When assessing politicians, particularly those running for the presidency, I’ve found it most informative not to put too much weight on their specific promises, but rather to observe how they go about seeking votes and dealing with the conflicts that arise in a campaign, as well as things they say extemporaneously that give a clue as to their general philosophies.
In that regard, consider Donald Trump’s eagerness to jump into a National Enquirer conspiracy theory about Ted Cruz’s father somehow being connected with the assassination of John F. Kennedy and his reaction when Cruz fired back at him. Here are a few quotations from those articles (two block quotes from the first and one from the second) to illustrate a point:
- “His father was with Lee Harvey Oswald prior to Oswald’s being — you know, shot. I mean, the whole thing is ridiculous,” Trump said Tuesday during a phone interview with Fox News. “What is this, right prior to his being shot, and nobody even brings it up. They don’t even talk about that. That was reported, and nobody talks about it.”
- Asked to respond [to an earlier statement from Cruz’s father supporting his son’s candidacy and opining that “alternative could be the destruction of America”], Trump called it a disgrace. “I think it’s a disgrace that he’s allowed to do it. I think it’s a disgrace that he’s allowed to say it,” he said, before touting his support from Jerry Falwell Jr. and other evangelical leaders.
- In a statement [responding to Ted Cruz’s making fun of the conspiracy theory], Mr. Trump said: “Ted Cruz is a desperate candidate trying to save his failing campaign. It is no surprise he has resorted to his usual tactics of over-the-top rhetoric that nobody believes. Over the last week, I have watched Lyin’ Ted become more and more unhinged as he is unable to react under the pressure and stress of losing, in all cases by landslides, the last six primary elections — in fact, coming in last place in all but one of them. Today’s ridiculous outburst only proves what I have been saying for a long time, that Ted Cruz does not have the temperament to be president of the United States.”
Now, frankly, the thing that jumped out at me about the first statement from Trump wasn’t his trafficking in conspiracy theories — I don’t take such off-the-charts statements from him seriously anymore — but rather his related incredulity that Cruz’s father should be allowed to speak negatively of his son’s opponent. That speaks to a dangerous inclination to silence, dismiss, and erase people who disagree with Trump.
But since The Donald kept doubling down, let’s take the opportunity for a lesson by reviewing the steps of the exchange:
- Rafael Cruz gave a pointed warning about the consequences of (one infers) a Donald Trump presidency.
- Donald Trump said he didn’t think Cruz should even be allowed to say such things and went on to whine about a lack of media coverage of a conspiracy story from a tabloid renowned for decades for its outrageously false material.
- Ted Cruz responded to Trump by saying the rhetoric is nuts and that Trump lies repeatedly and then “accuse[s] everybody else of lying.”
- Trump, who started this particular spat by elevating an online video interview with his opponent’s father to a national sensation by promoting a conspiracy theory exhibits classic projection, insisting that Cruz always resorts to “over-the-top rhetoric,” that Cruz is “unable to react under the pressure and stress of losing” (an assertion theatrically refuted through an online video of a calm Ted Cruz interacting with a Trump supporter who responded with nothing but insults and smug looks), and that Cruz doesn’t have a presidential temperament.
Objectively, it is Donald Trump who is crossing lines from the boundaries usually expected within political campaigns. As has been previously suggested (here, for one), Trump is gaslighting, or saying things that are so audaciously not true — while accusing others of his own bad behavior — that arguments become he-said-she-said assertions in which Trump steals a march by being considered at least on an even footing.
The lesson is that this is a con-artist technique. Public figures who support Donald Trump should take a moment to consider whether it would be better to admit they’ve been scammed while there’s still a chance to avoid the hit to their credibility.