In this year of Trump, the land is loud with the wails of political commentators, rending their garments and crying out, “How can this be happening?” But a few brave souls are willing to whisper the awful truth: Many voters support Donald Trump because they actually agree with his ideas.
This is not, however, a column about Trump. It is, instead, about Sen. Ted Cruz, who has emerged as the favored candidate of the GOP elite now that less disagreeable alternatives have imploded.
In a way, that’s quite a remarkable development. For Cruz has staked out positions on crucial issues that are, not to put too fine a point on it, crazy. How can elite Republicans back him?
The answer is the same for Cruz and the elite as it is for Trump and the base: Leading Republicans support Cruz, not despite his policy positions, but because of them. They may not like his style, but they agree with his substance.
This is true, for example, when it comes to Cruz’s belligerent stance on foreign policy. Establishment Republicans may wince at the candidate’s fondness for talking about “carpet bombing” or his choice of a noted anti-Muslim bigot and conspiracy theorist as an adviser.
But both Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio chose foreign policy teams dominated by the very people who pushed America into the Iraq debacle, and learned nothing from the experience. I know I wasn’t the only observer who looked at those rosters and thought, “They will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.”
And then there’s a subject dear to my heart: monetary policy. You might be surprised to learn that few of the subjects I write on inspire as much passion – or as much hate mail. And it’s a subject on which Cruz has staked out a distinctive position, by calling for a return to the gold standard.
This is, in case you’re wondering, very much a fringe position among economists. When members of a large bipartisan panel on economic policy, run by the University of Chicago business school, were asked whether a gold standard would be an improvement on current arrangements, not one said yes.
In fact, many economists believe that a destructive focus on gold played a major role in the spread of the Great Depression. And Cruz’s obsession with gold is one reason to believe that he would do even more economic damage in the White House than Trump would.
So how can elite Republicans – people who have denounced Trump in part because they claim that he advocates terrible economic policies – be supporting a candidate with such fringe views? The answer is that many of them are also out there on the fringe.
This wasn’t always true. As recently as 2004, Bush administration economists lauded the very kind of policy activism a return to the gold standard is supposed to prevent, declaring that “aggressive monetary policy can help make a recession shorter and milder.” But today’s leading Republicans, living in their own closed intellectual universe, are a very different breed.
Take, as a not at all arbitrary example, Rep. Paul D. Ryan, the speaker of the House and arguably the de facto leader of the Republican establishment.
As I have pointed out on a number of occasions, Ryan is fundamentally a con man on his signature issue, fiscal policy. Incidentally, for what it’s worth, Cruz has been relatively honest by his party’s standards on this issue, openly declaring his intention to raise taxes that hit the poor and the middle class even as he slashes them on the rich.
But Ryan seems to be a true believer on monetary policy – the kind of true believer whose faith cannot be shaken by contrary evidence. It’s now five years since he accused Ben Bernanke of pursuing inflationary policies that would “debase” the dollar; if the rising dollar and slumping inflation that followed has ever given him pause, he has shown no sign of it.
But what, exactly, is the nature of his monetary faith? The same as the nature of Cruz’s beliefs: Both men are devotees of Ayn Rand, even if Ryan now tries to downplay his well-documented Rand fandom.
At one point Ryan got quite specific about his intellectual roots, declaring that he always goes back to “Francisco d’Anconia’s speech on money” – one of the interminable monologues in Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” – “when I think about monetary policy.” And that speech is a paean to the gold standard and a denunciation of money-printing as immoral.
The moral here is that we shouldn’t be surprised by the Republican establishment’s willingness to rally behind Cruz. Yes, Cruz portrays himself as an outsider, and has managed to make remarkably many personal enemies. But while his policy ideas are extreme, they reflect the same extremism that pervades the party’s elite.
There are no moderates, or for that matter, sensible people, anywhere in this story.