Donald Trump should have seen it coming.
Last night, on the third day of what has been a shambolic and intensely surreal Republican National Convention, former presidential hopeful Ted Cruz delivered a scathing anti-endorsement of Trump’s candidacy. He left the stage amidst boos and jeers and his wife had to be escorted out for her own safety, but his smug smile as he waved goodbye shows the Texas senator knew what he was doing and achieved exactly what he wanted to.
During the primaries, the animosity between Trump and Cruz reached a fever pitch. Trump routinely referred to his rival as “Lyin’ Ted Cruz”, and the meme calling Heidi Cruz ugly in comparison to Melania Trump was a new low point, even in the dirty game of US politics. Cruz, the devout Christian and Tea Party’s golden boy who seemed ideally placed to channel the grassroots conservative movement, saw his campaign torn to shreds thanks to Trump’s bombastic populism and refusal to play fair.
Then on the very stage where Trump had officially been crowned the Republican nominee, Cruz used his prime-time slot to get his revenge. In a speech in which he was expected to support Trump, if not actually endorse him, Cruz mentioned Trump’s name only once. He concluded with a damning call to action for conservatives to reject Trump’s candidacy:
“Don’t stay home in November. Stand, and speak, and vote your conscience, vote for candidates up and down the ticket who you trust to defend our freedom and to be faithful to the Constitution.”
Whether or not Cruz intended to hand a zingy campaign slogan to Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee wasted no time in taking advantage of the Republican back-stabbing:
Vote your conscience. https://t.co/xahMq2sU1q
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) July 21, 2016
Trump, meanwhile, is playing Cruz’s rejection as “no big deal”, with his team pointing out that Cruz was booed off the stage by an angry crowd, which can apparently be sold as a show of “unity”. But there is a bigger question to be asked than how the Trump campaign is responding. Why was Ted Cruz allowed to speak at all?
In the final months of the Republican primaries, many of Trump’s former rivals and detractors appeared to have a change of heart. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie managed to forget he had accused Trump of “whining” and acting like a “thirteen-year-old”, endorsing him whole-heartedly just a month later. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan famously withheld his support on live television and more recently slammed Trump’s attack on the judge presiding over his lawsuit, but has been careful to never criticize him outright. And Indiana Governor Mike Pence endorsed Cruz back in April, yet seemed enthusiastic and thrilled to be Trump’s VP pick.
But Ted Cruz was never going to follow the Trump-backing herd. Of all the Republican presidential contenders, Cruz was above all an ideological purist, unwilling to compromise or even adapt.
As David Waywell wrote when Cruz dropped out of the race in May, “here was a guy who has a copy of the US Constitution swinging where his heart used to be”. His intractability was part of the reason his campaign floundered – he was too cold, too rigid, with an awkward on-camera demeanor which led to a viral meme linking him to the Zodiac Killer. Like Trump, he didn’t seem to mind about being unpopular, but whereas Trump’s sexist and race-baiting remarks could bring whole stadiums to their feet in a standing ovation, Cruz’s cool anti-LGBT diatribes made him look like a sociopath.
If Cruz refused to soften his image even a little in the hope of winning the Republican nomination, why on earth did Donald Trump’s campaign think he would swallow his pride and his principles at the Republican Convention? And yet he was given a prime-time platform to make his views clear.
Any objective spectator could have guessed what would happen. But the Trump campaign is so inward-looking, so arrogant, so self-obsessed, that it apparently did not occur to anyone that Cruz might still have an axe to grind, and that giving him a public opportunity to grind it was a huge risk. Perhaps they were still scrambling after the story of Melania Trump’s plagiarism of Michelle Obama’s speech went viral. But it is far more likely that Trump’s ego got in the way of rationality. He simply could not see that Cruz, who is already working on his 2020 bid for the White House, would never fall in line and pass up on the chance to get revenge after the way he had been treated on the campaign trail.
Next week, Hillary Clinton may face a similar problem at the Democratic National Convention, as she struggles to bring Bernie Sanders’ die-hard fans into the fold. But unlike Trump, there is no way she will take the risk of underestimating her rival. Whether you see it as calculating shrewdness or basic common sense, Trump could have done with a dose of Clinton caution last night. His recklessness might just cost him the election.
And then Ted Cruz will have won.