Donald Trump’s Surprising (and Very Brief) Moment of Decency

Republican frontrunner defended New York City in the final GOP debate before the Iowa caucuses

Donald Trump called Ted Cruz's attack on New York 'insulting' Credit: Chuck Burton/AP

Conservatives sure do hate New York City. They hate the New York Times. They hate the liberal politicians. But most of all, they hate those damn New York values. As Ted Cruz said during last night's Republican presidential debate, "everyone understands that the values in New York City are socially liberal or pro-abortion or pro-gay marriage, focused around money and the media."

Cruz, whose wife is a managing director at Goldman Sachs, has a point: Most major media companies and big investment banks — like Goldman Sachs — are headquartered in New York. And certainly the majority of New Yorkers support abortion rights and same-sex marriage.

(So do a majority of Americans.)

Cruz's attack on the nation's largest city was, like the most of this fierce fight for the Republican nomination has been, a throwback to a different time. As the GOP contenders fight over the disappearing demographic most likely to vote for them, their promises are almost all about turning back the clock: repealing Obamacare, sending immigrants back where they came, making America great again.

When Cruz sneers at "values in New York City," he's decrying modernity itself. He's shaking his fist at progress. Of course, Cruz has been in a pitched battle for conservative votes with Donald Trump, and with the Iowa caucus just two-and-a-half weeks away, it's no surprise that Cruz would contrast New York values with Iowa values. Plenty of Iowans love New York, but Cruz is appealing to one of the most fiercely regressive slices of voters in the United States. Republican Iowa caucus-goers like their candidates deeply, deeply conservative.

Maybe that's why it's so surprising that Trump, who has shown in this campaign an almost unerring instinct for when and how to exploit the weaknesses of his opponents, chose this moment to put Iowa aside and defend New York.

Trump has been an unbelievable bastard over the entire course of this campaign. The list is almost rote at this point: He called Mexican immigrants rapists, made fun of John McCain for being captured in Vietnam, wants to ban Muslims from entering the country and a million smaller ugly moments that would have ended a normal campaign, but never his. He has no conscience, no recognizable emotions beyond bemusement and self-satisfaction, and not an ounce of basic decency.

And yet Thursday night, for the first time in the entire campaign, Trump sounded like a human being, defending the city he grew up in, the city that gave him fortune and fame.

"When the World Trade Center came down," he said pointedly to Cruz, "I saw something that no place on Earth could have handled more beautifully, more humanely than New York." He veered off into a standard Trump digression, but miraculously brought it back, continuing, "And we rebuilt downtown Manhattan, and everybody in the world watched and everybody in the world loved New York and loved New Yorkers. And I have to tell you, that was a very insulting statement that Ted made."

And for one amazing moment, Donald Trump was right — and even decent. What Cruz had said was deeply insulting. He went after "money and the media" and "New York values," a dog whistle so loud he might as well have called the city "Hymietown." New York deserved a defense and somehow, Trump delivered one.

Don't worry, it didn't last. Trump reverted to form, renewing his call for a ban on Muslim immigration and spinning fantasies about "Muslim friends" who told him "thank you very much" for a policy that deeply insults them and puts their families in danger. (I'd pay Powerball money to meet one of these friends.) He called police "the most mistreated people in this country," a ridiculous insult to victims of police violence and the activists who are fighting for it to end.

Donald Trump is not a good person. And while his defense of New York City revealed a tiny glimmer of humanity, it was likely urged forward by his belief that New York is his city, not as the city belongs to other New Yorkers, but a sense of actual ownership.

Ted Cruz wants to set Iowa values and New York values in opposition, but both are at their core American values. New Yorkers are just as American as Iowans. Values aren't set by geography or topography. Good people and bad people come from all corners. The Canadian-born Cruz would have you believe people raised and living in our greatest city are second-class citizens. That's an idea so ugly it even managed to make Donald Trump look decent — if only for a moment.