Populistical Dept. - Playing at being a rebel has become fashionable this political season. In the midst of an electoral process, a system of government and a society utterly dominated at every level by Big Money interests, the cry of "more anti-Establishment than thee!" is thrown by every Republican presidential candidate at his rivals in a race in which each positively stumbles over the others in trying to out-anti-insider them. The corporate press largely plays along with this silliness, the extremely dubious notion of a revolutionary conservative resulting in barely a raised eyebrow (or headline). So Americans are treated to the Orwellian farce of a bunch of pols raving against an Establishment even as they compete for its highest office, spending, in pursuit of that office, millions of dollars they raised by prostituting themselves and their would-be presidential administrations to the same Big Money interests that already dominate everything.
One such candidate, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, won the Iowa caucus Monday night--only 72.4% of caucusgoers opposed him (a larger percentage opposed all the others). Cruz has long crafted an image of
himself as a populist crusader, an "outsider" bravely battling an
entrenched and corrupt Establishment. In a rambling, frequently bizarre victory speech in Iowa Monday, Cruz mated a clinically high opinion of himself with his peculiar version of "populism":
"Let me first of all say, to God be the glory. Tonight is a victory for the grassroots. Tonight is a victory for courageous conservatives across Iowa and all across this great nation. Tonight, the state of Iowa has spoken. Iowa has sent notice that the Republican nominee and the next President of the United States will not be chosen by the media, will not be chosen by the Washington Establishment, will not be chosen by the lobbyists but will be chosen by about the most incredible, powerful force where all sovereignty resides in our nation, by we, the people, the American people."
Presumably, the 72.4% of Republican caucusgoers (and the 100% of Democratic ones) who voted for someone other than Cruz aren't "American people"--no doubt cowardly, undocumented Lithuanians doing the bidding of the media/Washington Establishment/lobbyists. Those backing him are "courageous conservatives," as if they face deportation to Guantanamo for this act.
That "courageous conservatives" phrase, which appears repeatedly in Cruz's speech, is actually the name of a super PAC established to raise and spend unlimited cash from Big Money sources on behalf of Cruz's election effort. Cruz is being backed by 11 such super PACs, more than any other current presidential candidate of either party. Four of them have raised millions while four more are into six figures:
In common parlance, "grassroots" refers to bottom-up movements run by ordinary people. If one is feeling charitable, one could suggest Cruz seems to be employing a new and rather exotic definition of same in asserting his win was "a victory for the grassroots" but as it turns out, he's simply being deceptive. From later in his speech:
"From day one, this campaign has been a movement for millions of Americans across this country to organize, to rally, to come together. Whatever Washington says, they cannot keep the people down. And tonight is a testament to the people's commitments to their yearnings to get back to our core commitments: free market principles, constitutional liberties and the Judeo-Christian values that built this great nation. When the Washington lobbyists settled on other candidates in this race, when the media in one voice said a conservative cannot win, nationwide, over 800,000 contributions poured in to TedCruz.org, as courageous conservatives said 'Yes, we can.' 800,000 contributions at TedCruz.org, with an average contribution of $67. That is the power of the grassroots."
Actually, that's a misrepresentation. Turning once again to the Center For Responsive Politics, we learn that Cruz's campaign committee had, by the end of December, raised over $46 million and that 58% of that came from large individual contributions of more than $200, not small ones. The small ones made up less than $20 million; the pro-Cruz super PACs, which raise money from millionaires and billionaires with no legal limits on their fundraising, had doubled that--$39 million--and as the New York Times reported, "more than 95% of the total contributions to super PACs supporting Ted Cruz came from donations of $1 million or more, more than any other candidate." One wonders which "Judeo-Christian values" the financiers behind them represent. Briefly.
Populism has a very mixed record in the U.S. It's a field in which, over the years, a lot of both good and very bad characters have toiled. At its heart, it's a democratic movement of ordinary people against corrupt and abusive elites. The latest right-wing variation of it projected by Cruz and his fellow Republican presidential candidates, on the other hand, is a counterfeit, a phony "populism" that protects and defends those same elites by directing public anger and
frustration away from them and on to scapegoats--usually people with
even less power than those being pitched the faux-"populist" scam. When one listens to Ted Cruz, one walks away with the impression that the biggest problem facing the U.S., by far, is illegal immigrants, followed, way down the scale, by Muslims, both groups that have absolutely no power in the U.S. The former can't participate in the political process at all; the latter constitute a micro-fraction of the population (0.9%). Cruz freely mingles with even those who openly call for the execution of homosexuals and advocates an ugly, anti-gay legislative agenda. In his victory speech, Cruz thanked Tony Perkins and "my friend Steve Deace" for their support of his campaign. Perkins is the head of the Family Research Council, a reactionary, anti-gay hate-group that portrays homosexuals as mentally deranged, predatory pedophiles who should be made illegal. Deace is a local Iowa radio talk-show host who offers that Democrats are waging a "war on whites," calls gays "homo-fascists," their homosexuality an "unAmerican and pagan ideology," and other such charming assertions.
Cruz thanked a lot of people in that speech. He thanked slime like Perkins, Deace and James Dobson. He thanked his god. He thanked some of his campaign officials and some nameless volunteers. He thanked several volunteers by name and told their stories in some detail, though none singled out for that treatment was actually from Iowa. He never thanked Iowa for voting for him, a curious omission for a "populist." There were others even more conspicuously missing from his "thank you" list. Hedge fund CEO Robert Mercer, for example. Mercer demonstrated "the power of the grassroots" a few months ago by pouring $11 million into electing Cruz. Mercer is also a big contributor to the Club For Growth, which has, itself, spent a lot of money on Cruz over the years. Cruz didn't thank Farris and Dan Wilks, "grassroots" oil fracking billionaires who gave $15 million to Cruz super PAC Keep the Promise. He didn't thank Toby Neugebauer, "grassroots" founder of Quantum Energy Partners, who ponied up $10 million. No public appreciation for real-estate giant CapRock Partners, though they've shown Cruz $10 million in appreciation so far. No "thank you" for Goldman Sachs, one of the largest financial institutions in the U.S., even though he's one of the top recipients of Goldman Sachs political contributions. Joseph Konzelmann, a GS managing director, even hosted a Cruz fundraiser in December. Konzelmann wasn't thanked either. Thanking--or even mentioning--such interests, the real power behind Cruz, would make his campaign look a great deal less like the proletarian uprising he's trying to sell and a great deal more like what it actually is, entrenched interests fielding a mouthy demagogue who, if elected, will do their bidding.
Cruz is good at that as well. Like any name-brand Texas politician, for example, Cruz is a favorite of the oil and gas industry. He may not want to say so in public but he certainly shows his appreciation for their support when he's on the job:
"The junior senator from the Lone Star State has shown his loyalty to the family biz by proposing to end the ban on offshore drilling, allow unrestricted fracking, abolish the Energy Department, slash corporate taxes, and block cap-and-trade."
Cruz faced some opposition in Iowa from advocates of the Renewable Fuel Standard, which keeps the state's corn-growers in the oil business. Like any good oil industry shill, Cruz opposes the RFS, mischaracterizing it as a "subsidy" even while supporting his Masters' pet subsidies. Challenged on the point, Cruz insisted he supported ending all subsidies, right before launching into a soliloquy about how something like the Intangible Drilling Cost deduction, a special perk enjoyed only by the oil industry that costs the public over $1 billion/year, isn't really a "subsidy."
Genuine populism seeks to use
the power of democracy to reform abuses. Cruzite "populism," while
deflecting public discontent away from powerful malefactors and on to relatively powerless groups, defends government action (or, as the case may be, inaction) on behalf of the Powers That Be, particularly those that be payin' Ted Cruz's campaign power bill, while relentlessly demonizing government action that
challenges their prerogatives. Cruz always wants to
use the state against immigrants, Muslims, gays but suggest raising the minimum wage so businesses will have to cough up better than starvation pay and he'll have none of that. And to add insult to injury, he'll even explain how this refusal to assist those at the bottom of the pile--America's real grassroots, who could use a hand--is for their own good. It's a cynical con and a responsible news media would have called bullshit on it a long time ago.
 Bernie Sanders, currently seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, is running the closest thing to a genuine populist campaign American presidential politics have seen in many a moon and provides a good contrast here. Sanders has raised over $72 million for his effort, 73% of which was in small individual donations. He doesn't have a single affiliated super PAC, doesn't accept funding from any and has even rejected the idea of unaffiliated super PACs working on his behalf (when one formed with that idea, Sanders had his lawyers send the org a cease-and-desist letter).
 Cruz wraps his anti-Muslim bigotry in the rhetoric of opposing "terrorism" but regularly manages to blur the lines between terrorists and Muslims in general. His real game can be divined from his inconsistencies on these issues. Whenever he talks about "terrorism"--which is quite often--it's always terrorism by Islamist rightists. Non-jihadist rightist terrorists, which are a much bigger threat within the U.S., are entirely absent from his commentary on the issue. When a right-wing group released doctored videos falsely alleging that Planned Parenthood officials were selling "baby parts" from aborted fetuses for profit, Cruz enthusiastically promoted this lie. "They were certainly caught on film, that there is no doubt that they were selling baby parts. That is unambiguous... The videos show senior Planned
Parenthood officials selling the parts of unborn children," and Cruz promised to sic the Justice Department on the org on his first day in office as president. When this lie led a deranged rightist to shoot up a PP facility in Colorado, killing three people and wounding 9 others, Cruz's initial response was to claim the shooter was a "transgendered leftist activist," an entirely false characterization Cruz pulled straight out of his ass. He rejected the notion that the superheated--and false--anti-PP rhetoric about "selling baby parts" could have led to the shooting and even lashed out at "vicious rhetoric on the left, blaming those who are pro-life." When the rhetoric is coming from Muslims, though, Cruz sings a different tune. He all but endorsed government monitoring of mosques, saying they "have been a nexus for promoting jihad."
 A particularly tasteless omission given that, at one point, he did go on a rather long tangent in which he thanked New Hampshire for, back in 1980, voting for Ronald Reagan, a candidate who lost the Iowa caucus that year to George Bush Sr.
 Indeed, as the quoted material already suggests, he positioned
himself as a sort of messianic figure and the tone of his speech
consistently left the impression he thought he was doing Iowans and the
rest of the U.S. a favor by
running for president and allowing them to coalesce around him. He asserted that he and his "courageous conservatives... earned the votes of 48,608 Iowans" (emphasis mine), spoke of "your incredible victory that you have won tonight" (emphasis his), said his winning was "a victory for millions of Americans who have shouldered the burden of 7 years of Washington deals run amok" and so on. His only hint of humility was a single line about how his supporters understand that "no one personality can right the wrongs done by Washington."
 Cruz's wife is a managing director for Goldman Sachs, on temporary leave of absence at the moment while the campaign plays out.
 The extraordinary popularity of raising the minimum wage--a proposition that consistently garners over 70% support in polls--sways "populist" Cruz not an inch.
UPDATE (3 Feb.) - It seems I'm not the only one objecting to Cruz's phony "populist" line. On Tuesday, Cruz got so lost in his "grassroots campaign" fantasy that he sent out a fundraising letter in which he flat-out denied the existence of his Big Money benefactors. He wrote:
"I will never get--nor do I want--money from the D.C. lobbyists or the special interest billionaires... Last night, we showed America that only the power of the grassroots will ultimately defeat the Washington Cartel."
This was too much for Russ Choma at Mother Jones. Today, he writes:
"Fresh off his victory in Iowa, Ted Cruz is intensifying his
anti-Washington rhetoric, even as his campaign barrels forward fueled by
large amounts of cash from the people he claims to stand against. In an
email to grassroots supporters sent Tuesday afternoon, Cruz begged
recipients to hurry up and send cash to help him fight 'the Washington
cartel,' and he claimed falsely that 'I will never get--nor do I
want--money from the D.C. lobbyists or the special interest
"Not only is this not true; it's easy to prove, since Cruz has a well-documented history of bagging money from lobbyists and special-interest billionaires."
Choma cites information from the Center For Responsive Politics, which documents nearly a hundred lobbyists who have given money to Cruz. He cites some of the "special-interest billionaires" who have as well (and, of course, I cited several of them in my article above). "The Cruz campaign," Choma reports, "did not respond to requests for comments."
UPDATE 2 (4 Feb.) - Cruz plunges deeper into his "populist" fantasy--now he's comparing himself with Bernie Sanders. Sam Frizell of Time reports, that, at a campaign event in New Hampshire, Cruz said "you know what? In many ways I agree with Bernie in diagnosing the problem":
"Cruz went on to say that lobbyists and special
interests have an outsize influence on government, stymieing competition
and businesses. 'And what we see in Washington is the Washington
cartel, these career politicians getting in bed with the lobbyists and
special interests, growing big business, growing the moneyed and
powerful influences the influence and power of the administration,' Cruz
Frizell notes that the two candidates "have fundamentally different philosophies and there is hardly a policy opinion they would share," and notes that Cruz "recognizes these differences too":
"'Now where Bernie and I differ
is the solution,' Cruz said. 'Bernie thinks the solution to government
being fundamentally corrupt is to have a whole lot more government. I
think that’s nuts. But I agree with the problem.'"
Here, Frizell falls down on the job rather badly. While reporting that Cruz makes such a show of raging against "politicians getting in bed with the lobbyists and
special interests," Frizell entirely fails to note Cruz's own quite comfy relationship with those same interests. As this author noted in the above article, the actual contrast with Sanders on this matter is quite sharp but though the comparison is the subject of the article he's writing, Frizell declines to explore it.