It’s been a long, weird campaign. Nerves are rubbed raw, tempers are at a constant low boil, and the end is not within sight. Politics is ugly even at its most civil, and these aren’t times conducive to civility and politeness.
Given this, I’d like us all to take a moment to turn our attention to a very important topic that hasn’t received enough attention in the press but deserves careful consideration: What would it take for Donald Trump and Ted Cruz to get into a literal, physical fight?
In this week’s edition of Winners and Losers, Jaime Fuller and I summarized the degeneration of the once studiously amicable relationship between Cruz and Trump, which has gotten steadily worse as the field has narrowed. Until recently, though, the battle between the two has remained within the standard confines of modern American politics -- a lot of camera-ready bluster and carefully focus-grouped attacks.
But Donald Trump has a way of irritating opponents enough that they get down into the muck with him, which is how the robotically disciplined Marco Rubio wound up making thinly veiled references to Donald Trump’s penis in front of thousands of people. And, long story short, a third-party PAC, unaffiliated with Ted Cruz, made an ad that insinuated that Trump’s wife is a slut. Trump pretended it came from the Cruz campaign, and first vaguely threatened to “spill the beans” on Ted Cruz’s wife, then retweeted a meme that called Cruz’s wife ugly.
Which led to this response from Ted Cruz:
Now. I’m sure Ted Cruz is genuinely displeased that Trump called his wife ugly. But think about it: Ted Cruz’s campaign surely has Donald Trump’s number at this point. If Cruz was serious about getting Donald Trump to leave his wife alone, he could have called Trump personally. And if he had done so, I’m sure he would have mentioned that to the press.
But as with so many other aspects of these campaigns -- and by “so many other aspects of,” I mean “everything about” -- it’s less about actually getting Trump to back off, and more about appearing to try to get Trump to back off. If we’re being cynical, Trump insulting Cruz’s wife is a great political opportunity for Cruz. Even people who dislike the guy are going to feel bad for his wife, and it’s even possible that there are some Trump fans who are sane enough to be bothered by this. Either way, Cruz gets the opportunity to be self-righteously indignant, which, as his colleagues in Congress will tell you, Ted Cruz loves to do.
That’s why even Cruz’s blast of emotion seemed weirdly calculated -- I’m sure he’s angry inside, but you’re not seeing genuine anger in the video. You’re seeing a projection of genuine anger. That’s why Cruz is self-possessed enough at the end of the video to avoid saying that he wouldn’t back Trump if he were the nominee.
This is not a man who is going to lose enough control to haul off and punch someone, even in a moment of rage. And a moment of rage is likely what it would take. While physical fights in American politics used to happen pretty frequently, they’ve become much rarer, partially thanks to a culture that no longer resolves personal insults with dueling, and partially becomes of changing norms around all kinds of physical violence,.
So. If a fight is gonna happen, it’s not going to be calculated, with one person calling out the other, or premeditated. It’s going to be spontaneous and hot-blooded. That’s how the last (public) fight between two national politicians happened, just about 70 years ago.
And if Cruz isn’t going to fly into a blind rage and start swinging, then we’re gonna have to pin our hopes on Trump. What would unhinge Trump enough that he’d wanna get buck?
The key, to me, is that Donald Trump is incredibly insecure about his masculinity. Masculinity is a fragile flower to begin with, but Trump’s masculinity is especially delicate. He’s constantly bragging, in a sort of pleadingly desperate way, about his various sexual exploits and conquests, and you can file this next to the affected violence of his campaign rhetoric (constantly talking about punching people and beating people up) under the heading “protesteth too much.” The only insults that have really gotten underneath his leathery, hand-painted skin are the ones implying that his hair is fake, and even more damaging, that his fingers are abnormally small and stubby, the latter being important because of the pop science that says that finger length is correlated with, ahh … one’s endowment. It all points to feelings of deeper bodily inadequacy.
I’m not saying that his dick don’t work, I’m just saying he, you know, fits the profile.
Guys like this will fight, but they will only fight if they are almost 100 percent sure the person they’re about to punch is ill equipped to punch back. Trump brags all the time about how much he used to fight in his youth, which I’d ordinarily discount, but then there’s this story reported by NPR:
Ted Levine, who roomed with Trump at the military academy, told NPR about the day when Trump messed up his bed. Levine said he responded by hitting Trump with a broomstick. "He came back at me with his hands," Levine said, who was 4-11 at the time and Trump was 6-2. "He was bigger than me. And it took three people to get him off me."
I will let the first name of the one man we know has fought Trump pass without comment, but I will note that Trump has half a foot on Cruz, who is 5-foot-8. Now, this was a long time ago, of course. Trump’s last fistfight with another dude was probably years ago. He’s 69 years old, about 24 years older than Ted Cruz. But old men, especially those who have lived comfortable lives, can often be oblivious to their limits, even as (especially as?) they fear time’s corrosive effect on their bodies.
Listen, I know what you’re thinking: “OK, I hear all, Ezekiel (you call me Ezekiel in your head because you’ve developed such a close relationship with my unique voice), but come on. Is this dude really gonna box? He’s an old politician, and politicians, at least those that last long enough to get to the national level, are studio gangsters. Trigger fingers turned to Twitter fingers.”
You’re right, but remember, Trump isn’t really a politician. He doesn’t have a politician’s self-discipline, and he’s never gone through the humbling of going around, hat in hand, to suck up to donors for campaign contributions. Trump is so unused to having to accept people insulting him to his face that he’s perfectly capable of doing something incredibly thoughtless and rash in retaliation. In fact, the last time Trump had to listen to a guy mock him to his face, he decided to run for president of the United States. And Trump has been peddling this tough-guy image, unchallenged, to applause from adoring fans for so long that he’s probably come to believe his own propaganda. Believing your own lies so strongly that you’re willing to fight over them is how Katt Williams found himself getting choked out by a middle schooler. You think Trump has a less deluded ego than Katt Williams? I do not.
Also, Ted Cruz is incredibly annoying. His smarmy self-regard manages to stand out even among the bloated egos in Washington, so much so that his Senate colleagues reserve a special, genuine dislike for him. But the hatred that Cruz inspires is even more visceral, more primal than that. His face, which looks like nothing so much as an ill-fitting latex mask roughly pulled over a crude animatronic, is uniquely irritating to look at. It’s the kind of face for which the German word Backpfeifengesicht -- a face that’s badly in need of a fist -- was invented. It’s a face that’s so eminently punchable that a psychologist took to his blog to try to explain why.
Is it really so hard to imagine Trump reflexively sucker-punching Ted Cruz’s simpering face in a moment of rage? I have to confess that I don’t find it totally implausible. All you’d really need is for Cruz to say something that struck out at Trump’s masculinity, in tight quarters.
But that’s the thing: Is there even a good opportunity for these guys to fight? A debate stage would be the perfect venue, given their close proximity and relative distance from people who could get there to intervene before things got too far.
The second presidential debate between Romney and Obama, for instance, would have been the perfect environment for a fight. Organized as a semi-casual town hall, there were no podiums for the candidates to ensconce themselves behind. Instead, each candidate had a chair, and they both would get up and walk around the stage as they interacted with the audience and answered questions. In pictures from that night, you can see how close they were to each other at times, during the heat of the debate.
With no more GOP debates on the horizon, the chances are pretty low that these two are going to be in the same physical space between now and the convention, unless one of them has occasion to schedule a face-to-face meeting, which seems unlikely.
But what about the convention itself? If no candidate goes into the Republican convention with enough delegates to win the nomination outright, we’re headed for a contested convention. And it’s going to be high-stakes chaos, with everything on the line. The weird set of events that led to these two particular men being the last ones standing is unlikely to be repeated -- whoever loses the nomination is likely finished as a presidential candidate, forever. And the nature of the convention, especially one that is not the purely ceremonial affair that conventions usually are, means that the two candidates are likely going to be occupying close, cramped spaces while their tempers are still flaring. It’s probably an even better environment for Cruz and Trump to fight than a debate would be.
Look into your heart: It is what you truly desire, isn't it? For the last shred of civility to be ripped aside, for calculation to be replaced with mindlessness? You wanna see one of these men punch the other right in the face.
This post has been updated to reflect that Trump is 24 years older than Cruz, not 14.