In Sunday’s New York Times White House reporter turned restaurant critic and columnist Frank Bruni bashed Ted Cruz and Donald Trump in vitriolic tones in “Obnoxiousness Is the New Charisma.” The text box said it all: “Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are smug, mean and in the lead.” Bruni also snuck in snide liberal media descriptions of Cruz and Trump and treated them as conventional wisdom, while revealing some possible cultural blind spots about the voters he deigns to comment on. Meanwhile, "conservative" columnist David Brooks penned "The Brutalism of Ted Cruz."
In a typical presidential campaign, the most successful candidates lay claim to leadership with their high-mindedness. They reach for poetry. They focus on lifting people up, not tearing them down. They beseech voters to be their biggest, best selves.
Not the two front-runners in this freaky Republican primary. They’re unreservedly smug. They’re unabashedly mean.
If you’re not with them, you’re a loser (Donald Trump’s declaration) or you’re godless (Ted Cruz’s decree, more or less). They market name-calling as truth-telling, pettiness as boldness, vanity as conviction. And their tandem success suggests a dynamic peculiar to the 2016 election, a special rule for this road:
Obnoxiousness is the new charisma.
Sure, we’ve had contenders like them before. But two on top at the same time? And two with this degree of stridency, this deficit of dignity?
Condescending Bruni revealed some possible weak spots in his cultural literacy.
“Strap on the full armor of God,” he reportedly exhorted campaign volunteers during a New Year’s Eve conference call, readying them for attacks from his rivals. At a Christian conference in Iowa in November, he told the audience: “Any president who doesn’t begin every day on his knees isn’t fit to be commander in chief of this country.”
Making light of so much bloodshed, Cruz told Iowans the story of a Texas woman who was pulled over by a police officer. She supposedly informed the officer that she had a Glock affixed to her hip, a .38 revolver in one boot, a single-shot derringer in the other and a double-barrel shotgun under the seat.
“Goodness gracious,” the officer said. “What on earth are you afraid of?”
“Not a dang thing,” the woman responded.
Did Bruni know that that supposedly fearsome line about “the full armor of God” is a popular quote from the Bible, and that the anecdote about the gun-toting woman is a variation on an old joke? If he did, he didn’t let on.
Bruni is more comfortable quoting liberal conventional wisdom, like the headline of a Politico story: “Trump and Cruz send shivers down G.O.P. spines.”
From the moment Cruz arrived in the United States Senate, he chose tirades over teamwork, becoming “so unpopular that at one point not a single Republican senator would support his demand for a roll-call vote,” The Times’s Jennifer Steinhauer wrote last month, adding that he was left “standing on the Senate floor like a man with bird flu, everyone scattering to avoid him.”
But what repelled Republican senators is somehow beckoning Republican voters: In a Gallup survey released on Friday, 61 percent of them said that they had a favorable impression of him, while only 16 percent said that they had an unfavorable one, giving him a “net favorable” rating of plus 45, the best in the Republican field.
I guess bird flu is the new catnip.
He characterized Trump and Cruz as “not so much angry as petulant, impudent....Cruz seems animated less by anger than by scorn. Like Trump he’s proudly divisive. Much of his language, like much of Trump’s, is characterized by a nastiness that’s by turns adolescent and hyperbolic.”
Then Bruni concluded that some Republicans voters want “permission to be their smallest, worst selves” and for that:
Trump and Cruz are only too happy to oblige.
Notice that Bruni used snide liberal media characterizations like “bird flu” and “shivers” as a stand-in for what voters actually think about Cruz and Trump.
Cruz fares no better among the “conservatives” on the columnist page. David Brooks wrote Tuesday under the title “The Brutalism of Ted Cruz.” Keying on a 2004 Supreme Court case (when Cruz was solicitor general of Texas), Brooks railed:
The case reveals something interesting about Cruz’s character. Ted Cruz is now running strongly among evangelical voters, especially in Iowa. But in his career and public presentation Cruz is a stranger to most of what would generally be considered the Christian virtues: humility, mercy, compassion and grace. Cruz’s behavior in the Haley case is almost the dictionary definition of pharisaism: an overzealous application of the letter of the law in a way that violates the spirit of the law, as well as fairness and mercy.
Then there was a front-page analysis on Sunday by Patrick Healy and Jonathan Martin, a recurring feature in the Times about how the Republican Party is tearing itself apart: “For Republicans, Rising Fears of a Lasting Split.” Text box: “Class Divisions Erupt, Unsettling a Party’s Establishment.”
The Republican Party is facing a historic split over its fundamental principles and identity, as its once powerful establishment grapples with an eruption of class tensions, ethnic resentments and mistrust among working-class conservatives who are demanding a presidential nominee who represents their interests.
At family dinners and New Year’s parties, in conference calls and at private lunches, longtime Republicans are expressing a growing fear that the coming election could be shattering for the party, or reshape it in ways that leave it unrecognizable.
The fractures could help a Democrat win the White House if Republicans do not ultimately find ways to unite, as one candidate, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, warned last week.