Indianapolis, Indiana, May 3rd, 2016, a little before 8:30 p.m. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz strode onstage beneath a gorgeous stained-glass relief in the city’s Union Station. The hall was doubling as a swanky bar for an upscale local hotel, and much of the assembled press was both lubricated and impatient. The primary had been called for Donald Trump more than an hour before. What was the holdup?
“God bless the Hoosier State!” Cruz said to whoops and cheers after he finally emerged. He was surrounded by a phalanx of American flags, family members and his gimmick running mate of six and a half days, Carly Fiorina, who stared out at the crowd with her trademark alien-abducted smile.
Cruz glanced back and forth across the room with that odd, neckless, monitor-lizard posture of his. He had to know the import of this moment. Nothing less than the future of the Republican Party had been at stake in the Indiana primary.
A Cruz loss effectively meant ceding control of the once-mighty organization to Trump, a seemingly unrepentant non-Republican more likely to read Penthouse than the National Review.
Before the vote, Cruz put it this way: “We are at the edge of a cliff, staring downward.”
Now, Cruz was over that cliff, having been trounced 53 to 36 percent in his last-gasp effort to keep Trump from the nomination. In a detail the film-buff candidate Cruz would appreciate, he left Indiana with the same number of delegates as future senator John Blutarsky’s grade-point average in Animal House: zero-point-zero.
Still, Cruz looked like he was ready for the “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?” speech. He was going to fight.
“Will we hold fast to our founding values of rewarding talent, hard work and industry?” he asked. “Or will we continue on that path of creeping socialism that incentivizes apathy and dependency?”
The crowd roared.
“Will we keep America safe from the threats of nuclear war and atomic terrorism?” he thundered. “Or will we pass on to future generations a land devastated and destroyed by the enemies of civilization?”
More raucous cheers.
Cruz smiled. If he has a good quality, it is that he’s not easily deterred by criticism. As he took the stage that night, he surely knew that former Speaker of the House John Boehner had recently called him “Lucifer in the flesh,” and that fellow senator Lindsey Graham had said, “If you kill Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody could convict you.” Likewise, when it was revealed Cruz once stated that one has no inherent right to “stimulate one’s genitals,” his college roommate Craig Mazin popped up to call him a hypocrite who’d whacked it plenty in college.
During the campaign, surprising numbers of Americans were even willing to believe Cruz might also be the Zodiac Killer. The infamous Bay Area murders began two years before Cruz was born, but 38 percent of Floridians at one point believed Cruz either was or might be the Zodiac.
Were they serious? In an age when Donald Trump is a presidential nominee, what does “serious” even mean? In any case, the cybercomics who fanned the flames of the Cruz-Zodiac meme will someday be first-ballot entrants in the Trolling Hall of Fame.
Finally, on the morning of the Indiana primary, Cruz woke up to hear opponent Trump babbling that Cruz’s own father had been hanging out with Lee Harvey Oswald before the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a bizarre take on a ridiculous National Enquirer story that Trump, of course, believed instantly. Trump brought this up on Fox and Friends, which let him run the ball all the way to the end zone. “I mean, what was he doing with Lee Harvey Oswald, shortly before the death – before the shooting?” Trump asked. “It’s horrible.”
American politics had never seen anything like this: a presidential candidate derided as a haggardly masturbating incarnation of Satan, the son of a presidential assassin’s accomplice, and himself an infamous uncaptured serial killer.
Despite the media humiliations, Cruz talked passionately of his supporters’ resolve. “Just a few days ago, two young kids, ages four and six, handed me two envelopes full of change,” he said. “All of their earnings from their lemonade stand. They wanted the campaign to have it.”
The crowd cooed: Awwww! There was no way he could quit now and let those kids down. Except that moments later, Cruz did just that, announcing he was suspending his campaign because “the path to victory has been foreclosed.” Then he fled the stage like he was double-parked.
The air vanished from the ballroom. Cruz supporters went nuts.
Nooooo! they screamed, hugging each other and crying. Many volunteers were from faraway states. They expected to be continuing on somewhere the next morning. Now they were all basically fired.
“What the fuck do we do now?” whispered one.
The pundits present were less emotional. “Does he get to use the lemonade money to pay campaign debts?” wondered one.
As ignominious an end as this was for Cruz, it was a million times worse for the Republican establishment.
The party of Nixon, Reagan and two Bushes had needed a win by Cruz, a man not just disliked but loathed by the party elite, to stave off a takeover by Trump.
And yet Cruz’s main pitch to his voters had been that between himself and Trump, he was the one less connected to the Republican Party. “Cruz is the true outsider,” was how one supporter put it in Indiana.
Cruz volunteer Dan Porter seemed stunned with grief after the results came in, but his sadness was reserved for Cruz, not the Republican Party. He couldn’t seem to wrap his head around the fact that so many people had voted for Trump, a man who’d “been a Democrat his whole life,” while a dedicated constitutionalist like Cruz had been so roundly rejected.
So lost in thought that he stared at the carpet as he spoke, he gave just an incidental shake of the head when asked what the future of the GOP would be now. It was as if the question wasn’t even that important.
“Oh, there won’t be a Republican Party,” he said. “It’s basically over.”
Cruz had at least won nearly 600 delegates and had passionate supporters shedding real tears for him at the end. But nobody anywhere was crying for the Republican Party. Even Custer had a less-lonely last stand.
Trump, meanwhile, spent the night basking in voluble self-admiration from Trump Tower in New York. This is becoming his victory ritual. The lectern from which he spoke said it all: TRUMP – VICTORY IN INDIANA – NEW YORK CITY.
Trump’s naked disdain for the less-glamorous American flyover provinces he somehow keeps winning by massive margins continued to be one of the livelier comic subplots of the campaign.
From seemingly wondering if Iowans had eaten too much genetically modified corn to thanking the “poorly educated” after his Nevada win, Trump increasingly doesn’t bother to even pretend to pander. This, too, is a major departure for the Republican Party, whose Beltway imageers for decades made pretending to sincerely prefer barns and trailers to nightclubs and spokesmodels a central part of their electoral strategy.
Not Trump. Hell, he went out of his way to brag about being pals with Tom Brady in the week before the Indiana primary, and still won by almost 20 points. Given the level of Colts-Patriots antipathy, this is a little like campaigning in Louisiana wearing a BP hat, or doing a whistle-stop tour through Waco with Janet Reno.
After his crushing win, Trump gave a breathless victory speech. It was classic Trump. “The people of Indiana have been incredible,” he said. “I campaigned and I made lots of speeches and met lots of incredible people… You don’t get better. The crowds got bigger and bigger… I didn’t want to leave… We had a tremendous victory tonight… Boy, Bobby Knight was incredible.”
He had a few choice words for the GOP leadership. “I want to thank and congratulate the Republican National Committee, and Reince Priebus,” he croaked, as his heavily-made-up, Robert Palmer-chicks collection of wives and daughters twisted faintly in a deadpan chorus behind him.
“It is not an easy job, when you have 17 egos,” Trump went on, smiling. “And now I guess he’s down to one.”
The crowd roared. The RNC had kissed Trump’s ring. That was it, right there, the death of the modern Republican Party.
After 9/11, it felt like the Republicans would reign in America for a thousand years. Only a year ago, this was still a party that appeared to be on the rise nationally, having gained 13 Senate seats, 69 House seats, 11 governorships and 913 state legislative seats during the Obama presidency.
Now the party was effectively dead as a modern political force, doomed to go the way of the Whigs or the Free-Soilers.
After Indiana, a historic chasm opened in the ranks of the party. The two former President Bushes, along with Mitt Romney, announced they wouldn’t attend Trump’s coronation at the convention in Cleveland. Additionally, House Speaker Paul Ryan refused to say he would support the nominee.
There were now two Republican Parties. One, led by Trump, was triumphant at the ballot, rapidly accruing party converts, and headed to Cleveland for what, knowing the candidate, was sure to be the yuugest, most obscene, most joyfully tacky tribute to a single person ever seen in the television age. If the convention isn’t Liberace meets Stalin meets Vince McMahon, it’ll be a massive disappointment.
From there, this Republican Party would steam toward the White House, which, who knows, it might even win.
The other Republican Party was revealed in the end to be a surprisingly small collection of uptight lawyers, financiers and Beltway intellectuals who’d just seen their chosen candidate, the $100 million Jeb Bush, muster all of four delegates in the presidential race. Meanwhile, candidates whose talking points involved the beheading of this same party establishment were likely to win around 2,000.
Like French aristocrats after 1789, those Republicans may now head into something like foreign exile to plot their eventual return. But whether they will be guillotined or welcomed back is an open question.
This was all because they’d misplayed the most unpredictable and certainly most ridiculous presidential-campaign season Americans had ever seen.
On the one hand, they’d been blindsided by Trump, a foulmouthed free-coverage magnet who impulsively decided to make mocking the Republican Party mullahs his pet project for the years 2015-2016.
But they were also undone by a surge of voter anger that was in significant part their own fault. In recent years, the Koch brothers/Tea Party wing of the GOP had purged all moderates from the party, to the point where anyone who was on record supporting the continued existence of any federal agency, said Mexicans were people, or spoke even theoretically about the utility of taxes was drummed from the candidate rolls.
Their expected endgame here was probably supposed to be the ascension of some far-right, anti-tax, anti-government radical like Scott Walker, or even Cruz.
Instead, this carefully cultivated “throw the bums out” vibe was gluttonously appropriated by Trump, who turned the anger against the entire Republican Party before surging to victory on a strongman’s platform of giant walls, mass deportation and extravagant job promises that made the moon landing or the Bernie Sanders agenda of free college look incrementalist in comparison.
One could say this was just a calamitous strategic misread on the part of the Koch-brothers types. But another way to look at it is that this was the inevitable consequence of the basic dynamic of the party, which by the end was little more than a collection plate for global business interests that were, if not foreign exactly, certainly nationless.
There was a time in this country – and many voters in places like Indiana and Michigan and Pennsylvania are old enough to remember it – when business leaders felt a patriotic responsibility to protect American jobs and communities. Mitt Romney’s father, George, was such a leader, deeply concerned about the city of Detroit, where he built AMC cars.
But his son Mitt wasn’t. That sense of noblesse oblige disappeared somewhere during the past generation, when the newly global employer class cut regular working stiffs loose, forcing them to compete with billions of foreigners without rights or political power who would eat toxic waste for five cents a day.
Then they hired politicians and intellectuals to sell the peasants in places like America on why this was the natural order of things. Unfortunately, the only people fit for this kind of work were mean, traitorous scum, the kind of people who in the military are always eventually bayoneted by their own troops. This is what happened to the Republicans, and even though the cost was a potential Trump presidency, man, was it something to watch.
If this isn’t the end for the Republican Party, it’ll be a shame. They dominated American political life for 50 years and were never anything but monsters. They bred in their voters the incredible attitude that Republicans were the only people within our borders who raised children, loved their country, died in battle or paid taxes. They even sullied the word “American” by insisting they were the only real ones. They preferred Lubbock to Paris, and their idea of an intellectual was Newt Gingrich. Their leaders, from Ralph Reed to Bill Frist to Tom DeLay to Rick Santorum to Romney and Ryan, were an interminable assembly line of shrieking, witch-hunting celibates, all with the same haircut – the kind of people who thought Iran-Contra was nothing, but would grind the affairs of state to a halt over a blow job or Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube.
A century ago, the small-town American was Gary Cooper: tough, silent, upright and confident. The modern Republican Party changed that person into a haranguing neurotic who couldn’t make it through a dinner without quizzing you about your politics. They destroyed the American character. No hell is hot enough for them. And when Trump came along, they rolled over like the weaklings they’ve always been, bowing more or less instantly to his parodic show of strength.
In the weeks surrounding Cruz’s cat-fart of a surrender in Indiana, party luminaries began the predictably Soviet process of coalescing around the once-despised new ruler. Trump endorsements of varying degrees of sincerity spilled in from the likes of Dick Cheney, Bob Dole, Mitch McConnell and even John McCain.
Having not recently suffered a revolution or a foreign-military occupation, Americans haven’t seen this phenomenon much, but the effortless treason of top-tier Republicans once Trump locked up the nomination was the most predictable part of this story. Politicians, particularly this group, are like crackheads: You can get them to debase themselves completely for whatever’s in your pocket, even if it’s just lint.
That’s why the first rule of any revolution is to wipe out the intellectuals. Trump is surely already dreaming of the vast logging camp he will fill with the Republican thinkfluencers who are at the moment making a show of being the last holdouts.
Not surprisingly, in the past weeks, there was an epidemic of Monday-morning quarterbacking among the Beltway punditocracy, as GOP cognoscenti struggled to cope with the reality of Trumpism.
There were basically two responses among the tie-and-glasses sect of Republicans to the prospect of kneeling before the philistine Trump: In the minority stood New York Times lonely-hearts moralist David Brooks, who took the remarkable step of looking at Trump’s victories and wondering what part of this unraveling could be his own fault. In Brooks-ian fashion, this essentially noble response came out as painful pretentious comedy. He concluded that the problem was that upper-crust conservatives like himself hadn’t spent enough time getting to know the dirtier folks below decks.
Instead of “spending large chunks of my life in the bourgeois strata,” Brooks promised to “go out into the pain” and “build a ladder of hope” by leaping across “chasms of segmentation.”
Translated into English, this might have meant anything from trying the occasional domestic beer to actually hanging around the unemployed. But at least Brooks recognized that on some level, the rise of Trump pointed to a connection failure in the Republican kingmaking class.
No others among his conservative brethren saw it that way. Most Republican intellectuals recoiled in blameless horror from the Trumpening, blaming everything from media bias to the educational system for his rise. Some even promised to degrade themselves with a vote for Hillary Clinton before ever supporting Trump.
George Will of The Washington Post might have been the loudest objector. Will increasingly seems like a man who is sure history will remember him for his heroic opposition to Trump, and not for those 40-plus years of being an insufferable spinster who writes bad columns about baseball to prove his ties to the common man.
His diatribes against Trump, a “coarse character” who reads the National Enquirer and brags about the size of his “penis” (one could almost feel the pain it caused Will to have to commit this word to paper), took on an almost religious character.
Just before Indiana, Will began treating the nomination of Trump like a forest fire or a SARS outbreak, something that with the right spirit of sacrifice could be contained with minimal loss of life, and perhaps only four years of a Hillary presidency.
“If Trump is nominated,” Will wrote, “Republicans working to purge him and his manner from public life will reap the considerable satisfaction of preserving the identity of their 162-year-old party.”
But the crowning effort on the right-wing snobbery front came from none other than British blogging icon and noted hairy person Andrew Sullivan. The aforementioned came out of semiretirement to write a 7,000-word jeremiad for New York magazine about how Trump was the inevitable product of too much democracy.
The CliffsNotes summary of his monstrous piece, “Democracies End When They Are Too Democratic,” might go something like this: When I read Plato in grad school, I learned that in free societies the mob eventually stops deferring to the wisdom of smart people, and therefore must be muzzled before they send Trump to wash the streets with our blood.
Sullivan’s analysis was a balm to the decades of butt-hurt that await the soon-to-be-ex-elite of the Republican Party. It blamed Trump’s rise on everyone but Republican intellectuals: Obama, Black Lives Matter and even “the gay left, for whom the word ‘magnanimity’ seems unknown.”
“A struggling white man in the heartland is now told to ‘check his privilege’ by students at Ivy League colleges,” Sullivan wrote, in a sentence that would probably be true enough, if those two groups ever interacted. Sullivan was right that white conservatives in places like Indiana hate Ivy Leaguers and Black Lives Matter and the gay left and safe-spacers and feminists and all the other mocking, sneering, atheistic know-it-all types from cosmopolitan cities who scoff, as Obama famously did once, at their guns and their religion.
But they also hated all of those people eight years ago, 16 years ago, 30 years ago. What’s new about the Year of Trump is that they have now also suddenly turned on their own party. Why?
Sullivan basically ignored this question. The closest he came to an explanation was a passage saying that “global economic forces” hurt blue-collar workers in particular, forcing them to compete with lots of other unskilled and basically fungible human beings around the world. Which made them, he guessed, pissed off.
This avalanche of verbose disgust on the part of conservative intellectuals toward the Trump voter, who until very recently was the Republican voter, tells us everything we need to know about what actually happened in 2016.
There never was any real connection between the George Wills, Andrew Sullivans and David Brookses and the gun-toting, Jesus-loving ex-middle-class voters they claimed to embrace. All those intellectuals ever did for Middle America was cook up a sales pitch designed to get them to vote for politicians who would instantly betray them to business interests eager to ship their jobs off to China and India. The most successful trick was linking the corporate mantra of profit without responsibility to the concept of individual liberty.
Into the heartland were sent wave after wave of politicians, each more strident and freedom-y than the last. They arrived draped in the flag, spewed patriotic bromides about God, guns and small-town values, and pledged to give the liberals hell and bring the pride back.
Then they went off to Washington and year after year did absolutely squat for their constituents. They were excellent at securing corporate tax holidays and tax cuts for the rich, but they almost never returned to voter country with jobs in hand. Instead, they brought an ever-increasing list of villains responsible for the lack of work: communists, bra-burning feminists, black “race hustlers,” climate-change activists, Muslims, Hollywood, horned owls…
By the Tea Party era, their candidates were forced to point fingers at their own political establishment for votes, since after so many years of bitter economic decline, that was the only story they could still believably sell.
This led to the hilarious irony of Ted Cruz. Here was a quintessentially insipid GOP con man culled straight from the halls of Princeton, Harvard, the Supreme Court, the Federal Trade Commission and the National Republican Senatorial Committee to smooth-talk the yokels. But through a freak accident of history, he came along just when the newest models of his type were selling “the Republican establishment sucks” as an electoral strategy.
Cruz was like an android that should have self-destructed in a cloud of sparks and black smoke the moment the switch flipped on. He instead stayed on just long enough to win 564 delegates, a stunning testament to just how much Republican voters, in the end, hated the Republican kingmakers Cruz robotically denounced.
All of these crazy contradictions came to a head in Indiana, where Cruz succumbed in an explosion of hate and scorn. The cascade started the Sunday night before the primary, with a Cruz stump speech in La Porte that couldn’t have gone worse.
Things went sideways as Cruz was working his way into a “simple flat tax” spiel, a standard Republican snake-oil proposal in which all corporate, estate and gift taxes would be eliminated, and replaced with a 10 percent flat tax and a 16 percent consumption tax. Not because the rich would pay less and the poor would pay more, but because America and fairness, etc. He was just getting to his beloved money line, claiming, “We can fill out our taxes on a postcard,” when a 12-year-old boy interrupted with cries of “You suck!” and “I don’t care!”
Cruz couldn’t quite handle the pressure and stepped straight into the man-trap the moment presented. He lectured the kid about respecting his elders, then suggested the world might be a better place if someone had taught a young Donald Trump that lesson. It was a not-half-bad line of the type that the Harvard lawyer is occasionally capable. But Cruz couldn’t help himself and added, “You know, in my household, when a child behaves that way, they get a spanking.”
Boom! Within hours the Internet was filled with headlines about how Ted Cruz had suggested spanking someone else’s 12-year-old for telling him he sucked.
This was on top of the ignominy of having already called a basketball hoop a “ring” while giving a speech on the gym floor in Knightstown, the home of the fictional Hickory team from Hoosiers. No American male would call a basketball hoop a ring, and even a French immigrant would know better than to do so in Indiana, but this was the kind of run he was on.
The rest of the race was a slapstick blowout. Carly Fiorina fell off a stage, and Cruz’s wife, Heidi, actually had to answer a question from a Yahoo! reporter about her husband being called the Zodiac Killer. Heidi Cruz calmly responded that she’d been married to Ted for 15 years and “I know pretty well who he is.” This, of course, was exactly what the wife of the actual Zodiac Killer would say, making for a perfectly absurd ending to a doomed campaign.
As anyone who’s ever been to high school knows, there’s no answer to “You suck!” When a bully pulls that line on you, it’s because he can smell the weakness: the Jonas Brothers album in your closet, your good grades, your mantleful of band-camp participation trophies, whatever. When the mob smells unorthodoxy, there’s no talking your way out of it. You just have to hold on for dear life.
Trump has turned the new Republican Party into high school. It will be cruel, clique-y and ruled by insult kings like himself and Ann Coulter, whose headline description of Cruz (“Tracy Flick With a Dick”) will always resonate with Trump voters more than a thousand George Will columns.
And anyone who crosses the leader from now on will be fair game for the kind of brutal fragging Cruz and his circle experienced in Indiana. Dissenters will be buried under a cannonade of abuse coming from everywhere: Trump, other politicians, reporters, Internet memers, 12-year-olds, everyone. Add tough economic times to the Internet, and this is what you get: Nationalist High.
Indiana was the end of an era. As Fiorina moved through a pancake house on primary morning, her supporters meekly bowed and curtseyed as though she were the Queen Mother, calling her ma’am and showing off the small-town civility and churchy hospitality that was once a defining characteristic of Republican campaign-trail events. In the Trump era, this seems likely to be replaced forever by the testosterone-fueled diss-fests that had undone Cruz in this state.
“People don’t care about civility anymore,” said Cruz supporter Julie Reimann with a sigh. “It’s another sad state of affairs, and when you see it across the Midwest and in our small towns, it’s like, ‘What has happened to us? Why are we so mean?’ ”
The real question might be, “Why weren’t we meaner before?”
Politics at its most basic isn’t a Princeton debating society. It’s a desperate battle over who gets what. But during the past 50 years, when there was a vast shift in the distribution of wealth in this country, when tens of millions of people were put out of good, dignified jobs and into humiliating ones, America’s elections remained weirdly civil, Queensberry-rules reality shows full of stilted TV debates over issues like abortion, gay marriage and the estate tax.
As any journalist who’s ever covered a miners’ strike or a foreclosure court will report, things get physically tense when people are forced to fight for their economic lives. Yet Trump’s campaign has been the first to unleash that menacing feel during a modern presidential race.
Some, or maybe a lot of it, is racial resentment. But much of it has to be long-delayed anger over the way things have been divvied up over the years. The significance of Trump’s wall idea, apart from its bluntly racist appeal as a barrier to nonwhite people, is that it redefines the world in terms of a clear Us and Them, with politicians directly responsible for Us.
It’s a plain rebuttal to the Sullivan explanation for why nobody between the coasts has a decent job anymore, i.e., that there are “global economic forces” at work that we can no more change than we can the weather. Trump’s solutions are preposterous, logistically impossible and ideologically vicious, but he’s giving people a promise more concrete than “tax cuts will stimulate growth that will eventually bring jobs back.” He’s peddling hope, and with hope comes anger.
Of course, Trump is more likely than not to crash the car now that he has the wheel. News reports surfaced that Donald Trump, unhinged pig, was about to be replaced by Donald Trump, respectable presidential candidate. No more schoolyard insults!
Trump went along with this plan for a few days. But soon after Indiana, he started public fights with old pal Joe Scarborough and former opponents Graham and Bush, the latter for backtracking on a reported pledge to support the Republican nominee. “Bush signed a pledge… while signing it, he fell asleep,” Trump cracked.
Then he began his general-election pivot with about 10 million tweets directed at “crooked Hillary.” With all this, Trump emphasized that the GOP was now mainly defined by whatever was going through his head at any given moment. The “new GOP” seems doomed to swing back and forth between its nationalist message and its leader’s tubercular psyche. It isn’t a party, it’s a mood.
Democrats who might be tempted to gloat over all of this should check themselves. If the Hillary Clintons and Harry Reids and Gene Sperlings of the world don’t look at what just happened to the Republicans as a terrible object lesson in the perils of prioritizing billionaire funders over voters, then they too will soon enough be tossed in the trash like a tick.
It almost happened this year, when the supporters of Bernie Sanders nearly made it over the wall. Totally different politicians with completely different ideas about civility and democracy, Sanders and Trump nonetheless keyed in on the same widespread disgust over the greed and cynicism of the American political class.
From the Walter Mondale years on, Democrats have eaten from the same trough as Republicans. They’ve grown fat off cash from behemoths like Cisco, Pfizer, Exxon Mobil, Citigroup, Goldman and countless others, companies that moved jobs overseas, offshored profits, helped finance the construction of factories in rival states like China and India, and sometimes all of the above.
The basic critique of both the Trump and Sanders campaigns is that you can’t continually take that money and also be on the side of working people. Money is important in politics, but in democracy, people ultimately still count more.
The Democrats survived this time, but Republicans allowed their voters to see the numerical weakness of our major parties. It should take an awful lot to break up 60 million unified people. But a few hundred lawyers, a pile of money and a sales pitch can be replaced in a heartbeat, even by someone as dumb as Donald Trump.