The surprising emotion driving Ted Cruz

December 29, 2015
U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) speaks against pending immigration legislation during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, June 20, 2013. An army of new federal agents and high-tech surveillance devices would be dispatched to the U.S.-Mexican border under a deal reached on Thursday that is aimed at winning increased Republican support for an immigration bill in the U.S. Senate. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS SOCIETY IMMIGRATION HEADSHOT) - RTX10V9G

U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) speaks against pending immigration legislation during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, June 20, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

There is a touchstone experience that appears to have helped define Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), the Republican candidate now running second to Donald Trump in many polls. Cruz regularly talks about his father briefly abandoning the family when the future candidate was just three years old, displaying a look of sadness more nakedly than anyone else in this race.

The sadness sometimes shows itself in Cruz’s inner eyebrows pulling upward as his eyebrows knit together. Other times, it emerges as a wince, where the upper lip pulls upward laterally, as the skin lifts obliquely outward just below the cheekbones.

Both expressions are all too common in Cruz. It’s possible that his father’s decision to leave the family left its mark on Cruz emotionally. If so, it’s a scar repeatedly — and triumphantly — revisited on the campaign trail because the story ends with his dad finding Christ and rejoining the family. It emerges as a redemptive tale that also serves to reiterate Cruz’s own devout evangelical faith.

Yet it’s just as possible that Cruz’s sadness reflects his belief that the United States is drifting aimlessly — as shorn of proper leadership as a family without a father to guide it. Whether the topic is “the Washington cartel” or illegal immigration, Cruz conveys a feeling that the status quo is painfully unacceptable. His look of sorrow effectively reinforces his call for change. It also suggests that he empathetically feels the voters’ pain.

Sadness alone, however, does not define Cruz’s emotional profile. There’s the affirmative Cruz, who smiles and nods slightly, often while pressing his lips together in a sign of determined avowal to change how things get done in America. There’s also the combative Cruz, who moves from a disgusted aversion to the status quo (raised upper lips) to aggressively rejecting the status quo (lips pressed so tightly together that the skin just below the middle of the lower lip bulges). Often so aggressive that he will ball one hand into a fist. Both those expressive tendencies characterize Cruz — though sadness still overshadows all. That is what makes Cruz emotionally unique.

Sadness usually conveys a sense of hopelessness, of feeling cast adrift. But by also expressing happiness, disgust and anger, Cruz signals that he won’t surrender to despair. In fact, he’s full of what looks like irrepressible energy and conviction — dual traits that antagonize his opponents as much as they endear him to supporters.

Case in point is an incident that gave Cruz notoriety, and helped cement his place as a Tea Party favorite. That would be the 21-hour, marathon speech Cruz delivered on the floor of the U.S. Senate in September 2013, decrying Obamacare.  Just shy of the record 24-hour filibuster Strom Thurmond maintained in 1957 against the Civil Rights Act, Cruz’s prodigious effort was equally significant for the stakes involved. By attempting to defund Obamacare in exchange for passage of a resolution to continue funding the government, Cruz signaled a willingness to cause both a government shutdown and a default on the national debt.

Anger is an emotion about wanting to be in control of your destiny and making progress as you see fit, and people tend to get angrier to the extent that they believe barriers to progress are unjustified. So in this situation, Cruz felt angry, but so were fellow Republicans whom Cruz had targeted for their “defeatist attitude.” Many colleagues were incensed, with Representative Peter King (R-NY) calling Cruz a “holier-than-thou fraud” who portrays himself as “the only honest man . . . fighting for the country.”

Two years later, Cruz led the charge against the moderators during the CNBC-sponsored Republican debate, accusing them of attempting to stage a “cage match.” His exchange with John Harwood of the New York Times devolved to the point where Cruz made the scolding retort: “So you don’t actually want to hear the answer, John? You don’t want to hear the answer, you just want to incite insults?”

At a recent Mechanicsville, Virginia rally, that same ready-to-let-it-rip candidate stood in front of a sign that read “Trusted” (with the adjective’s last three letters in red, for emphasis) above the second line of supporting words: Courageous, Conservative, Consistent. That theme of consistency raises another point about Cruz’s candidacy from an emotional point of view. As notable as Cruz’s frequent expressions of sadness is the relative absence of another emotion: surprise. Like the emotion it’s most aligned with, fear, surprise is about being alert to changes that may bring happiness (a wow) or problems (an ugh). Think of it as the difference between getting a new car for Christmas or having a new car accident on the way home from the office holiday party. Surprise is a pre-emotion that soon gets replaced by an emotional response, positive or negative, that serves to evaluate what kind of surprise just happened.

Now a large part of Cruz’s appeal as a candidate is that he comes across as so confident, so consistent, so certain that his views and solutions are right. Unless he’s discussing Islamic State, for example, Cruz almost never shows fear — one of the possible negative responses to a surprise. The only surprise he typically shows is the mock surprise of the eyebrow flash, where both eyebrows quickly rise and then fall again, visually emphasizing what he’s saying rather than expressing the surprise and anxiety that raised eyebrows can convey. Otherwise, Cruz appears almost immune to being surprised — so certain is he of how to remedy a world of painful turmoil.

All of the four remaining evangelical Republican candidates have leveraged righteous indignation, even anger, to a large extent. But Cruz is unique in evincing sadness. The emotional dynamic he displays — a combustible mixture of happiness, disgust and anger, supported by the theatre of eyebrow flashes, nods and fists — involves a tension between those more proactive, often virulent emotions and a fundamental sorrow.

Cruz’s presentations have a strange pleading quality due to that sadness. It’s as if he’s a salesman constantly disappointed that you won’t buy more of what he’s selling. There are so many adjectives one could throw at Cruz: brazen, brash, pleading, fervent, forceful, persistent, and stubborn are among them. And that’s even before you get to King’s dismissal of Cruz as a “holier-than-thou fraud” or “carnival barker,” a man who exhibits a certain earnest unctuousness.

But sadness remains the core part of Cruz’s emotive arsenal, the signature look of a man who’s happy to be the unhappy warrior striving to mold the world the way he sees fit.


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Interesting that these marathon speeches in Congress are always negative. People seem tto get really heated up only when they want to destroy something. Nobody ever spoke for 24 hours in favor of anything.

Posted by pbgd | Report as abusive

The sadness that you see on the face of Rafael Cruz is that no matter how hard he tries, he’ll never be an “natural born citizen” of the US. He is a US citizen by “statue’ because his mother is a US citizen. Therefore, he’ll never be eligible for the position of POTUS or VPOTUS. He is a “natural born citizen” of Canada. Maybe he should run for Prime Minister of Canada–the country of his birth.

Posted by IamBAD1 | Report as abusive

Don’t be silly. Ted Cruz is an actor. No one with real human emotions could ever consider his brand of politics as anything more than manipulation of easily manipulated dimwits who cannot sense evil. He works for the wealthy and corporations, and intends to impose his antiquated religion on everyone else. He is as much a fascist as Trump, but not as good at the manipulation technique. He reminds me of Joe McCarty, and he even looks like him. He will lead us on witch hunts and he will supply torture to the sinners. We’ll have wars to raise oil prices (like with all the republicans) and he will increase the secret police state. He does not believe in justice or liberty or freedom. He believes in the dictation of his beliefs to all under his power. He is a dictator in the making.

He is also a little puffy and soft. How does a man become that soft? I know Trump is a puffball, but he is at least old. What is Cruz’s excuse?

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

Ted Cruz is a whiner and a perpetual victim. The kind of guy you want to urinate on.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Besides immigration there are many other problems especially security and economy.
As such America is now full up to neck with immigrants and also economy does not afford charity at least at this time.
Yes immigrants are in trouble but one must know precisely as to how many are undergoing such trouble lured by American benefits and how many are militants which is impossible to find.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

Ted Cruz WILL be president (of the North American Man Boy Love Association – Houston Chapter).

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

My vote is for Ted Cruz as President!

Posted by Puneet1 | Report as abusive

Cuban Ned Flanders.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

I’d be sad too with a face like that. The boy has been beat repeatedly with an ugly stick. Ted Cruz is a punch line to a bad joke, the joke is the state of republican politics.

Posted by Whipsplash | Report as abusive

We’re all sad that the Socialist Democrats have managed to win the hearts of >50% of voters with their lies and promises. After 2016, many U.S. taxpayers will be moving, if Cruz or his endorsed candidate doesn’t win. I’d love to hear what his alternative to living in Texas, U.S.A. might be. I’m giving serious consideration to Mongolia, a democracy. They have 60M head of cattle and cell phones for three million people. Sounds good to me.

Posted by hometown | Report as abusive


Posted by Whipsplash | Report as abusive

Hometown promises: “After 2016, many U.S. taxpayers will be moving, if Cruz or his endorsed candidate doesn’t win.”

Good. See ya.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

hometown: please speak with other like minded people and plan a mass exodus. It would be much appreciated.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

LOL bro, I’ll even donate to that cause.

Posted by Whipsplash | Report as abusive

Bill Clinton and Barrack Obama were raised by their mothers after their husbands abandoned them. The emotional flaws in both Clinton and Obama are evident, but excused by their supporters.

Posted by Nidster | Report as abusive