Donald Trump has always been that guy: the one whose third wife is 26 years his junior. That guy whose side business was, for a long time, owning a beauty pageant, which allowed him to inspect and smooch as many young beauties as he pleased. That guy who makes comments about being attracted to his daughter. Trump was always that guy who would tweet out an unflattering picture of some other dude’s wife next to a highly finished picture of his own, saying, “The images are worth a thousand words.”
For the lasts several days, he and Ted Cruz have been in a Twitter-based Battle of the Wives, pitting Melania and Heidi against one another in contests of appearance and virtue. It started when an anti-Trump Super PAC, Make America Awesome, pushed ads depicting a naked Melania Trump out to women in Utah. “Meet Melania Trump, your next first lady,” the ad said. “Or, you could support Ted Cruz on Tuesday.” On primary night, Trump shot back, saying, “Lyin' Ted Cruz just used a picture of Melania from a G.Q. shoot in his ad. Be careful, Lyin' Ted, or I will spill the beans on your wife!” The next day, he retweeted the meme that had already circulated widely, comparing Cruz's wife to his own. Cruz replied: “Donald, real men don’t attack women. Your wife is lovely, and Heidi is the love of my life.”
Ted Cruz was also always that guy: the one who would look away as his allies circulated a naked picture of the wife of his enemy, and then suggest that “real men don’t attack women.” That guy who who stands silently by as his allies suggest that a man’s fitness for office can be measured in terms of the chastity of his wife—that her comparative purity, and his willingness to defend it, are tests of his manly authority. That guy who would suggest the only female Democratic presidential candidate in this race needs a spanking.
Both men’s supporters are using their wives as symbolic weapons, but they’re fighting toward different ends. Cruz’s allies are making a claim about propriety: That modesty and sexual demureness are virtues, especially in a woman who will represent the United States. There’s a logic to this: Mormons, who were targeted in the ad push, believe in modesty and tend to be culturally conservative. Trump is making a claim about status and power: that the beauty of his wife proves his superiority over Ted Cruz, because a man’s social standing is partly a function of his ability to compete, and win, in sexual contests. There is also a logic to this: Trump is appealing to a segment of Americans who are moved by calls to assert America’s superiority in the world and who like Trump’s real-talk, even if it makes them nervous sometimes. It’s worth noting that both of these men have wives who are accomplished in their fields: Melania has worked successfully as a model, and Heidi as a banker. But in this back-and-forth, their own independent histories are irrelevant—they have been reduced, by both sides and in different ways, to their sexual appeal.
It’s possible that Trump’s move—or Cruz’s, for that matter—will alienate some folks in their core constituencies, or perhaps some of the general electorate, but both men are performing exactly the roles they’ve had throughout this race. Both have taken risks by violating the boundaries of theoretical civility in politics—don’t allow your allies to imply that your opponent’s wife is a slut, don’t imply that your opponent’s wife is ugly—but it’s not clear that they’re bad risks, or ones that will come with negative consequences.
The interesting question here is not about the attacks themselves—these moves are perfectly predictable. The better question is about whose norms they are violating. For sure, no ardent, progressive feminist is going to be wooed by the shameless use of a politician’s wife as an object to gain political points. And neither Trump nor Cruz seem to particularly care about winning those particular hearts. But there’s another group, who admittedly make strange bedfellows with progressive feminists, who might be turned off by the exchange of jabs about Melania and Heidi—on a taste level, if not on a level of sexual politics: cultural conservatives, the kind of religious voters who attend church regularly, don’t want Trump to be president, and don’t want to see a picture of a naked woman in their Facebook feeds. The commitment to civility in politics and public discourse, and specifically codes of acceptable and unacceptable speech designed to protect the honor of women, is a conservative commitment—it’s a hearkening back to the memory of an older time, an appreciation for the importance of manners and behavior.
If anything, this exchange—just one in a suite of outrageous and tasteless exchanges among Republican candidates this election cycle—underlines how far the Republican Party has drifted from the days of values voters and a culturally conservative base, no matter how slyly Ted Cruz tries to have his conservatism both ways. There is a large part of the American populace that can’t be accounted for in the myth of American conservatism: They are the masses that have shown up for Trump rallies and been totally unbothered by his violation of ostensibly inviolable norms of the Republican Party, with his adultery and many wives and lack of religiosity. The people who care about culturally conservative ideals—behavioral codes, speech codes, sexual codes—are still out there in America, but as Trump’s polling numbers show, they might no longer be the voters who are most powerful in Republican primaries. Cruz’s allies can send out naked pics, and Trump can tweet about how ugly Cruz's wife is, and both politicians will probably be just fine.
Still, this has had the effect of making American politics feel a bit like a hall of mirrors. Here’s the tweet that sits right below the meme of Heidi and Melania in Trump’s Twitter feed: