So after spending roughly 24 hours adopting a pose of humility and contrition, Iowa caucuses runner-up Donald Trump is back in character, accusing the man who defeated him, Sen. Ted Cruz, of perpetrating a “fraud.”
You can read more about the Donald’s about-face here, but if you’d rather hear it from the man himself, these are the relevant tweets his account sent out on Wednesday morning — including the one he deleted, presumably for legal reasons:
Now this, this is the Donald Trump who some Americans have come to love — and most Americans have come to loathe — over the past six or so months. He's strident, implacable, unapologetic, undeterred. He is, in a word, strong. (There are other words you could use to describe him, of course. Quite a few! But when his supporters see him acting this way, their inclination, for any number of reasons, is to describe it as a sign of "strength.")
There's another classically Trumpian element to this latest break from reigning political norms. It's not only his complete disregard for the (admirably) well-established expectation that an American politician should not question the legitimacy of any election they happen to lose — though there's that, too, of course. It's the fact that somewhere deep in this latest delivery of bullshit from Trump's alternative universe is, well, a kernel of truth.
No, the Cruz campaign did not commit "fraud"; but there is plenty of evidence that it did play more than a little fast-and-loose, ethically, during the campaign's waning days. There was, for example, the "rumor," which circulated among evangelical voters (whose support Cruz desperately needed), that Dr. Ben Carson, a fellow darling of Iowa's Christian conservatives, was quitting — and that his supporters should therefore throw their weight behind Cruz.
There's no proof that this emanated from the Cruz team, to be clear. But as Gawker's Jordan Sargent noted, their denials — they claim they merely "alerted" some Carson supporters that the good doctor would be heading to Florida after the caucuses — weren't exactly vociferous. And this report from MSNBC's Jane Timm, who spoke with other activists and operatives in Iowa's right-wing evangelical circles, lends Trump's allegation some further heft:
Dr. Ben Carson and his campaign accused Sen. Ted Cruz’s team of sabotaging Carson in the Iowa caucuses Monday night by encouraging Cruz supporters to tell voters at their caucus sites – incorrectly – that Carson was dropping out of the race.
“It was happening all over,” Iowa State Director Ryan Rhodes told MSNBC. “One of the precincts Candy [Carson, the candidate’s wife] walked into, she had to correct the record. She actually walked in, in Ankeny, and gave a speech about no, he’s still in the race and that’s a lie.” [...]
A half dozen Iowans, many of then connected with MSNBC by the Carson campaign, told stories of being mislead about Carson’s intentions in the race.
Barb Heki, a homeschool activist and Gov. Mike Huckabee supporter who said she is friendly with nearly all the campaigns in Iowa, told MSNBC that the speakers supporting Cruz at her caucus location, Hyperion Point Country Club in Johnston, Iowa, announced that Carson was getting out of the race before several-hundred caucus-goers at her location took a vote.
And this email, which Sargent shared in a follow-up to his original post, doesn't look too kosher, either:
Again: This is not proof that Cruz's campaign cheated — not technically, that is. And "politics ain't beanbag" is a cliché for a reason. But is this enough for his supporters, who believe they are the "silent majority," to use in order to argue that Trump didn't lose; that he was just the victim of yet another elite conspiracy? Yes, absolutely. There's still a kernel of truth there, just like when Trump says big business wants immigration reform because it values cheap labor.
But the important thing here is not the relative validity of Trump's accusations. What's important, instead, is that the theory gives Trump just enough wiggle room to revert back to his old swaggering, macho, and paranoid form. He can go back to calling everyone a loser — and that's especially the case with Cruz, who, after all, didn't really win. The entire strongman fantasy that's propelled his campaign, he can rev that engine up and ride it to a landslide in New Hampshire.
It's his get-out-of-reality-free card, adapted for a post-election context. You survive an election loss by saying, in effect, "Actually, it was a win."