That things are getting nasty between Ted Cruz and Donald Trump right now is not an accident. As Margaret Hartmann at New York magazine noted Monday morning, "Now, after a few days of soul searching and passive-aggressive sniping, the Trump-Cruz bromance is officially over." Cruz, who has spent most of the campaign with his nose firmly embedded in Trump's rear has done an about-face. This is almost surely by design. Cruz has been drafting Trump for months now, using Trump's ability to rally the right wing nuts that Cruz needs to win, and now that the primaries are getting closer, he's going to try to pull out and pass Trump. But it seems Cruz may not have learned the most important lesson: If you're going to come at the king, you best not miss.
(The "king," in this case, is whoever is the biggest asshole in the room, clearly the overriding concern for conservative voters this year.)
Cruz has spent the past couple of weeks teasing this out, increasing his criticisms of Trump and trying to make "New York values" a thing, but ever since Tuesday's debate, he's been really ripping it out. Hartmann reports:
So at an event in Whitefield, New Hampshire, on Monday night, Cruz shifted gears, directly attacking Trump in a speech to voters. Cruz went after one of the central tenets of the businessman's campaign: that no one has a more extreme position on immigration. If that's so, Cruz wondered, why didn't Trump stand up against the bipartisan immigration bill that passed in the Senate in 2013?
Cruz worked the conservative purity angle hard, accusing Trump of being a closet liberal. "Ronald Reagan did not spend the first 60 years of his life supporting Democratic politicians, advocating for big-government policies, supporting things like the TARP big bank bailout, supporting things like expanding Obamacare to turn it into socialized medicine," Cruz argued in another speech.
Cruz's communications director doubled down on Twitter over the weekend on this "New York values" charge, accusing New Yorkers of being secret commies and, heaven forfend, having laws limiting how much salt fast food companies can drown your food in. (Real Americans have high blood pressure and like it, thank you very much.) But perhaps my favorite accusation was this one:
— Rick Tyler (@rickwtyler) January 17, 2016
If you click past the conservative hysteria-baiting of the Gateway Pundit post that Tyler linked to the actual news article, you'll find a) this is just a marketing stunt for a sex toy company and not actually an endorsement of public masturbation and b) public masturbation is illegal in New York City. But facts aren't going to impede someone who is fine with implying that masturbation is a dirty habit exclusive to the decadent streets of New York City and not something that a red state man would ever engage in. (They're watching all that porn for research purposes!)
It remains to be seen if all this will work, but early signs show that Cruz may have misjudged his ability to unseat Trump. The first sign that he's in over his head was the "New York values" gambit. Anyone who has been alive for the past 15 years could have guessed that Trump would simply counter by invoking 9/11, and yet somehow Cruz seemed surprised during the debate when this, the most predictable political gambit in the history of such things, actually went down.
More surprisingly, Cruz's strategy of portraying himself as a "pure" conservative alternative to Trump, who doesn't even try to hide how he's just making this all up as he goes along, may be crashing against voter indifference. For whatever reason, Trump's inauthenticity doesn't seem to bother conservative voters.
Take, for instance, Trump's relationship with evangelical voters. By any reasonable measure, Trump should be losing their vote already. His claims to be a devout believer and a "family values" conservatives are laughably easy to punch through. His three marriages helped create the image of the wealthy narcissist who trades his current wife for a younger model the second the first crow's foot comes in. He was pro-choice and gay-tolerant right up until the minute he decided to move into Republican politics.
Trump doesn't even bother to learn the lingo. Sunday he gave a speech at Liberty University, the fundamentalist college founded by Jerry Falwell, where he referenced 2 Corinthians 3:17. However, he called it "Two Corinthians", whereas anyone who has ever actually set foot in a church knows it's called "second Corinthians".
Even though he outed himself as someone who doesn't know even the most obvious thing about the religion he purports to honor and defend, the crowd laughed and applauded. That's because, as The New York Times reported on Monday, Trump's inability to convincingly fake piety has not hurt him with the evangelical crowd.
"Spirituality is a big issue, but we need somebody who’s strong," one typical evangelical Trump supporter told the New York Times.
This makes no sense if you foolishly believe, like David Brooks, that Christian conservatives actually mean it when they talk about following Jesus and family values. But religion has always been a fig leaf for the right, a way to dress up an agenda of hate and dominance as something more respectable. As long as Trump keeps speaking to the bitterness and anger they feel over the decline of white dominance, they'll continue to overlook that he doesn't do as good a job as they do at coughing up empty platitudes about piety.
Of course, Cruz is exactly the same kind of animal: Phony virtue unconvincingly plastered over a clearly sadistic agenda. And to be fair, it's working for him insofar as he's second in the polls. But he needs one more big push to unseat Trump, and it's clear that his campaign has settled on "inauthenticity" as their main attack on Trump. But making it stick is going to be hard work. Trump supporters clearly don't care, or they would have abandoned him eons ago. Plus, Cruz himself is a picture perfect example of a sleazy politician who will say anything to get elected. In the battle of who can be the slimier, more sadistic creep who mouths pieties they clearly don't care about, Cruz may be a master, but Trump may emerge as the all-time champion.