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President Trump, President Cruz

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The GOP race is increasingly likely to come down to a contest between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Marco Rubio has emerged (or perhaps more accurately has not yet submerged) as the only plausible establishment candidate, but Rubio continues to underwhelm, and, unless prospective voters who have shown very little enthusiasm for him over the past eight months change their minds about him over the next eight weeks, his campaign isn’t going anywhere.

The last couple of days have brought forth another rash of “Trump won’t get the nomination” articles. Pieces in the Wall Street Journal and the Weekly Standard assert this without even bothering to put forth a theory as to why, unless wishing really hard that something doesn’t happen can be considered a theory. This Vox article does have a theory, and it’s an interesting one:

You don’t have to be a psychologist to understand what’s really going on with Trump. His entire career, like his campaign, has been about declaring his awesomeness and forcing others to acknowledge it. He has surrounded himself with trophy wives, sycophants, and his own name, everywhere he looks. He built a whole TV show premised on the idea that he’s a savvy, decisive business executive, harvesting obeisance from the rotating cast of supplicants. It is overcompensation on a world-historical scale.

At the root of this kind of narcissism is always the same thing: a vast, yawning chasm of need, a hunger for approval and validation that is never sated. Down there in the lizard brain, it’s fear: fear of being left out, laughed at, or looked down on, fear of never belonging, never being accepted, no matter how many towers you build.

The fear can only be calmed by validation, by accumulating visible markers of success until no one can laugh at you. There’s a submerged glacier of insecurity beneath every blowhard. (I fear that conservative primary voters, as a class, are insufficiently aware of this important fact.) . . .

The kind of persona-based, expectations-based support Trump is receiving works as long as it’s working. It wins as long as it’s winning.

But “I always win” is a brittle claim. All it takes to disprove it is a single loss.

And eventually, Trump will lose something — maybe Iowa, maybe New Hampshire, maybe just a couple of news cycles. (And make no mistake: To a winner, second place is losing.) When he’s being pressed to explain his loss, what he did wrong, do you suppose he will acknowledge error?

No. What error could there be? He can’t communicate his message any better. The message is Trump. And he’s Trump! If voters aren’t voting for him, they’re stupid.

The reactionaries who are attracted to Trump are, as numerous lines of research have demonstrated, more anxious than liberals and thus more prone to value order, stability, structure, and social hierarchy. They are highly sensitive to the pecking order and in-group/out-group distinctions.

This has served Trump’s nationalist, xenophobic campaign well, but it could come back to bite him if he becomes second man on the totem pole — or, god forbid, third. To the hierarchy-conscious, the way things work is you pay respect to the winners above you. You only punch down at the losers below.

Under attack, or in the face of skepticism or, y’know, losing, Trump’s thin skin will make him defensive and volatile. He can’t modulate, can’t do humility, can’t abide the thought of anyone above him. All his claims, all his stories, all his insults are yuge, the best you’ll find anywhere.

The same belligerence that looked like strength when Trump was on top will look defensive and bitter when he’s not. And the more doubtful or skeptical voters and the media become, the more Trump will escalate, the more his chest will puff. He doesn’t know any other strategy. He’ll enter a negative spiral as self-reinforcing as his rise has been.

Well maybe. Trump certainly seems to be an extreme example of a narcissistic personality, and it’s easy to imagine him failing to handle normal campaign adversity well, by normal evaluative standards. But the key caveat here is “normal.” There’s nothing normal about the Trump campaign, as evidenced by the fact that the sorts of “gaffes” that would normally be considered crippling or fatal for a candidate (Mexican immigrants are mostly rapists, a very popular journalist is asking him tough questions because of her menstrual cycle, almost all white murder victims are killed by the blacks, etc. etc. etc.) have only increased his poll numbers.

Sure, it’s possible that the same bluster that is working so well now will play differently after a couple of primary losses, but this theory, too, appears to feature more than a touch of wishful thinking. Trump is no doubt a raging narcissist, but he’s also a 69-year-old man who has suffered plenty of setbacks at one time or another, including bankrupt companies, failed marriages, and decades of mockery from his social betters, who have never let him forget that, in their eyes, he will always be the impossibly vulgar scion of a parvenu real estate hustler.

In short, the notion that the Trump campaign will blow up because either Trump and/or his fans won’t be able to handle the sight of him losing a couple of early primaries has some surface plausibility, but I wouldn’t want to bet on it.

Which brings us to the remarkable saga of Rafael “Ted” Cruz. Consider who Cruz was, in terms of the conventional wisdom, just a few months ago: a freshman senator, with no experience in elected office prior to 2013, who arrived in Washington and immediately alienated all the most important Republican politicians in town, by combining extreme personal arrogance with total disregard for the social niceties that are supposed to at least superficially rule life in the U.S. Senate.

Cruz is also a strident hard right ideologue, who has the charisma of a bottle of Maalox, a Canadian birth certificate, and a blatantly Spanish first and last name. In some ways, his presidential ambitions seemed, under the circumstances, to be even more unrealistic than Donald Trump’s.

What’s becoming increasingly evident is that he’s also a hell of a politician. Cruz won his Senate seat even though he was outspent by his rival in the GOP primary by nearly three to one. In one sense, he appears to be a much smarter, much soberer version of Joe McCarthy: a completely unscrupulous demagogue, who will toss out an accusation of treason whenever it might gain him a vote or three.

In another, he’s reminiscent of Richard Nixon: another charisma-challenged and widely despised man, whose intelligence, ruthlessness, and boundless ambition took him a lot further than anyone could have imagined he would go.

Right now, I’d put the odds of one of these two men being the next president of the United States at about 35%.

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