It takes a pretty despicable person to cede the moral high ground to Donald Trump. Yet Ted Cruz managed it Thursday night with his attack on the Republican front-runner’s “New York values,” which, Cruz said, “are socially liberal or pro-abortion or pro–gay marriage [and] focus around money and the media.” Trump might have used that moment to point out that Cruz’s wife works for New York–based investment bank Goldman Sachs, which reportedly made Cruz a loan in his Senate race that he failed to report. Trump could have mentioned that Cruz doesn’t seem to mind New York values when he comes to the city with his hand out. Instead, Trump delivered an uncharacteristically eloquent, emotional ode to his city:
New York is a great place. It’s got great people. It’s got loving people, wonderful people. When the World Trade Center came down, I saw something that no place on Earth could have handled more beautifully, more humanely than New York … Thousands of people killed and the cleanup started the next day … I was down there. And I’ve never seen anything like it. And the people in New York fought and fought and fought, and we saw more death and even the smell of death; nobody understood it. And it was with us for months: the smell, the air. And we rebuilt downtown Manhattan, and everybody in the world watched, and everybody in the world loved New York and loved New Yorkers, and I have to tell you, that was a very insulting statement that Ted made.
When Trump was done, Cruz, seeming abashed, looked down. It was the best moment Trump has had in a debate.
I won’t pretend to know how this will go over in Iowa, New Hampshire, or South Carolina. I’m a New York nationalist; when I want to understand the fevered bluster of love-it-or-leave-it American patriots, I extrapolate from how I feel about my city. No doubt, lots of Republicans hate, fear, and resent New York as much as they always have. Nevertheless, the political salience of New York City has changed in a way that makes Cruz’s attack seem passé.
For decades, our politics assumed the moral superiority of small Southern and Midwestern towns over decadent, immoral East Coast cities. This was true of Democrats as well as Republicans; Bill Clinton and Al Gore rose in no small part because of their Southern roots. Politicians of both parties spent election season pretending to be NASCAR devotees who love nothing more than scarfing deep-fried Twinkies at county fairs. Now, however, the two leading candidates for the Democratic nomination are Hillary Clinton, whose headquarters is in Brooklyn, and Bernie Sanders, who was born there and sounds like it. The front-runner for the Republican nod is a brash Manhattan real estate developer. New Yorkers are dominating this election.
The political embrace of New York and New Yorkers is not just about 9/11. In the years after the towers came down, conservatives regularly sneered at the cultural predilections of East Coast elites even as they appropriated New York City’s tragedy for their own ends. Remember the famous Club For Growth ad against Howard Dean? It featured an elderly couple outside of what looked like a small-town diner lambasting Dean’s “tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times–reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show.”
What’s The Matter With Kansas?, Tom Frank’s 2004 best-seller, was all about this sort of cultural populism. Conservatives, he wrote, sought “to cast the Democrats as the party of a wealthy, pampered, arrogant elite that lives as far as it can from real Americans; and to represent Republicanism as the faith of the hardworking common people of the heartland, an expression of their unpretentious, all-American ways just like country music and NASCAR.”
Rather than defending cities, Democrats often went on the defense when Republicans played the hayseed card. That changed with Barack Obama, who proved that a cosmopolitan sophisticate could win the presidency despite a rumored, much-discussed affinity for arugula. (If you’re too young to remember the 2008 election, this was actually a big thing.) Democrats have now fully embraced their identity as the party of liberal urbanites.
What’s more surprising is that Republicans are rallying behind a figure who is largely defined by his urban elitism. One reason that I suspect Cruz’s attack will fall flat is that Trump’s New York roots aren’t exactly a secret. They are, instead, at the heart of his identity. As Rick Perlstein points out, before this campaign, much of the country knew Trump through The Apprentice, which debuted in 2004 with Trump’s voiceover: “New York. My city. Where the wheels of the global economy never stop turning. A concrete metropolis of unparalleled strength and purpose that drives the business world. Manhattan is a tough place. This island is the real jungle.”
So after decades of fetishizing the American heartland, conservatives are now lining up behind an unapologetic Manhattanite who crisscrosses the country in a private jet and rarely if ever deigns to visit small-town diners on the campaign trail. This represents a major shift. The reason for it, I think, lies in the eclipse of the religious right by a new sort of conservative populism.
The essential story of the religious right is that wholesome small-town values are under attack from immoral big-city globalists. That’s the narrative Cruz invoked last night, and it surely still has currency among the Republican electorate. Trump, however, speaks to people who know that American small towns aren’t so wholesome anymore—that they are, in fact, places of widespread social breakdown and desperation. He describes a country that’s “going to hell,” with decaying infrastructure, massive unemployment, and a growing heroin problem.
The Washington Post recently ran a piece headlined “These Are The Towns That Love Donald Trump.” It notes that Trump often holds his rallies in places that are struggling, “filled with dissatisfied blue-collar Democrats and Republicans who feel as if they haven’t had a voice.” Trump speaks to their despair and promises to use his New York deal-making magic to turn them from losers into winners. He’s not telling people that their towns are better than New York, because they know that they’re not. Rather than channeling their ire towards smirking urban elitists, he directs it outward, toward Muslims and immigrants. It’s a new sort of culture war, one for people who no longer believe that their little communities are models for everyone else.