Looks like Donald Trump is not the only Republican candidate who responds to protesters by suggesting that someone should beat them into submission. At a recent campaign rally in Indiana, Cruz responded to a protester, reported to be a child, with a pompous lecture about the glories of spanking.
"One of the things that hopefully someone has told you is that children should actually speak with respect," Cruz said.
"In my household, when a child behaves that way they get a spanking," he said, as the crowd cheered.
It was one of those moments when the cowardice of the conservative movement was laid bare. Unable to defend conservative views, even to a small child, the crowd hooted and hollered for the use of brute force. While Cruz used the word "respect", what he was not asking for was respect. This was all about extracting unearned deference with the threat of violence.
Does anything better illustrate the toxicity of conservative ideology better than the enthusiasm for beating children? Research has shown time and time again that child-beating, even if you employ the euphemism "spanking" to justify it, does not actually achieve better behavior in children.
Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin recently published a meta-analysis looking over 50 years of research on spanking and found that not only does it not work to improve children's behavior — on the contrary, spanked children tend to act out more — but that it's linked to higher rates of mental illness, anti-social behavior and cognitive difficulties.
"We as a society think of spanking and physical abuse as distinct behaviors," Elizabeth Gershoff, an associate professor of human development and family sciences at The University of Texas at Austin, told Science Daily. "Yet our research shows that spanking is linked with the same negative child outcomes as abuse, just to a slightly lesser degree."
While this new study is comprehensive, the information in it isn't new. On the contrary, there's been a steady drumbeat of studies for decades now spelling out exactly how useless and counterproductive spanking is.
Conservatives are aware of this, but tend to write off these studies as nothing more than "political correctness." In fact, the defensive tone Cruz took when he brought up spanking — and the roar of approval he got for it — shows that he and his audience are quite aware that spanking is controversial. The whole routine was a bit of right wing theater, the same old culture warrior resistance to scientific research and liberal ideas about health and fairness.
That's because spanking has a symbolic value to the right, one that is far too precious to give way to mundane concerns about efficacy and human decency. Spanking appeals because it is about asserting authority. The spanker is in charge not because they are in the right or because they have earned that authority, but because they are bigger and might makes right. It doesn't even matter that spanking doesn't work. The assertion of authoritarian power is all that matters.
The moment at the Cruz campaign really crystallized this. The reason given for why the child should be quiet while Cruz is speaking isn't because of basic good manners or respect for democratic systems. No, the reason is that Cruz is an adult and the protester is a child, and therefore the child owes deference. The adult can be a screaming moron who is spewing nonsense, but the child is expected to just sit there and take it, not because of any legitimate reason, but under the threat of violence.
In many ways, this exchange defines the mentality fueling the tumultuous Republican primary. Much of what is fueling conservative voters these days is outrage that their unearned privilege is slipping away from them. The mediocre white man can no longer assume he'll be treated as better than women or people of color that are more talented than he is, simply because of an accident of birth. For those who really depended on that privilege in order to get a leg up, losing access to unearned deference is painful. No wonder so many of them are turning to Donald Trump, who is the living embodiment of someone whose white maleness has allowed him to go much further than those are more talented, but happen to be women or people of color.
The same insecurity feeds the enthusiasm for spanking. Hitting a child is about getting unquestioning obedience. It's about being in charge not because you actually know best — after all, the spanker is rejecting scientific evidence that shows it doesn't work — but because you feel entitled to it by dint of being older.
This kid who yelled, "You suck!" at Cruz is in the right. Cruz does suck. In the face of this frankly inarguable point, Cruz doesn't even really try to defend himself. Instead, he pulls rank, demanding that the child pretend that Cruz doesn't suck. And not because Cruz has earned this deference but because, as an adult, he feels entitled to it. The rapturous applause he got suggests that this is exactly the message conservative audiences want: That they deserve to win not because they have better arguments, but because they feel entitled to be in charge. And anyone who disagrees should simply get a spanking.