Americans got a preview of what the general election campaign will be like in the last hours before the polls closed in the Indiana Primary on Tuesday. Donald Trump won another huge victory that effectively ended the Republican presidential nomination race as Ted Cruz dropped out once the results became clear. But on the eve of another big triumph, with a huge lead in the polls and what looks like an increasingly sure path to the delegates needed to secure the Republican presidential nomination, Donald Trump still wasn’t in a very presidential mood. What followed was an example of why Trump not only won Indiana but has also all but clinched the GOP race. But it’s also why the expectation that the pattern will repeat itself in the fall may be unfounded.
What did Trump do? Angry about the fact that Ted Cruz’s father Rafael, an evangelical minister, has been promoting his son’s candidacy by saying that he is the Republican who is backing the “word of God” as well as the Constitution, Trump decided to be Trump and let loose on the senior Cruz calling him a “disgrace.” But merely denouncing an opponent or a relative of an opponent is never enough for Trump so rather than stop at that, he threw in a smear that he recycled from The National Enquirer in which Rafael Cruz was alleged to be helping Lee Harvey Oswald hand out pro-Castro leaflets in New Orleans before the assassin went on to murder John F. Kennedy.
How crazy is that? Pretty crazy. That’s especially true coming from a guy with the nomination already in the bag. The story is a flat out lie and so easily disproved and so utterly illogical that it’s hardly worth the time or effort to debunk it. But when you think about it, it’s not really much crazier than a lot of other things Trump has said and done since he entered the presidential race last June.
It started with him calling most Mexican immigrants drug dealers and rapists and then mocking John McCain’s heroism as a prisoner of war. But even if you follow politics for a living, it’s hard to remember all the lies Trump has told in the last several months because they are so numerous. He lies about big things like his opponent’s records and his own and about small things like how much support he or Hillary Clinton may have gotten.
This is part of the reason why Trump is such compelling television. He is liable to say anything at any time, turning dull news shows into reality-based entertainment. And as far as his fans are concerned his rants, vile insults, and false charges never lose their charm. It’s not just that many of them have been gulled into buying his simplistic mantra or believing his false promises about Mexico paying for the wall and a host of other points. They love the fact that he seems to be able to get away with saying things that would destroy another politician. In a culture in which the dead hand of political correctness rules everywhere, Trump is the exception that proves the rule. The fact that much of what he says is absurd or patently false doesn’t matter. Republican voters seem to crave his belligerent attitude and his willingness to push their buttons on emotional issues like immigration more than coherent or logical policies.
What also works about these attacks is that they are designed to provoke reactions from opponents that harm them more than harm Trump. It happened again and again with other Republican presidential contenders and the same scenario played out today. After hearing Trump’s insane attack on his father, Cruz went ballistic. What followed was a rant in which Cruz reminded the public that the person smearing his father was a “pathological liar,” “narcissist,” “serial philanderer” and a “bully,” who is afraid of strong women. For good measure he showed off his movie trivia knowledge by noting that Trump was the model for the bully/villain who is a braggadocious, arrogant bully,” in the “Back to the Future” movies, meaning that “we are looking, potentially at the Biff Tannen presidency.”
Cruz is actually right about all of that, but the problem is that it was a meltdown and it happened hours before he suffered a devastating defeat. That’s what will be remembered far more than Trump’s initial lie. And that is why Trump’s fans think he can perform electoral magic and reverse catastrophic poll numbers and beat Hillary Clinton. His willingness to fight dirty and the shameless effrontery of his lies and his lack of any restraint seems to promise an epic smackdown in the manner of the fake professional wrestling matches in which he used to play a part. The prospect of the sort of no-holds-barred fight is what some on the right think is the magic bullet that will finally slay the Clinton machine.
But Trump fans are forgetting one fact about the way he has so skillfully manipulated the media. The rules are different for Republicans than liberal Democrats.
The mainstream media didn’t bother to hound Trump and brand him a liar for smearing Rafael Cruz anymore than it did with respect to the GOP frontrunner’s previous gobsmacking statements and claims. But once he’s locked in a one-on-one matchup with Hillary Clinton, he won’t be so lucky. No one should underestimate Trump’s ability to counterpunch or to plant a smear even if it involves “reporting” from his friends in the fake journalism world of the supermarket tabloids. But as every previous GOP candidate has learned this will change once the general election starts and there’s a Democrat’s reputation at stake. Trump got away with smearing opponents with impunity so far. But the liberal media and the Democrats won’t shy away from attacking Trump on his myriad weaknesses and scandals the way his Republican rivals who feared his counterattacks stalled until it was too late to stop him.
Cruz is wrong to completely blame the media for the rise of Trump. They have enabled him and given him far more coverage than other candidates, especially in the months prior to the first primaries and caucuses. They’ve also often kowtowed to his unreasonable demands and let him get away with murder with respect to his utterances in ways that no previous presidential candidate has experienced (in part this was because every time he was caught in a whopper, Trump would distract the country with yet another doozy). Moreover, as one of the candidates who chose to cynically tolerate Trump during the early stages of the race when it might have still been possible to stop him, Cruz bears some of the responsibility for what has happened.
But it isn’t the liberal media or even enabling conservative radio talkers who caused Trump to win. Nor is it Cruz’s fault. Trump is winning the GOP nomination because a lot of Republican voters — initially a plurality but now what appears increasingly to be a clear majority — love his act and want more of it. Yet once outside the limited universe of a Republican primary electorate there is no evidence that Trump’s shtick will be as effective. To the contrary, no Republican can win by alienating women, minorities, and young voters on the scale that is happening with Trump. His stands were perfect for generating enthusiasm from the GOP base but they are also designed to motivate the Democrats’ base to turn out in the kind of numbers that will doom him in November.
This latest Trump-Cruz exchange shows what happens when someone is allowed to lie with impunity and the injured party responds with the sort of anger that makes them look as small as the aggressor. Trump’s fans have cheered every time he’s tried this and they will do so again when he slimes Clinton, a dishonest candidate with much to answer for. But the voters who have given him these victories may not be laughing in November, as these tactics will ensure a loss when employed against a candidate who mainstream media liberals want to protect.