Ted Cruz falls prey to Donald Trump's childish antics: By losing his cool, he is playing right into Trump's game

The insults about his wife have gotten Cruz angry — but he can't beat Trump in the mudslinging war

Published March 25, 2016 3:21PM (EDT)

Ted Cruz   (Reuters/Jason Miczek)
Ted Cruz (Reuters/Jason Miczek)

Ted Cruz is angry. The Texas senator is a patient man, a methodical man, but there are some lines you just don't cross. One of those lines is his wife, Heidi Cruz. Donald Trump crossed that line.

Earlier this week Donald Trump threatened Cruz and his wife on Twitter, writing “Lyin' Ted Cruz just used a picture of Melania from a G.Q. Shoot in his ad. Be careful, Lyin' Ted, or I will spill the beans on your wife!” The “beans,” in this case, appears to be a veiled reference to Heidi Cruz's history of depression, an incident of which was reported last year by McKay Coppins and Megan Apper of Buzzfeed. To state the obvious: this is a vile new low in a Republican campaign punctuated by low points. The use of spouses as campaign fodder is an obscenity, and an embarrassment for everyone involved. And Heidi Cruz's mental health is none of our business.

Trump's threat was a response to a Facebook advertisement targeting Mormons in the days leading up to the recent Utah primary. The ad featured an image of Trump's wife posing nude in British GQ magazine in 2000. The ad was released by an anti-Trump super PAC, Make America Awesome, which has no “official” connection to the Cruz campaign. Now that's likely legal speak and says nothing about off-the-radar coordination between the super PAC and Cruz's campaign, but that's another story.

In any event, Cruz was not happy about Trump's tweet and immediately fired back on his own Twitter account: “Pic of your wife not from us. Donald, if you try to attack Heidi, you're more of a coward than I thought.” And in case that response wasn't sufficiently high energy, Cruz doubled down during an impromptu press conference on Wednesday:

“I don't get angry often,” Cruz told reporters, “but you mess with my wife, you mess with my kids – that'll do it every time. Donald, you're a sniveling coward and leave Heidi the hell alone.” Cruz was then asked if he would support Trump as the nominee. After a brief pause, he gave a half-hearted non-answer: “I'm gonna beat him for the nomination...Donald Trump will not be the nominee.” He added that “spouses and children are off bounds” and that “it is not acceptable for a big, loud New York bully to attack my wife.”

Cruz has continued criticizing Trump, pointing out his rather obvious fear of strong women: “He [Trump] ran away from the last debate that was scheduled because he was scared of Megyn Kelly and because he was scared to defend his policies.” Cruz isn't wrong about this, of course, but it's unlikely to damage Trump's brand.

All of this diversionary nonsense benefits Trump more than anyone else. This is Trump's game – it's his only play. He's a one-trick pony. It's no accident this happened immediately after Trump lost badly in Utah. This is how he dictates the conversation. He creates a sideshow spectacle for the media to chew on. It's about dominating headlines and purging relevant issues out of the discourse.

Trump has consistently forced the other candidates to dance to his tune. He bullies and insults until his target finally surrenders and fires back. This is another way of setting the terms. As long as Trump is exchanging insults and not talking policy or specifics, he's in his comfort zone. Trump isn't nearly as dim as he pretends to be, but he's a master of mudslinging. A grade school squabble is exactly what he wants.

That's what this is about. Like everyone else Trump smears, Heidi Cruz is just collateral damage.

By Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at silling@salon.com.

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Donald Trump Elections 2016 Republican Party Ted Cruz