There are two types of Machiavellians in politics, Selfish Machiavellians and Kind Machiavellians. The Selfish ones are the ones we usually think of — the nakedly ambitious people who are always strategizing, sometimes ruthlessly, for their own personal advantage. The Kind Machiavellians realize that it’s smart to get along with people, so they pick their friendships strategically, feigning affection toward those who might be useful.
In Washington and maybe in life, there are many more Kind Machiavellians than Selfish ones. But Ted Cruz has always stood out for being nakedly ambitious for himself.
He was always drawn to establishment institutions: Princeton, Harvard Law. His personal drive to gain elite posts was noted, even by the standards of such places. He learned tennis to get a clerkship with Justice William Rehnquist. According to The Boston Globe, a female law student who was giving him a ride was shocked when he quickly asked her about her IQ and SAT scores.
He joined the Republican establishment while young, working for George W. Bush, although he was marginalized when administration jobs were handed out, reportedly because his ambition was off-putting. Yet Cruz is intelligent, and knows that sometimes you have to switch tactics in order to climb. Over the past few years, Cruz has become a team player. In fact, he’s become a central member of the conservative establishment.
A little history lesson is in order. During the 1970s, conservatives self-consciously built establishment institutions to counter the liberal establishment. But with the election of Ronald Reagan, the conservative establishment split into two. There was the regular conservative establishment, filled with mainstream conservatives who wanted to use the inside levers of power that Republicans now controlled.
But there was also a conservative counter-establishment. This was populated with people like Paul Weyrich, Richard Viguerie, Brent Bozell and others who were temperamentally incapable of governance. Many of these Old Right people broke with Reagan because he wasn’t ideologically pure on this or that policy matter.
Today the conservative community still has at least two establishments, or three if you want to throw in the young Reform Conservatives. The mainstream establishment tends to side with party leaders like Paul Ryan and whoever the presidential nominee is. The Old Right Counter Conservative Establishment has grown in recent years. For example, the Heritage Foundation, which used to be more or less conservative establishment, has gone more Counter Establishment.
The difference is the establishment wants to use the levers of power to practically pass reforms. The Counter Establishment believes that Washington is pervasively corrupt and is implacably hostile to the GOP leadership.
Since he came to Washington, Ted Cruz has meticulously aligned himself with the rising and rich conservative Counter Establishment. He’s called his party leader a liar on the Senate floor. In another recent floor speech he accused every Republican but him and Mike Lee of selling out their principles for money. His efforts to shut down the government did enormous harm to the Republican Party and to the country, but they cemented his relationship with the members of the Counter Establishment. Crucially, those battles enabled him to amass the email lists that are a large part of his donor base.
His campaign is uniting the Counter Establishment. According to some excellent reporting in the National Journal, he was rapturously received by members of the Council for National Policy, an important Counter Establishment gathering. He’s been endorsed by the old guard, Viguerie and Bozell.
The Counter Establishment is now nearly as financially flush and institutionally entrenched as the mainstream establishment. Cruz has been able to tap into it to raise gobs of money. In the third quarter, Cruz raised $12.2 million, about twice what rival Marco Rubio raised over the same period. His super PACs raised $31 million in the few weeks of his campaign, largely from hedge fund manager Robert Mercer. He’s had fundraisers hosted by Joseph Konzelmann, a managing director at Goldman Sachs.
He’s won over the Counter Establishment and even some of the regular establishment by being tactical in his policy positions, shifting his views most notoriously on trade promotion authority and foreign policy generally. He savages Republicans habitually but initially refused to criticize Donald Trump. As Eliana Johnson of National Review put it, the paradox of Cruz is that “The man who boasts of his ideological purity is perhaps the most obviously tactical candidate.”
Cruz is riding the shift in the conservative activist establishment, the way groups like the Club for Growth now provide a power base for someone who wants to run against the GOP leadership.
A friend once joked that the journalist has the ultimate power: The power to choose who he wants to be co-opted by. Ted Cruz is surging as the figurehead of the rich and interlocked Counter Establishment. And he gets to do it while pretending that he is anti-establishment. That’s a nice trick. Even a Machiavellian one.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.