How Trump Beat Cruz at His Own Game

AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a primary night news conference, Tuesday, May 3, 2016, in New York. 

Here’s a key reason why Ted Cruz lost the Republican presidential nomination to Donald Trump: Evangelicals don’t like him as much as Cruz imagines they do, and Trump possesses a diabolical savant’s grasp of how to push Republican base voters’ buttons—and Cruz’s.

To Cruz, the 2016 presidential campaign was teed up to be the ultimate political fantasy: an opportunity to bash President Obama as an irreligious—or possibly Muslim—oppressor of God-fearing Christians, and any Democratic nominee as a purveyor of more of the same anti-American secularism. Because undermining the religious and patriotic bona fides of Democrats has been a Republican staple for several election cycles, Cruz pinned his entire campaign on a strategy of outdoing his rivals as the GOP’s most ardent Christian nationalist, the most pious and most conservative of all the evangelicals.

There was more than one problem with this strategy. The chief problem, though, was named Donald Trump. By the time Trump claimed on Fox News yesterday morning that Cruz’s father, Rafael—a Cuban immigrant—had hung out with Lee Harvey Oswald before the Kennedy assassination, the Republican base was primed to hear something that crazy—even about Ted Cruz.

Cruz was beaten at his own game because he wasn’t as good at it as Trump, and because he fundamentally misread the Republican base at the moment when Trump had memorized its contours and soft spots. Trump had already survived peddling a raft of conspiracy theories, from Obama birther-ism to Cruz birther-ism to Mexicans-as-rapists to post-9/11 celebrations by Muslims. At this game, Trump made Cruz look like an amateur.

While Trump was gearing up to give the final twist of the knife into Cruz’s campaign, Cruz couldn’t stop talking about bathrooms and transgender people. Trump, politically unharmed by his own excesses or by the impotent #NeverTrump movement, marched out celebrity sports endorsers.

Trump even beat Cruz on the transgender issue by saying that Caitlyn Jenner was welcome to use whichever bathroom she pleased in Trump Tower. While Cruz was fretting about the possibility of a transgender woman using the same bathroom as his young daughters, Jenner was posting video of herself sauntering into the women’s room in that shrine to Trumpism known as Trump International Hotel & Tower.

Watching the Cruz campaign, one could see how he relished portraying enemies—such as faceless transgender people rendered as sexual monsters—as a motivating force for his supporters. Cruz was not particularly skilled at hiding the little smirk that often accompanied his digs and insinuations, which he frequently followed with what he seemed to believe was a slam-dunk of supposed truth.

When asked last year, for example, whether he believes Obama is a Christian, Cruz’s reply was a cagey “I’m not going to speculate on the president’s faith.” Cruz followed that little insinuation with a big but: “His policies and this administration’s animosity to religious liberty and, in fact, antagonism to Christians has been one of the most troubling aspects of the Obama administration.”

Read: Obama can’t be trusted, he isn’t who he says he is, he is your enemy.

Which is, of course, the strategy that Trump deployed so effectively against Cruz.

For months, Trump questioned Cruz’s status as a “natural born citizen” qualified to run for president, called him “Lyin’ Ted,” questioned his manhood, mocked his wife. The message: He’s not a real American. He’s a liar. He’s not as macho as I am. My wife is hotter.

In Indiana, Trump racked up endorsements from the manliest of Indiana’s sports heroes, including former champion Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight. And Cruz failed another “manhood” test by failing to help his prematurely named running mate, Carly Fiorina, after she fell off a riser at an Indiana campaign stop.

And finally, yesterday, Trump went in for the kill. His suggestion: Maybe Cruz isn’t the anti-communist son of a Cuban exile he presents himself as being. His father, after all, hung out with Lee Harvey Oswald in Castro’s Cuba.

It was easily the most preposterous, arguably unhinged statement Trump has made about any of his rivals. And it didn’t matter because by the time it happened, Trump had pretty much locked up the nomination. By the time it happened, Trump was already the “winner.” And he became the winner by stoking the same base voters Cruz had been hoping to rally to his side: those who harbored anxieties about outsiders like Obama, or immigrants, or Muslims.

After Trump’s Oswald outburst, Rafael Cruz called on the “body of Christ” to get out and vote for his son.

Trump’s rejoinder was a slam against the very core of the Republican get-out-the-vote strategy, for so many years centered on mobilizing conservative evangelical voters. He said it was a “disgrace” that Cruz (the unspoken traitor) is “allowed to say it.”

A more skilled evangelical candidate could have beaten Trump. Cruz wasn’t even the most popular of the evangelical favorites at the outset of the primary. But he bet his entire campaign on a singular vision, one that is grounded in the Republican Party playbook that Trump ripped to shreds. Cruz knows his Bible from cover to cover, and thought he knew the Bible of Republican Christian Right Voter Mobilization. Trump beat him by tossing aside all those sacred texts.

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