The ‘New York Values’ That Donald Trump Supporters Love

Ted Cruz’s debate-night attack backfired on stage, but it was never going to convince Trump supporters.

Chris Keane / Reuters

On Thursday, Senator Ted Cruz tried to undermine Donald Trump by declaring that he has “New York values.” The crowd of South Carolina Republicans laughed when Cruz declared that “most people know exactly what New York values are.” When pressed, he elaborated that while New York state has many wonderful people, “everyone understands that the values in New York City are socially liberal or pro-abortion or pro-gay marriage, focus around money and the media.” He added, “Not a lot of conservatives come out of Manhattan. I’m just saying.”

How smug and confident he sounded making that attack. And no wonder. New Yorkers are socially liberal and more focused on money and media than the rest of the country. And Republican audiences have eaten up attacks on urban elites for years.

Hell, hating on Manhattan is a trope.

Listening to Cruz brought to mind that old series of TV commercials set in the Old West, where a bunch of tough-guy cowboys would be gathered for their evening meal. Here’s one where the cowboy who brings a salsa from New York City gets hanged:

Of course, if you watched Thursday’s debate, you know that Cruz’s attack backfired spectacularly. Trump responded by talking about the September 11 terrorist attacks in a monologue that my colleague aptly dubbed his finest moment. Unlike so many invocations of 9/11 in Republican primary debates, it didn’t feel like a non-sequitur.

It isn’t that anything about the terrorist attack or the response to it contradicts the fact that New Yorkers in aggregate are ideologically left of middle America. But it does put those differences in perspective. Americans saw the humanity of Manhattan in a way no one alive at the time can forget. Iowa voters will be harder pressed to regard the typical New Yorker as someone with intolerably different values than their own when recalling those autumn days in front of the television set, mourning the victims, celebrating heroic firefighters, and rooting for resilient survivors. The context exposed Cruz’s implicit reliance on reflexive, inane prejudice.  

Trump bested Cruz, and in doing so he subtly made a point that conservatives need to remember—we can’t and shouldn’t write off any part of America,” the National Review’s David French wrote. “By hearkening back to New York’s heart after 9/11, for a moment Trump transcended politics. How easily we forget, but for weeks after the terror attacks, New York was America.” (Of course, Trump has meanwhile been writing off Muslim Americans, Black Lives Matter protestors,  and many Hispanics.)

The more I think about it, the more I wonder if the “New York values” attack would’ve hurt Trump even if he hadn’t managed to invoke the shared experience of 9/11 so skillfully. Aren’t many qualities that Trump supporters like about the candidate very New York City? He’s big, loud, brash, unafraid to brag, and full of superlatives. He speaks his mind and has the high opinion of himself. He’s comfortable with being pushy and with open conflict. He values ruthlessness and winners.

Trump supporters like those qualities much, much more than they dislike departures from conservative ideology and social mores. The phenomenon closely resembles the way that  many on the right adored Andrew Breitbart even though he was perfectly comfortable with gays, helped start the Huffington Post, lived in West Los Angeles, and “didn’t actually have strong philosophical/policy beliefs, at all.”

If the Tea Party gave rise to a more libertarian faction in the GOP––Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Mike Lee, and Justin Amash are examples––the ascendant faction on the right this cycle is not conservative or libertarian at its core. It is, rather, Breitbartian. Its adherents are more interested in a culture war than a political one. It is anti-leftist, anti-Islamist, anti-establishment, and anti-political-correctness. Do these adherents constitute a bigger or smaller faction than the evangelicals and social conservatives who, save for a stirring invocation of 9/11, would have gone to bed last night worried that Trump’s “New York values” are a problem?

The answer may determine who wins the GOP nomination.