Ted Cruz’s Sophisticated Bigotry

This is how you bash Muslims while pretending to be principled. 

Presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz.
Sen. Ted Cruz on Oct. 28, 2015 in Boulder, Colorado.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Sen. Ted Cruz is going mainstream. As Slate’s Jim Newell and Jamelle Bouie have reported, Cruz now sees a realistic path to the Republican presidential nomination and is repositioning himself, accordingly, as a statesmanlike alternative to Donald Trump. The tricky part is tapping into the same resentments Trump exploits—anti-immigrant, anti-Islam, anti-black—without doing it quite so crudely.

There’s a fine art to this sort of manipulation. You have to touch the right nerves—fear of a black president, indignation at bilingualism, hunger for retaliation against Muslims—while cloaking your demagoguery in the language of terrorism, sovereignty, and the rule of law. Cruz, a skilled lawyer and wordsmith, is demonstrating this technique in his current campaign against Muslim immigrants.

Eight months ago, when Cruz announced his candidacy, he pledged to defeat “radical Islamic terrorism.” This formulation allowed him to excoriate President Obama for refusing to acknowledge that our enemies were Muslim. At the same time, it insulated Cruz from charges of naked sectarianism. Cruz wasn’t against all Muslims. He just wanted to protect us from radical, terrorist Muslims.

Then came the attacks in Paris. An anti-Muslim backlash swelled on the right. Standing against terrorism wasn’t good enough anymore. To stay on the cutting edge, Cruz needed a broader target. So he coined a new menace: “Syrian Muslim refugees.”

For more than a week, in nearly every speech and interview, Cruz has underscored this threat. To protect the United States, he argues, we must deny entry not to all refugees or to all Syrian refugees, but to Syrian Muslim refugees. In a tour of right-wing media, Cruz used this phrase twice on Sean Hannity’s show, three times on Glenn Beck’s show, three times on Graham Ledger’s show, four times on Steven Crowder’s show, and five times on Mark Levin’s show.

The new message serves three purposes. It conveys vigilance. It appeals to popular anger at Muslims. And it positions Cruz as a defender of Christians. Winning the religious right is a pillar of Cruz’s campaign strategy. That’s why, in one appearance after another, he has emphasized that his segregation of Muslim from non-Muslim immigrants is designed to protect Christians. As he explained to Beck:

Christians are being crucified right now, Glenn. They’re being beheaded. And the president says it’s offensive and un-American to want to provide safe haven. Just three percent of the Syrians that this administration has let in are Christians. He’s ignoring the [genocide] directed at Middle Eastern Christians.

Obama, in Cruz’s view, is a callous bigot for inadvertently limiting Christians—who represent 10 percent of Syria’s population—to 3 percent of the refugees we admit. Cruz has a fairer idea. He would explicitly limit Muslims, who represent 87 percent of Syria’s population, to 0 percent of the incoming refugees.

As a lawyer and political tactician, Cruz knows he can’t acknowledge a religious basis for this policy. So he has come up with two secular rationales. One is that Christians are a persecuted minority in the Muslim world and must therefore be favored under U.S. immigration law. The other rationale is that we can’t verify which Syrian Muslims are terrorists. Last week, as Cruz introduced legislation that he said would bar Muslims from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries, he explained that according to the FBI, we have no reliable database of who’s done what in Syria. Therefore, he argued, “The administration cannot vet these refugees to determine whether or not they are ISIS terrorists.”

Cruz has constructed these arguments well. A reasonable person, after listening sympathetically, might conclude that Cruz, unlike Trump, has designed his refugee policy out of prudence, not prejudice. But two clues betray Cruz’s insincerity. The first is his selective vigilance. Last Thursday, Cruz was asked why his argument against Syrian Muslims—that we have no reliable database against which to check their claims—didn’t also apply to self-described Christians. “There’s no history of ISIS attempting to embed in the Christian community and pretending to be Christians, for years back,” the senator replied. He added: “Of course, we should vet everyone. But nobody thinks that two, three, four, five years ago, ISIS terrorists were pretending to be Christians. They despise Christians.”

That’s the sound of a politician reaching for an excuse. When the applicant is a professed Christian, Cruz relaxes his skepticism. His heart melts, and so does his brain. Any sensible analyst will tell you that terrorists use whatever disguise they think you’re not looking for. This year, ISIS operatives have staged multiple attacks by posing as Iraqi soldiers, Kurdish security forces, and women. Two months ago, an ISIS militant disguised himself as a woman to blow up 10 people at a mosque in Yemen. In July, a former spokesman for the Free Syrian Army claimed that ISIS was plotting to dress female militants in Western clothing and send them to Europe disguised as tourists. Anyone who thinks terrorists would refuse to disguise themselves as Christians, if that’s who we’re letting in, is a fool.

The second clue is Cruz’s omission of Shiite Muslims. Fifteen to 20 percent of Syrians (or fewer, depending on how you define them) are Shiites. ISIS reviles these people. ISIS claims to represent Sunni Islam, the faith’s other major branch, which encompasses three-quarters of Syria’s population. To purify Islam, ISIS seeks to annihilate the Shiites. According to Human Rights Watch, ISIS has systematically “executed Shia captives,” with a death toll in the hundreds, and probably thousands. ISIS has destroyed Shiite mosques, forbidden Shiite rituals, and expelled Shiite residents. Earlier this year, ISIS beheaded eight Shiite men on camera, calling them infidels. Its fighters segregate Shiites for termination by asking captives how they pray, where they live, and what music they like.

If Cruz’s refugee policy were designed to help victims of persecution, he would have named Shiites as a protected class. But he hasn’t. In his recent speeches and interviews, I can’t find a single instance in which he has mentioned these people. That’s because they confound his distinction between Muslims and persecuted minorities. Shiites are Muslim victims of ISIS. They force you to decide: Are you for excluding all Muslims? Or will you draw distinctions within Islam? Cruz has made his choice.

There’s no principled reason to accept Syrian Christians but not Syrian Shiites. Shiites, broadly defined, are more numerous than Christians in Syria, yet they’re less likely to be admitted to the United States as refugees. Cruz says it’s outrageous that only 3 percent of the refugees we’ve accepted from Syria are Christian. But we’ve accepted four times as many Christians as Shiites. Why doesn’t Cruz speak up for Shiites? Because they’re not a powerful constituency in Republican primaries. Under his policy, Syrian Shiites would be denied entry to the United States—and instead resettled, at their peril, in “majority Muslim countries.”

Cruz is a disciplined man. Unlike Trump, Mike Huckabee, and other hotheads, he’s careful to frame his anti-Muslim rhetoric in the language of radicalism and terrorism. But occasionally, the mask slips. For Crowder’s Webcam interview, the senator, looking tired after arriving home at the end of a busy day, shed his jacket and tie. He listened as Crowder outlined “four winning issues for Republicans.” The host didn’t mince words: “Islam, now, is a winning issue: calling it out for what it is.” Cruz nodded vigorously and responded, “Yep.”

That’s what’s really going on. Cruz isn’t agonizing over the mechanics of vetting refugees. He’s exploiting anti-Muslim anger and sucking up to the Christian right. And he’s doing it while wearing his own disguise: principled leader.