onald Trump and Ted Cruz have been duking it out after Trump questioned the constitutionality of Cruz’s presidential bid when Cruz mounted a surprising counterattack. “Donald comes from New York,” Cruz said dismissively, “and he embodies New York values.”
New York values? There was a time, not too long ago, when the United States was awash in admiration for “New York values”—the qualities of perseverance and equanimity that characterized the city’s reaction to the September 11 attacks. We were all New Yorkers, it was said. The Republican Party even staged its convention in Manhattan in 2004. Rudy Giuliani was for years the most popular figure in the GOP. I can recall traveling throughout the country in the years that followed 9/11 and having people practically demand the right to buy me a drink simply because I had come to their towns from New York.
Cruz was betting that this view has faded to such a degree that he could implicitly (and maybe consciously, as he is knowledgeable about pop culture) echo Woody Allen’s famous New York-centric line from Annie Hall and have it resonate with the voters he’s trying to reach: “The rest of the country looks upon New York like we’re left-wing Communist Jewish homosexual pornographers. I think of us that way sometimes, and I live here.”
After months trying to remain in Trump’s downdraft so that he might quietly pick up the frontrunner’s supporters along the way, Cruz found his own rising fortunes had placed him in Trump’s gun sights—and that he was no less vulnerable to the man’s sniping than anyone else had been before him. And so, belatedly, Cruz suddenly wanted the GOP rank-and-file to know what every other wounded candidate has wanted the GOP rank-and-file to know—that Trump is not one of them, not one of us. He is a man with “New York values,” not our values.The idea is that once the Republican base really knows the truth about Trump, the base will take him out.
Cruz is operating from a false premise here. In point of fact, the base has had months to evaluate Trump, and one can argue that the base long ago decided he was unacceptable. As I write, national polls have Trump leading the field with 35 percent to Cruz’s 19 percent in the wake of Trump’s seven-month run at the top of the charts and what must be judged the most spectacular primary bid of our time. These polls are problematic, but at the very least what they suggest is 65 percent of the Republican electorate is actively opposed to Trump. They know he’s pro-choice, they know he supports Democrats, they know he’s crude and ugly and insulting, and they know his foreign-policy views are at best inconsistent.
The base doesn’t need the “New York values” dog whistle Cruz is blowing in its direction. The base is politically and ideologically literate. Which means, maybe, Cruz and everybody else have had it entirely backwards. The Trump voter is a challenge to the Republican base as we’ve understood it since the Reagan era, not a member of it. Indeed, the Trump voter may represent a potentially new Republican base—and one that embraces Trump’s version of “New York values.”
Those values aren’t the ones Woody Allen was teasing. Nor are they the values of 9/11. They are the values of the New York of caricature—the Walter Winchell–Ralph Kramden–Archie Bunker–Andrew Dice Clay–Spike Lee New York, the city of pushy, obnoxious, informal and unpretentious loudmouths who get in your face and “tell it like it is.”
Donald Trump is the apotheosis of the caricature—he’s the zillionaire with the guts to say what the average Joe says, the guy in the $10,000 suit who prefers hot dogs to caviar and doesn’t like losers or cripples or captured soldiers, the world leader with the outerborough accent who loves a winner even if the winner is a monstrous dictator. Jeb Bush released a commercial openly calling Trump a jerk. Like Cruz, Bush seems to have misread the Trump appeal. An ad like that is an ad for Trump. A great many people in America in 2016 appear to think that an out-and-out, unapologetic jerk from the Big Apple is just what this country needs. After all, as the song says, if he can make it there, he’ll make it anywhere.