Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: Trump closes in on the GOP nomination, Kasich and Cruz’s dysfunctional alliance, and how North Carolina’s bathroom law is factoring into the presidential race.
After last night’s sweep, Donald Trump surpassed Mitt Romney’s 2012 popular-vote total and is, by some calculations, "two key states" from securing the nomination. What kind of changes should we expect once his main target becomes Hillary Clinton?
You can forget about those “two key states.” The fat lady has sung in harmony with the presumptive attorney general, Chris Christie. The Trump-versus-Clinton game is on for November. As for what kind of changes we can expect from Trump, I guess we’re to believe he’ll act more “presidential” (as he keeps putting it). But of course he won’t. His last much-remarked-upon attempt at that, in which he unexpectedly referred to Ted Cruz as “Senator Cruz,” didn’t last a week before he reverted to “Lyin’ Ted.” The shelf life of today’s “presidential” Trump stunt, a foreign-policy speech in Washington presumably delivered from a teleprompter, won’t last much past the moment he hops back on Twitter at Trump Tower tonight.
As a matter of cold political calculation, Trump shouldn’t change his act in any case. He’s been constantly told to tone it down by Republican potentates and pundits throughout his primary run, but he has won by completely ignoring their advice. His voters don’t want another “presidential” Romney or Bush. Quite the reverse: The more unpresidential Trump has behaved, the more voters he has amassed.
His assault on Clinton, however, is likely to shift into a 2.0 phase. His repetitive rhetoric accusing her of lacking “stamina” and of being a “disaster” have devolved into white noise. His misogyny is a disaster in its own right, and it’s likely his wife and daughter Ivanka will get him to tone it down. (Though it must be said that Trump has won a majority of women in some Republican primaries.) Meanwhile, we can look forward to watching an avalanche of opposition research rain down on Clinton when the time is ripe — especially after Labor Day and especially involving the donor ranks of the Clinton Foundation. Bernie Sanders’s demands for the transcripts of Clinton’s Goldman Sachs speeches were a mere warm-up act for what Roger Stone and the other thugs in the extended Trump circle have in store.
Just hours after apparently agreeing to divvy up forthcoming primaries in Indiana, Oregon, and New Mexico to block Trump’s path to a first-ballot convention victory, John Kasich and Cruz couldn’t stop trying to solicit voters for themselves in the states where they were purporting to be standing down. Was this strategy DOA?
Of course, like every other impotent GOP effort to derail Trump since he questioned John McCain’s war heroism. But let us linger on this latest #NeverTrump pratfall for a second. It will surely take its place high among the other farcical highlights of this remarkable election year, from Jeb!’s desperate plea that his audience “please clap” to the neurosurgeon Ben Carson’s inability to find his way onto a debate stage.
How this dumb-and-dumber Kasich-Cruz pact played out was representative of every other doomed Trump antidote since he announced his candidacy. Only this time the balloon deflated at warp speed. When the alliance was announced, the Upshot column at the Times, famous for its sightings of Marco Rubio paths to victory no matter how many primaries he lost, wasted no time in sounding its usual note: “Cruz-Kasich Deal Means a Much Better Chance to Stop Trump.” It only took hours for that headline to be jettisoned when the cold reality emerged in another Times story: “Ted Cruz-John Kasich Alliance Against Donald Trump Quickly Weakens.” When the primary results came in hours after that, the latest stop-Trump mirage had vanished without a trace. Cruz, the last supposed Trump-slayer left in the field, failed to clear 20 percent of the vote in four of the five primary states. Exit polls in the three biggest states (Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut) found that while roughly a quarter of Republican primary voters said they would not vote for Trump in November, even more said they would not vote for Cruz.
Yet to the bitter end, denial has remained the opiate of what remains of the GOP “Establishment.” On primary day, the anti-Trump Wall Street Journal editorial page clung to the argument that Trump couldn’t truly represent Republican sentiments because he had only won more than 50 percent of the vote in one primary, New York, his home state. (It didn’t point out that neither Cruz nor Kasich cleared 50 percent in winning their respective home-state primaries in Texas and Ohio.) In any event, Trump easily cleared 50 percent in every state on Tuesday.
To repeat myself, Trump didn’t hijack the GOP. The GOP voters reclaimed the party from its feckless, threadbare Establishment. The next sound you are going to hear is the clamor of Republican leaders trying to shove Christie to a back row as they leap on the Trump bandwagon.
After Trump criticized a North Carolina law aimed at stopping transgender people from using a bathroom consistent with their gender identity, Cruz exploited the issue in his campaign, releasing an attack ad accusing Trump of "p.c. nonsense." Will this persuade some conservative GOP voters that Trump is too socially liberal to be worthy of their support?
Not enough to make a difference. Despite Trump’s marital history, his manifest inability to fake religiosity, and his surpassing verbal vulgarity, he has won the Evangelical vote in at least twice as many states as Cruz, in the accounting of Dan Balz of the Washington Post. Those who already have embraced him are unlikely to desert him because of this. If anything, Trump’s refusal to demonize transgender Americans may help him with some other voters, given that his relatively benign stance so conspicuously sets him apart from bigots in his own party like Cruz.
Just how bigoted Cruz is can be found in his fearmongering ad, which says that it’s inappropriate that “a grown man … be allowed to use … the same restroom used by your daughter.” He is literally denying the existence of trans women even as he tries to slime them as sexual predators. It’s worth noting that Caitlyn Jenner, whom Trump has said would be welcome in any public restroom she chooses at Trump Tower, is on record as being a Cruz fan. Given that she is relentlessly marketing herself as a spokesperson for transgender people, Jenner’s refusal to stand up to Cruz this week and call him out is as embarrassing as it is cowardly. Then again, maybe she’s just holding her fire on Lyin’ Ted until her inevitable prime-time slot at Trump’s convention.