The gloves are just about off for the front-runners for the Republican presidential nomination. Donald Trump has gone birther, in a modest way, against Senator Cruz, implausibly questioning the eligibility of a man born in Canada to an American citizen mother. Cruz, possibly reeling from revelations about undisclosed loans from Goldman Sachs, has been quoted commenting with implicit disapproval on Trump's "New York values." The next Republican debate may further a differentiation process that Cruz has delayed as long as possible, hoping to win Trump's supporters should the billionaire's candidacy suddenly falter. The "New York values" remark may be the first signal that Cruz plans to wage culture war on Trump. If he does, it will be a clarifying moment that could help us understand exactly what the supporters of each man are all about.
It's already clear that Cruz is the favorite of the most ideological Republicans, the radio talkers and the Christian right. These groups don't trust Trump much, mainly because they doubt his ideological soundness. They recognize that "populist," whatever it really means to anyone, is not the same as "conservative." Yet Cruz is also described as a populist candidate, mostly by critics for whom "populist" is synonymous with "xenophobic" or "bigoted." In my own usage, "populist" always has an exclusivist tendency that distinguishes it from cosmopolitanism or multiculturalism. Populism is never about "humanity" but is always about a geographically and culturally specific "people." The big question is how specific populists get about their exclusiveness, and the Cruz-Trump contest may help decide that, even if neither man ends up with the GOP nomination. Cruz, I suspect, is more likely to force the issue, and by doing so may dig his own grave as a national figure. "New York values" may be the first hint of this. I don't think he means anything bigoted about this, but I'd guess he does mean to label Trump as something alien to the heartland and its values, as Cruz perceives them. As noted, Cruz right now is clearly the candidate of the religious right, and it's in his interest, the devout being his base, to charge that Trump isn't one of them, even as Cruz still hopes to convince Trump's supporters that he, Cruz, is one of them. Meanwhile, Trump is going to Liberty University next week, but Bernie Sanders has been there already so I wouldn't make too much of that. Trump's smart play here would be to play it cool and not get into a holier-than-thou competition with Cruz. Doing so has a better chance of increasing his base rather than alienating anyone in it.
What is the culture that the populists of 2016 want to defend? We can infer some of its contours from comments posted on this very blog. But there's a big either/or question looming for populists, and Cruz is poised to call the question. The question, as you've probably guessed already, is: Is the culture we want to defend essentially, inextricably Christian (or Judeo-Christian) in nature? Cruz's base wants to say yes. Simply by not agreeing, rather than explicitly denying the premise, Trump can draw to him those people who believe in a specific, exclusive American culture incompatible with certain foreigners, but see no reason to define that culture as essentially Christian. The other side presumably sees American culture as no culture without Christianity; they're the "Christian nation" crowd, and to win their support Trump would have to prove something to them. With Cruz his most serious threat right now -- the landscape could change rapidly over the next couple of months, pitting him against a different sort of Republican -- Trump has to ask himself a question and stake much on the answer. Does he need those people's support? If he thinks so, he may be making a mistake. If he thinks so and he's right, it could be a poor reflection on the culture they all want to defend.