When I was a small boy my dad and I would watch the great prize fights of the day. Ali v Frazier, Ali v Foreman, Ali v Spinks. Boxing is a terrible, brutal sport. But there is a beauty in watching these greats, often perfectly matched, do battle. Back during the phony war period of the Cruz/Trump confrontation I noted that we may be witnessing a comparable battle of two titans. “That,” I wrote, “is one of the many things that makes the current Trump-Cruz phony war so compelling. Trump is baiting Cruz into the same smackdown he’s used to eat up Bush, Walker, Fiorina and others. But Cruz won’t take the bait. Like two zen masters facing off in a martial arts classic or perhaps two wizards doing battle in The Lord of the Rings, we have an epic confrontation between two masters who have trained for decades in the arts of assholery and bullying. But their powers equally matched, it is a stand off.”
In last night’s debate we saw the battle finally, fully joined. And while I’d never seen a smackdown quite on the scale of the one Trump used to crush Ted Cruz, I was surprised at how much day two energy the story had and how many surrogates the Cruz campaign was sending out to clean up the mess.
The Cruz camp seemed to realize that that exchange was highly damaging. In part it was damaging on the substance. 9/11 is the pulsing 50 million volt wire at the center of the gas-filled early 21st century GOP worldview. Once it’s invoked, everyone has to run for cover, bow down, run, clap. There’s no fighting it. And here Cruz walked right into it, totally unaware of what was coming. It was Cruz at his nastiest, smarmiest, callowest best. And BAM! He didn’t know what hit him.
But there’s another element to this beyond getting angled into insulting the city that endured the brunt of the 9/11 attacks. Always in Republican politics but especially in this cycle, much of the meta-messaging of the campaign is about dominating and being dominated. It is the central theme of Trump’s whole message and he has used his competitors as the canvas on which he paints the picture. Trump didn’t just catch Cruz out with 9/11, he crushed him. He dominated him. Completely. If you watch the video below, you can see Cruz’s face start subtly to wilt as he sees what’s happening and is helpless to defend himself. And not half way into Trump’s assault Cruz starts clapping. Cheering the man who is in the midst of eviscerating him. That kind of weakness can’t go unanswered in the battle to be the nominee the Republican base is looking for. That’s why Cruz is running around so stung today.
Let’s watch the tape, because it is a thing of hideous beauty.
You start with Cruz in pure cocky and cackling style, earnest and nasty and pure sarcasm. He gets off his applause line and he could not be happier or more satisfied. But the split screen view tells the real story. You have to watch Trump’s face as Cruz rattles off his ‘New York values’ lines. Somewhere between ten and twenty seconds in you see Trump start communing with the bully gods, taking it in, closing his eyes, absorbing. He’s in like a fugue state. And then at about 23 seconds it seems to click for him. He’s got him. Now he’s just waiting for Cruz to finish.
Trump starts a touch defensively, with his comment about Bill Buckley. But then he builds. And the split screen again captures the story. Watch as Trump angles in toward 9/11. You can see Cruz’s face just start to wilt. Then the clapping. Followed finally by the signature Trump totalizing demonstration of contempt. It’s worth watching a few times. No one ever gets clocked quite that bad in a live debate.