Of the top two Republicans in Iowa, one is a universally recognizable type. Short on policy, long on ego and bombast, promising to redeem a nation he disparages through the force of his will, Donald Trump’s strongman shtick is familiar from Buenos Aires to Rome, inflected though it is by reality TV and the property business. The other, Ted Cruz, champion of the caucuses, is the scion of a particular version of America and of a peculiar era in its history; a politician who repels or baffles many of his compatriots, even as others rally to his godly standard.
Superficially, the senator from Texas is a classic over-achiever, whose ability to surmount Himalayan obstacles – such as winning that office in his first-ever political race – bespeaks and fuels an adamantine self-confidence; the sort whose warp-speed ascent is powered by strenuous calculation and fearsome intelligence. Don Willett, a judge and long-term acquaintance, describes Mr Cruz as a “freakishly gifted” lawyer; watching him argue at the Supreme Court, during his stint as Texas’s solicitor-general, was “like watching Michael Jackson unveil the moonwalk.”
Like many modern politicians, if not Mr Trump, he is uncannily disciplined. On the trail he tells the same jokes, accompanied by the same gestures and self-satisfied chuckles, reproducing chunks of his book, A Time for Truth, verbatim. In good lawyerly fashion, he stretches the bounds of taste and honesty rather than blatantly violating them.
Yet for all these formulaic talents, in his outlook and appeal Mr Cruz is an idiosyncratic product of the convulsions that followed the financial crisis and Barack Obama’s election, and of his upbringing. Like many of his core beliefs, his evangelical faith – “To God be the glory,” began his victory speech in Iowa – came from his father Rafael, a Cuban refugee who fled to Texas, turned to drink, then found God and is now a zealous preacher. By all accounts, Mr Cruz’s Christianity is profound and sincere: Chip Roy, formerly his chief of staff, recalls visiting his condo to pick up his suit and spying a Bible and other devotional books at his bedside. It is audible in his cadences and susurrations, his frequent references to scripture, disgust at the Supreme Court’s defilements and injunctions to prayer: “Father God, please,” he asks supporters to murmur, “continue this spirit of revival, awaken the body of Christ.”
In Iowa, some were plainly impressed. “He’s a man of faith,” purred a cheering woman at a restaurant that poked from the snow of Manchester into the milky sky. Mr Cruz would be the most insistently religious Republican nominee in decades.
He would also be the most ardently devoted to the constitution, a fervour itself influenced by his creed – for him, as for the Founding Fathers, Americans’ rights are bestowed by God – and by his background. Before he fled Cuba, Rafael Cruz was tortured, which helps to explain why, for his son, freedom is always imperilled and government constantly on the verge of despotism. To hear him tell it, Obamacare is not just regrettable but tyrannical; gun controls are the high road to the gulag. That vigilance over liberty is widespread in Texas, where he spent most of his childhood (he was born in Canada, which Mr Trump says might disqualify him). He was among a group of teenagers who learned a mnemonic version of the constitution and regurgitated it at clubby lunches. Daniel Hodge, a former colleague and now the governor’s chief of staff, reckons Mr Cruz is a Texan “from his head to his boots.” His lucky pair are made of ostrich skin….