What was already the least-dignified Republican political cycle in modern American history sunk to new lows last week.
And though Donald Trump is the party bearing chief responsibility for the fiasco the GOP presidential primary has devolved into, this latest foray into gutter politics didn’t begin with him. Nor did it begin with Ted Cruz, Trump’s chief rival for the nomination.
Instead, it began with a little-known political action committee named Make America Awesome, headed by a political operative named Liz Mair. Make America Awesome is an independent operation with an awesome nonexistent bankroll the mission for which is to defeat Trump.
Now, in the current circumstances, in any realistic analysis defeating Trump means backing Cruz. Despite all the pontificating and bloviating about pre-convention rules changes and dirty deals developed in smoked-filled rooms, your GOP nominee will be one of the two. As such, Mair has to operate on the basis that any messaging she develops to attack Trump must be weighed against the inevitable, if categorically inaccurate, accusation that Cruz is behind it.
But such caution had been dispatched to the wind prior to Make America Awesome’s decision to target Mormon women on Facebook with an ad, looking much like an Internet meme, showing a picture of Trump’s wife Melania mostly nude (it was a photo by GQ Magazine for which she posed during her previous career as a model 15 years ago; another like it from the same shoot appeared on the magazine’s cover) with a caption telling its audience that America would have a nude model for a First Lady unless they voted for Cruz.
Cruz won Utah with 69 percent of the vote, keeping alive a real possibility — bolstered by polls in Wisconsin showing him building a lead on Trump in that state — that Trump isn’t going to be able to pile up 1237 delegates for a majority in advance of the Republican convention in Cleveland this summer. And amid wild stories spread by Trump supporters in the blogosphere suggesting Cruz “cheated” to win the Utah primary — he needed a simple majority in Utah to collected all 42 delegates there; why overdo it to pile up 69 percent? Why fix the race so that Trump finished well behind John Kasich and in third place? — it was the Make America Awesome ad Trump fixated upon as he brooded about the loss.
Trump blamed Cruz, accused him of attacking Melania, and then threatened to “spill the beans” on Cruz’ wife. And all hell broke loose.
Cruz responded that his campaign had nothing to do with the ad, repeatedly called it “inappropriate” and demanded Trump leave his own wife alone.
Trump’s fans, who have bought into his characterization of Cruz as “Lyin’ Ted” and therefore refuse to credit much of anything the latter says even when he can prove it, responded with indignation and proceeded to spread atrocious rumors of Heidi Cruz as a former call girl and accusations that her 2005 bout with depression had been brought on by domestic abuse, to go with more pedestrian fare surrounding her work as the head of Goldman Sachs’ Houston office and her previous experience working in the George W. Bush administration.
And then came the National Enquirer.
Following in the footsteps of previous stories about UFO’s in Iowa cornfields, celebrity hermaphrodites, and modern-day Piltdown Men, that notorious tabloid publication uncorked a cover story about the “five accused mistresses of Ted Cruz,” a nearly completely unsourced piece which, in typical Enquirer fashion, didn’t assert Cruz actually had any mistresses; it merely suggested that behind-the-scenes operators were working to prove the allegations.
Two of the five supposed mistresses, conservative talking head Amanda Carpenter and Trump spokeswoman Katrina Pierson, publicly and vociferously denounced the story as false. Carpenter immediately threatened a lawsuit against the National Enquirer live on CNN after Adriana Cohen, a Boston radio host and Trump surrogate, demanded she account for having been implied (Carpenter’s picture, along with Pierson’s and that of three other women, appeared in photo art on the cover with a black rectangle covering her eyes; three of the five photos were shortly matched by bloggers) as a mistress in the article.
Cruz vigorously denied anything in the Enquirer piece was true and blamed it on Trump and his “henchmen,” and on that score he had much circumstantial evidence to back him. Trump is a longtime friend of National Enquirer CEO David Pecker and had once recommended the latter to take over Time magazine. The Enquirer has run a string of rather irresponsible pieces targeting Trump’s GOP rivals, including allegations that Jeb Bush was involved in the illegal drug trade in Florida and that Ben Carson was a quack doctor who had botched surgeries. The Enquirer earlier this month had endorsed Trump. And further, the only named source in the Enquirer piece was Roger Stone, the veteran dirty-tricks operator who had spent years on Trump’s payroll until a rather conspicuous “falling-out” he had with Trump in 2015. Stone has been a Trump surrogate on cable news ever since; few actually believe that falling-out was anything more than a cover for Stone to do Trump’s dirty work “independently” of the campaign.
It’s known that operators working for Marco Rubio had also been pushing rumors of Cruz extramarital affairs for weeks prior to his exit from the race, which might be as good an explanation as any for why the Cruz-Rubio unity ticket bandied about so much in February and early March never came to pass. But the Enquirer is Trump territory; Cruz is probably correct in his assignment of blame.
Is the report true? It’s a National Enquirer story. Trump, in a weak denial of responsibility, pointed out that the Enquirer was “right” on John Edwards and O.J. Simpson while saying he “hoped” that “Lyin’ Ted” wasn’t guilty of that which the tabloid accused him. Elsewhere in the Twitterverse and blogosphere were amused denials by those with no brief for either candidate that Cruz could have found five women willing to sleep with him outside of marriage. While that is indeed ugly, there is a certain suspension of disbelief necessary to buying in that a man characterized as (1) a policy wonk to a fault, (2) calculating on an off-putting scale and (3) accused of lacking personal charm would have time, inclination and skill enough to conduct multiple sexual affairs.
John Edwards, Gary Hart, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump, who have all been documented as political candidates straying outside the bounds of their marriages, certainly fit the profile of “players.” Cruz doesn’t.
And yet there is a significant chunk of the Republican electorate that will believe these allegations. Call them National Enquirer Republicans, if you will. They’re the same people who believe that Cruz’s Canadian birth to an American mother disqualifies him to run for president (it clearly does not), that he’s a puppet of the globalist establishment, that he “stole” votes from Ben Carson in Iowa by having his campaign circulate a CNN report that Carson was getting out of the race, and that Cruz was behind Liz Mair’s Facebook ad.
They’ll believe the National Enquirer story, because they’ve been believing — and sharing — accusations made with even less evidence among Trump-affiliated sites in the blogosphere. That’s what this campaign has devolved into.
For his part, Trump needs the gutter politics of the campaign to swallow Cruz and devour him, and soon. He’s faced with poisonous poll results showing not only that he’s behind Hillary Clinton by double-figure margins while Cruz and John Kasich either beat her or are well within striking distance, but that Trump’s disapproval ratings make him hopeless in the general election. His disapproval number sat at 68 in an ABC News/Washington Post poll last week, and 68 in a Bloomberg survey taken at the same time. CNN found him at 67 percent disapproval, and Fox at 65. No presidential candidate has ever won with numbers so poor, and it’s inevitable they will weigh down his campaign even in the primary. When Kasich runs out of money, which he will either before or shortly after Wisconsin, and Trump is in a head-to-head contest with Cruz, those disapproval numbers will put him on the wrong side of a race between the Republican who can win and the Republican who can’t.
And further, Trump has a delegate problem. Story after story indicates that the activist Republicans who ran as delegates to the convention from various states Trump might have won are largely faithless in their support for him — in Louisiana and Virginia, a pair of pieces in the past week has shown Trump’s delegate slate is full of ringers for Cruz. They’re bound to Trump on the first ballot, but if he doesn’t have 1,237 for a majority before the convention and has to face a floor fight they will desert him on the second. Trump is now threatening to sue over the Louisiana issue and spent his Easter Sunday howling about the delegate problem on TV.
But if it’s commonly perceived that nominating Trump will produce a Republican disaster not only at the top of the ticket in November but down the ballot as well, he will lose momentum on that floor very quickly regardless of any success he might have in court. Those delegates might like Donald Trump a great deal, but they’re also going to be interested in keeping their Republican Senator and Congressman from losing to a Democrat. And if they think Trump will cost them those races as well as his, their loyalty to him is not going to be what he expects it to be.
This situation is untenable for the entire Republican Party, and it’s rapidly devolving into a death spiral. Trump is the one who can unilaterally fix it. He should agree to further debates with Cruz in an effort to bring the campaign back to the issues, he should devote the majority of his focus toward burning Hillary Clinton to the ground, and he should turn over a new leaf and pledge not to attack the personal lives of fellow Republicans.
Cruz should also abide by that pledge. It would likely cost him far less to do so than Trump.