malleability in his self-presentation can be a problem. He should have stuck to his guns and his classic rock.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.