In La Crosse, Wisconsin, on Monday night, Donald Trump said, ‘If we do well here, folks, it’s over.’ He was right in theory. There were signs that the billionaire’s crusade against the Republican party establishment and the plutocrats who run it might find an ear in Wisconsin. The state has an industrial working class. It has lately seen plants close and good jobs flee. On the other hand, there were signs that Trump might go up in flames. Wisconsin is well-educated. It is one of the last places in the country where the party system resembles the sociological cliché of the 1950s: rich Republicans in the suburbs, working-class Democrats in the cities and the boondocks. In recent years, angry partisan battles over public-sector unions have left Republicans more inclined to revere party leaders than to ransack their offices. Voters wait on the words of half a dozen radio hosts, who spent the last couple of weeks comparing Trump to various barn animals.
Wisconsin turned out to be Trump’s worst state. Unctuous, Bible-thumping Ted Cruz not only clobbered him but nearly took a majority in a three-way race. People are beginning to ask whether Trump is past it, and whether Wisconsin marks what the Washington Post, with barely disguised glee, called ‘the beginning of the high-flying candidate’s downfall’.
It is early for that, but the terrain Trump must cross to claim the party nomination in July has become inhospitable. The common explanation is that Trump’s shtick is getting old, his message stale. He is beginning to make unforced errors. This is all false. Trump’s allegation that the party is run for the benefit of a cabal of rich people has, if anything, been vindicated in recent days. He is discover-ing, though, that these people are not idiots. In the past month, as the candidates’ field has shrunk, the once–divided establishment has settled on Cruz as the vessel of its anti-Trump obsession, crafted a mighty message that seems to be inflicting damage on Trump, and raised the millions to hammer that message home through advertising and public relations.
The message is that Trump is a menace to women. It has been built into a raging fire by blowing tirelessly on the sparks of three rather flimsy stories.
The first is that Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, ‘assaulted’ a female reporter after a press conference in Florida on 8 March. ‘Campaign managers,’ the reporter wrote in her account, ‘aren’t supposed to try to forcefully throw reporters to the ground.’ Alas for her, there is a video of the episode. It shows Lewandowski briefly tugging her back by the wrist, for considerably less than a second, as she tried to chase Trump through a crowd. A week ago, Lewandowski turned himself in to police in Jupiter, Florida.
The second story was that Trump insulted Cruz’s wife. An anti-Trump organisation published a photo of Trump’s wife from an old shoot, nude and lolling on a fur rug. Trump took it as a Cruz stunt and threatened to ‘spill the beans’ on Cruz’s wife, whatever that might mean. (She works for the investors Goldman Sachs.) Cruz was so horrified that he has not let a day pass since without discussing it in elaborate detail, and held a ‘celebration of strong women’ in the university town of Madison. After weeks of accusing Trump of not being a ‘real’ conservative, the party has settled on attacking him for being insufficiently feminist.
Finally, Trump got into a discussion with the television host Chris Matthews about the hypothetical question of what it would actually mean to ban abortion. Wouldn’t women somehow have to be punished, Matthews asked? Trump tried to drift off to what ‘people on the Republican side’ used to think about such matters, and then said he didn’t know. But after Matthews spent four minutes trying to nail Trump down, he finally relented: ‘There has to be some form of punishment,’ he replied. Of course there does! It’s in the logic of the position. That is why Matthews pressed it.
Being dead honest is a good thing; voters like to see you step on political hacks’ hypocrisy. Unfortunately for Trump, there are areas where political hacks are hypocrites because they intuit the hypocrisy of the voters. Abortion is one of these. Trump quickly reversed course — to the catcalls of the ‘pro-life’ establishment. Whether or not there is a real anti-abortion movement in the -United States, there is a mighty eat-your-moral-cake-and-have-it movement, and the canny Cruz rallied to its defence. ‘Of course we shouldn’t be talking about punishing women,’ he said. ‘We should affirm their dignity and the incredible gift they have to bring life into the world.’ Cruz believes in the sanctity of pro-life slogans.
Clearly, there was a deep yearning, not just in the party establishment but in the broader Republican public as well, for reasons to think ill of Trump. Now that this has been identified, it will be better and better exploited. The Trump campaign turns out to be more vulnerable in its virtues than its vices. Trump has a more original and open mind than any of his opponents, although it is a taboo to say so. He has proposed offering a list of a dozen potential judges from which he would pick the next Supreme Court justice. He sees the bizarreness of an international economy in which you can borrow at incredibly low rates, but only if you’re rich. He believes that running a trade deficit is the same as losing money — a truly conservative economic idea, which is not to say it is a good one. Cruz has the kind of high-functioning narrow mind that can be an asset in politics. Voters who use an ideological checklist to judge candidates like him a lot, and he is a great grassroots networker… among Republicans. His chances of getting elected are somewhere between infinitesimal and zero. To Trump’s foes that is no longer of much interest.
Trump emerges from Wisconsin weakened. The grandees now have a chance to stop his nomination. But probably not his insurgency. The transformation they feared he would wreak has been wrought. Two weeks from now he will be running for a huge quantity of electoral voters in his home state of New York, where he leads Cruz by 30 points in the polls. The Republicans will still be the party of globalisation’s losers, paid for and steered by a grandees indifferent to whether the party loses or wins. Once voters think of a party that way, they are unlikely to trust it in its unreformed state.
Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard.