“He has tiny hands,” said Marco Rubio of Donald Trump at a rally a few days ago. “And you know what they say about men with tiny hands …” — as the crowd roared — “… they can’t be trusted.” The crowd roared louder.
“Is that what Little Marco’s saying?” Trump asked at a rally a couple of days later. “My god, what’s wrong with him? Did you see him in that reply to the State of the Union, which was terrible, by the way.” He imitated Rubio’s grasping for a bottle of water during that speech, then he threw the water round on stage, let his tongue loll out of his mouth. “It’s Rubio!” he yelled.
Then, last Thursday, at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, during the latest in an interminable series of Republican debates, it finally happened: candidates for president actually began talking about the size of their penises. “These hands,” said Trump, holding them up, “these hands can hit a golf ball 200 yards” — what a Republican boast — “how can they be small? And let me tell you, there’s no problem anywhere else, either.” The crowd went wild. Or part of it, anyway. Party officials and the press put their heads in their hands at what had become of the country.
Trump got a good get when he reflected that Rubio looked like he had been about to fall over at an earlier debate — “and I would have held him up, with these strong hands”. Cue smirk. It was a good, good get. But that wasn’t the worst moment of this whole exchange. This came in the “spin room” after, where candidates and reps do short vox pops — and where a reporter stuck a microphone in Melania Trump’s face and asked “and what did you think of your husband’s comment about his ‘hands’?” The sphinx-like face of the decorous Mrs Trump almost fell apart; the Slovenian stared in disbelief at the bizarre gormlessness of Americans. Was she really being asked about her husband’s phallus? Then the Donald swept the whole family away, to talk to Fox News.
However, the damage had been done. That which cannot be spoken of in political discourse, the unveiled phallus, power floating free, was out and about. Chaos would reign. The city would fall. We were in Detroit, so it might already have done so. Who could tell? Baited by a tag team of Cruz and Rubio — the latter poleaxed by flu and barely ambulant — the Donald went to new heights of hubris and said that he would order the military to target terrorists’ families, even if it were against US law. The military wouldn’t disobey the order (as it is constitutionally required to do), Trump said, because “I’m very good at getting people to do what I want them to”. He had earlier said the same of House Speaker Paul Ryan: “He’ll do what I want him to, or else he’s going to have big problems.” The latter comment was more red meat for the base — but both comments served to further alarm the Republican machine, as to how genuinely chaotic Trump would be, and to supercharge the #neverTrump movement. In the debate, they went after him again about Trump University, his failure to condemn David Duke and the KKK when confronted on TV about them, about undocumented workers on his building sites, and his financial support for numerous Democratic candidates.
With everyone still in shock about what the debate, and the politics, had become, Mitt Romney decided to intervene. A phallus, then a dick. Romney had earlier targeted Trump for not releasing his tax returns. Now he attacked him for contemplating a trade war with China, among other things; in other words, everything Romney was slated for in 2012. The intervention was widely held to be a great moment … for Donald Trump. There was talk, as we headed towards five competitions on the weekend, that Trump once again had it sewn up, that talk of a contested convention was over.
The divisions between pro- and anti-Trumpists sharpened with each passing day. Populists such as Rush Limbaugh promised that the campaign to deny Trump the nomination would spark a walkout at the convention, or a mass demonstration or takeover. There was talk of a repeat of the Democratic convention of 1968, when pro-war liberal Hubert Humphrey was selected without having won a single primary, and demonstrations outside were put down with an orchestrated police riot. A measure of the desperation of the machine has been that people such as Senator Lindsey Graham were rumoured to be talking to Ted Cruz, whom they hate as much as they hate the poor. People gritted their teeth and prepared for another Trumpslaught.
But then it happened. On the weekend, Trump’s winning streak broke. He lost two of the four Republican contests of Maine, Louisiana, Kansas and Kentucky (the Democrats were running in Kansas, Louisiana and Nebraska). All except Louisiana were caucuses, with little or no opinion polling beforehand, so there was a lot of supposition going on. Supposition was wrong. Ted Cruz took two wins, taking Kansas with a solid 48% (to Trump’s 23%). In Maine, Cruz won by a 13% margin. By contrast, Trump’s wins in Kansas and Louisiana were narrow — 36% to 32%, and 41% to 38% respectively. Both victories were against Cruz. Rubio was nowhere.
The mismatch of the results suggested that Trump had suffered a genuine reversal, and that the decision to turn the guns on him was starting to work. But it was also noted that all four were “closed” primaries — you had to be pre-registered as a Republican to vote. Previous primaries may have included a lot of roll-ups, ready to vote for Trump because “he’s one of us, y’know”, as he waves at them from his helicopter. With mostly closed, winner-takes-all primaries from now on, that gives Cruz a chance to narrow the gap with Trump, to such a degree that, at the convention, he can be chosen instead of Trump. But, as the open/closed primary split shows, Cruz might well be slaughtered in a general election, as the disaffected stay home and the moderates go to the Democrats. That would be a straight-up competition between conservatism and progressivism for once and for all. It was clearly also a result of Trump’s evocation of his own manhood. Once you’ve unveiled the phallus, the mystic power is broken. Now you’re the dick. Some people try and write political coverage without using psychoanalysis (i.e. the Australian parliamentary press gallery). God knows how.
This vote gives us the most interesting data by far on what’s happening. Ted Cruz now has a brace of states that run from Texas up the mid-west: Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa. And Marco Rubio won Minnesota. Trump won the old south. In the old south, from Louisiana and Alabama curling through to South Carolina, identity is now racial — white versus black. Oklahoma is a white southern state, Kansas and Iowa mid-western. In the north, Maine is a rural/small-town state. New Hampshire is a burn-out ex-industrial state. The finding from that would have to be that Trump’s power base lies in states where there are a lot of angry white people who feel their social identity to be not merely threatened, but on the edge of extinction. Cruz does better where that race/class panic is not so pronounced, and where notions of constitutionalist purity, etc, prevail. Cruz thus wins evangelicals in less threatened states. But in identity-threatened states, they go for Trump, because there their religion is part of their resistant and defensive identity.
Cut out of the weekend almost entirely was Rubio, pushed to third, and some poor thirds at that: 11% in Louisiana, and a fourth in Maine, with 9%. He won only Puerto Rico, which isn’t even a state, just somewhere they keep the donkey.
The result is a nightmare for the GOP establishment. They would have much preferred that Trump prevailed over Cruz, even if Rubio had only a middling night. Now, Cruz, a non-establishment figure, is the presumptive alternative to Trump. Rubio’s vote collapse would appear to be a result of the debate; having turned in a poor performance, exhausted and sounding whiny compared to Cruz’s forceful assurance, Rubio has lost a whole tranche of supporters who have transferred to Cruz. That has more or less finished him. He needed a reasonable result to bridge him to Florida on March 15. The plan was that he would win there, his home state, take a few other states on the way to the convention, and then be elected as the candidate when Trump failed to win the nomination on the first ballot.
Now Rubio has a passel of troubles. His delegate yield from today will be pitiful, and he will appear crippled and weak, even if he wins Florida. But now, that is slipping away from him too. He was already behind there to Trump, by about five to seven points. He could have made that up if there had remained an implicit agreement between the three non-Trumpers that Kasich would get Ohio, and Rubio Florida. But now Cruz has opened seven offices in Florida, and will campaign there. Cruz won’t win Florida. He wants to tip it to Trump and throw Rubio out of the race. There aren’t many people choosing between Rubio and Trump; there are Rubio-Cruz undecideds, Trump-Kasich undecideds and, god help us, Trump-Sanders undecideds.
Cruz will get the lion’s share of Rubio voters. He then hopes to perform an enormous flip: that he will beat Trump in most of the remaining contests, and deny him the magic 1237 delegates he needs prior to the convention. That will require a vote, and thus chaos. But that flip ain’t so flippish now. Trump now has about 390 delegates, Cruz 300, Rubio 150, Kasich 35. Trump needs a very clear and good run — including Florida and Ohio wins — to get to a majority, pre-convention (the maths soon). This last weekend, a contested convention just got a lot more likely. But the chance of the party elevating favourite son Rubio to the spot has now all but vanished.
There were four Democratic primaries/caucuses as well. Hillary took one of them (Louisiana) and Bernie took three (Nebraska, Kansas and Maine). The media immediately began speculating about when he would drop out. Meanwhile at his rallies, Donald Trump started asking the audience to raise their right arm aloft in a, well, a salute, and pledge their vote to him. Once you’ve talked about your dick on stage, there ain’t many more places to go. The devil makes work for small hands …