John Boehner’s now-infamous description of Ted Cruz as “Lucifer in the flesh” can easily be dismissed as just another addition, albeit a hilarious one, to the ever-expanding “Everybody Hates Ted” genre. But Boehner’s remarks have a wider significance than being just another example of how Cruz manages to tick off virtually every human being he comes into contact with. In Boehner’s words we see the fatal flaw of Cruz’s last-ditch strategy to wrest the Republican presidential nomination away from the presumptive winner, Donald Trump—and the fatal calculation that the GOP establishment has made in deciding to live with Trump.
Cruz’s end-game plan, which could come crashing down in today’s Indiana primary, was based on an awareness that elite Republicans like Boehner hate him, but also on a faith that they would conclude he’s the lesser evil. The powers-that-be would hold their noses, endorse him, and then rally behind him in a contested convention in Cleveland. In effect, Cruz has been gambling that the #NeverTrump sentiment expressed on Twitter would coalesce behind him in real life. But it’s now clear that #NeverTrump is a hollow slogan. For better or worse, the bulk of Republican Party leaders have indicated that they won’t risk a backlash from Trump supporters, who make up a large plurality of primary voters, by joining Cruz’s ranks.
Cruz has six senators endorsing him. That’s better than John Kasich’s two endorsements and Trump’s one. But the simple fact is that more than 80 percent of the 54 sitting Republican senators have so far decided not to endorse anyone. This doesn’t matter to Trump, who is doing fine without endorsements, but it is lethal to Cruz’s bid to be the standard-bearer of anti-Trumpism.
In the same on-stage interview in which Boehner compared Cruz to Satan, he also said he was “texting buddies” with Trump. The flip-side of Cruz’s personal unpopularity is Trump’s relative friendliness with power brokers, and not just in the Republican Party. If Cruz is seen as an inflexible ideologue, Trump is regarded among the powerful as flexible and pragmatic.
Trump has hobnobbed with politicians of both major parties for decades, of course, and it’s not uncommon for them to say, as Howard Dean did on the New Republic’s Primary Concerns podcast, that Trump’s inflammatory political rhetoric is just an act. “I actually think Trump is somewhat of a moderate,” Dean said. “If I had to choose between Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, and my choices were limited, I’d vote for Donald Trump.” What’s true for Dean as a Democrat appears to be true for many Republicans like Boehner—enough so that Cruz won’t get the last-minute rally of support he needs.
Further, Republicans unhappy with the two frontrunners might console themselves with the thought that Trump is likely a passing evil, whereas Cruz could prove a more lasting one. Trump has a personality cult that might disintegrate if he loses in the general; Cruz is the leader of a GOP faction that will continue to try and grapple for power. Cruz as nominee would be in a position to put his stamp on the party so that it is much more aligned with his far-right views. Trump shows little interest in having such a legacy.
The Republican elites’ view of Trump as the lesser evil rests, then, on a real calculation—and it’s clearly affecting the race. Cruz is likely to lose tonight in Indiana, which will set the stage for Trump to get the 1,237 delegates needed to forestall a contested election. Still, the fact that Republican leaders are willing to accept Trump as doing less damage doesn’t mean their judgment is right.
In truth, Trump and Cruz shouldn’t be talked about as lesser or greater evils, but as different types of evil. To use the language of Dungeons & Dragons, Trump is Chaotic Evil and Cruz is Lawful Evil. (Jeb Bush’s comment that Trump is the “chaos candidate” rings true). Cruz is the Grand Inquisitor, whose goal is to inflict the law without mercy. Trump is the Joker, someone who flouts the law with merry impunity.
For a political party, a “chaos candidate” is surely more dangerous than a lawful Lucifer. Cruz is an extreme-right version of a typical Republican politician, but he maintains the party’s tradition going back to Goldwater of coding his appeals to bigotry in dog-whistle language. Trump’s whole modus operandi is to flout conventional “political correctness” by not using code. He turns subtext into text, and makes the latent blatant. And that has made Trump the most unpopular presidential aspirant since the 1920s.
If he becomes the party nominee, Trump is likely to drag the GOP down with him—partly because Republican candidates won’t even be able to make a plausible case that they don’t belong to the party of racism and misogyny. While powerful white men like Boehner might find Trump personally charming, most of the country disagrees.
By deciding that it’s not worth fighting Trump just to end up with Cruz, elite Republicans are making a grievous error. Cruz might be “Lucifer in the flesh,” but Trump promises to be something worse. After all, Lucifer at least had some charm and guile, while in Trump’s version, chaotic evil comes across to most people as pure ugliness.