On 23 September 2016, US Senator Ted Cruz, one of the most ferocious republican opponents and runner-up of Donald Trump during the Republican primary, announced that he was eventually endorsing him. Why endorsing him so late? Why endorsing him at all?
Because a year earlier Cruz had "pledged to endorse the Republican nominee, and I am honouring that commitment." His late pledge came despite having withheld his endorsement in front of a very infuriated and raging crowd at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July 2016 and having told them: "We're not fighting for one particular candidate or one particular campaign. We deserve leaders who stand for principle, unite us all behind shared values, cast aside anger for love. That is the standard we should expect, from everybody."
In the space of just two months, those beautiful principles, values and love he was talking about in Cleveland had simply vanished. What could have made Senator Cruz suddenly change his mind?
Was Ted Cruz some kind of blind and useless politician who couldn't fully appreciate the risks Donald Trump would represent to the United States and to the whole world if elected? Very unlikely. Trump and Cruz exchanged some harsh words, even insults, during the Republican primary and live in the debates. Trump called Cruz a Canadian who couldn't be president of the United States, insulted his wife on Twitter and even said his father was somehow involved in the assassination of JFK. Cruz had far more reasons not to endorse Trump than to endorse him.
Was Ted Cruz maybe a victim of blackmail? With an influential friend like hacker-friendly president Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump may have access to secret data, confidential emails, videos and documents that could be used against politicians like Cruz to get favours from them, such as a precious endorsement.
We remember that Hillary Clinton accused the Russians of being behind the hack of the Democratic National Committee data and emails in July 2016. In a special interview given to Bloomberg on 1 September 2016, Vladimir Putin had suspiciously said that the hacking of DNC emails and documents had been "a service to the public", although he totally denied accusations that Russia's government had had anything to do with it. "Listen, does it even matter who hacked this data?'' Putin told his interviewers.
Why not thus assume that hacking Ted Cruz could have been easier to the Russians than hacking the DNC and could have therefore given Team Trump the necessary material to 'convince' a particularly difficult opponent like Cruz to support him? Every little helps. The blackmail theory is more likely, however, very difficult if not impossible to prove.
What if Ted Cruz was in fact politically tied at the time of endorsement? In order to get the party to support him and get elected again in future elections, Ted Cruz may have had to give in to the crowds of the RNC who passionately wanted Trump as their nominee - not him, and so, give up on his great principles, swallow his pride and accept that Trump had made a fool of him, accept the humiliations, the insults, the mockeries, the public shaming of his wife and his father, and simply acknowledge Trump's powerful hand on the Republican party. The survival of one's political career sometimes comes at that cost.
Finally, what if Ted Cruz was as a populist as Trump and already thinking about the next elections? By endorsing him, Cruz had put himself in a win-win situation: If Trump was to win the presidency, he wanted to be able to say to the electorate: "Look at me, I kept my promise and helped Trump win!" If on the other hand, Trump was to lose, he wanted to be able to say to the same electorate: "Look at me, I kept my promise, although Trump was not my choice!"
Did it matter whether Ted Cruz endorsement had come only a few weeks before the election? Maybe not as much to Trump as to Cruz's family and friends.
Did this episode suddenly reveal a new populist Cruz then? No, it has merely demonstrated that Donald Trump's populism now influences even his opponents in the Republican Party. Although, they will unlikely reach his levels before some time. Trump opened the Pandora box and it won't be easy to close it again.
One of the very distinctive marks of true populist characters is the way they can easily cross the line between opportunism and populism. An opportunist will only sacrifice his principles to the benefit of his political career. A populist will jeopardise everything around him, utilise members of his own family if necessary, put his own career at risk, change his views at will, play dirty even with his friends and feel absolutely at ease with it all in order to reach or keep the power. That is what makes them so unstoppable and so dangerous.
(Originally published at www.byline.com on September 24, 2016.)