Carpetbombing and Teeth-Kicking: Violence in the Political Media

I go from unexplained absence to being too present, I know.  But, like any good political junkie, I’m reading and listening to all of the “Super Tuesday Explained!” pieces and podcasts, and there’s something else that I wanted to say about Ted Cruz, and the political media more generally.

In two places in Cruz’s early life and family history section, he describes the violence his family—and others—faced in Cuba.  On page 6, he describes how Cuba “eventually became a nightmarish horror, a place where possibilities are upended and where hope is routinely and systematically destroyed by an all-controlling and corrupt central government” (6).  A few pages later, he turns to the specifics.

“They threw him in a rotten cell, acrid with the smell of urine. Men with clubs beat him.  His captors broke his nose when they kicked him in the head with their army boots.  They bashed in his front teeth until they dangled from his mouth.  In each round of beatings, the pain was unbearable.  Then it subsided altogether because the pain had completely numbed him” (14, emphasis added–I’m coming back to this image).

His descriptions are graphic for his father, and gruesome by omission for his aunt: a few pages after describing his father’s torture, he says that “we don’t talk about what she experienced in that Cuban jail” (18).

Heavy stuff, and it doesn’t serve much purpose other than to heighten the emotional tenor of his recitation.  But Cruz knows the power of violence in persuasion.  By his own account, when he clerked for Michael Luttig on capital punishment cases, he would “also make a point of doing something the liberal clerks who opposed capital punishment rarely did—simply describing the brutal nature of the crime for which the defendant had been convicted” (93).  In one of the more tasteless moments of the book, by my reckoning, he actually opens this chapter with a two-page description of the brutal murder of Michael Luttig’s father.  Not only does Cruz admit that he used violent description to win over the judicial system—but in that same chapter, he also uses violent description to shock and intrigue his readers, appropriating the emotional impact of someone else’s story.

Further, the use of violence spills over from his anecdotes to his language in describing conflict elsewhere in the book.  In his introduction, he asks how many Democrats you would expect to “die on the barricades” (xvii) in an election year; he claims that “when you admit publicly that many of those in your own party are complicit in the problem, well, that’s when the long knives come out” (xx).  Sometimes, the violence isn’t even used to describe conflict, but just emotions.  “The question hit my father like a sledgehammer” (32), he reminisces.

Sometimes, this imagery gets really ugly.  Remember the description of his father’s torture above?  Compare to Cruz’s description of an early setback in the Bush campaign: “We had played the equivalent of a “prevent defense” in football, and as a result, we got our teeth kicked in” (110).  Or his own failure to get hired in the Bush administration: “I needed to get my teeth kicked in.  And if it hadn’t happened, there’s no way I would be in the US Senate today” (134).

As I said yesterday, Cruz wrote a boring book.  It’s 340 pages, the conclusion alone is 22 pages of meaningless platitudes, and it descends into overly-earnest autobiographical detail that any good editor should have excised quickly.  I think Cruz knows this, too—desperately trying to keep the reader awake would explain his excessive and unrelated chapter cold-opens, but I think it also explains his use of violence. 

The use of violent imagery is a lazy and ham-fisted way of trying to add drama to a long and windy narrative.  Beyond the poor stylistic choices, the use of an image as metaphor in a context much less serious devalues its original meaning–in the same way that Holocaust references are often completely out of place in campaign-trail discourse, and yet overused anyway.

But here’s what really bothers me.  In discussing his ‘fight’ over Obamacare—which culminated in the government shutdown—Cruz says this about internecine fighting in the GOP:

“The result was that, in unison, around twenty Republican senators went on television, on every single news channel, carpet-bombing the House Republicans—and us” (276).

Compare to Ted Cruz’s stance on what to do about ISIS:

I dwell on repeated words and phrases here because I think they show what concepts are the most salient to the candidates or to their imagined audience.  In Cruz’s use of the violence in his family and in his former boss’s family, he swings from reality to metaphor.  In reference to carpet-bombing, he swings from metaphor to actual military strategy.  It’s difficult to distinguish the metaphor from the reality.  Is Cruz just talking tough?  Would he actually carpet-bomb civilians?  We have no idea, because language like this is normalized in this campaign.

The use of violent language out of place is obviously not limited to Cruz, although he might be the worst offender.  Let’s take the Politico homepage today, on Super Tuesday, at 12:31pm GMT.  “Trump, Clinton to run riot on Super Tuesday,” “Judgement Day,”  “Shatter the GOP,” “Trump’s Texas Insurgency,” “Feds spar in corruption case.”  This is violent language—this is the language of war, and riot—but it appears to be the only way we know how to talk about a civil election process.  But again, this blurs the line between reality and metaphor: by talking about the election as war, violence, and brutality, we make this civil, necessary process in our democracy into a ritual of violence.

This is not the only thing wrong with our electoral system, but it needs to change.  There must be a better way to engage people.  We have to stop being lazy and find it.

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