Over the weekend, Sen. Ted Cruz doubled down on his claim that Donald Trump has New York values. In a faux apology, he said he was sorry the hard-working people of New York have to suffer under incompetent liberal leadership. The sorry, not sorry was specifically addressed not only to Trump, but also to liberal New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo. This is one mea culpa and trio of names Cruz will be happy to say over and over for the rest of the campaign.
Trump is offended by the remarks, which is a strange position for mister “to hell with political correctness” to find himself in. During Thursday’s Republican primary debate, The Donald bested Cruz in the New York values exchange, mainly through an emotional appeal to the attacks of 9/11. But Cruz is not shying away from his anti-Big Apple tactics.
Some have accused Cruz of anti-Semitism. I, too, recalled the “West Wing” pilot, in which an evangelical politico refers to a “New York sense of humor” as code for Jewish, and is admonished by President Bartlett. But Cruz isn’t engaged in anti-Semitism here—not exactly, anyway. Jewishness is a big part of New York City, but only a part.
The pop culture reference that most closely hews to Cruz’s attack on Gotham’s values comes not from Aaron Sorkin, but from Woody Allen, who in “Annie Hall” says: “Don’t you see the rest of the country looks upon New York like we’re left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers? I think of us that way sometimes and I live here.” I live here, too, and let’s face it: it’s kind of true.
New York City does have a unique set of values, just as Lubbock, Texas, and Portland, Oregon, do. A community’s values always depend upon environment. Customs and codes grow from civic soil. Eight million people crammed into 300 square miles are going to have different social behaviors and beliefs than 1 million people spread across the state of Montana.
So Cruz is right: there is such a thing as New York values, and many of those values run counter to those of American grassroots conservatism. What’s more, in at least a few important examples, Trump absolutely embodies these New York values.
Results Over Ideological Purity
Other than the strong belief that the “soup bread” they serve in Chicago is not pizza, New Yorkers don’t care about ideological purity. This explains how a Northeastern city that Democrats dominate went from 1992 to 2013 without electing a Democrat mayor.
Don’t kid yourself—a lot of ex-VW Bug-driving hippies held their noses to vote for Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. They had significant concerns about police tactics and rising rents, but in the end, results won out. The overall betterment of the city outweighed ideology.
New Yorkers will re-elect corrupt, even indicted political officials so long as they bring home the bacon to their communities. Politicians who fix potholes, improve bus service, and have strong community outreach are rewarded, and nobody cares too much how it all gets done. This is exactly the premise upon which Trump is running his campaign.
Trump has no ideological purity. He brags about having bought off politicians. His promises never begin with a set of beliefs; they begin and end with getting things done. In some cases, after making an outlandish promise Trump flat-out refuses to say how he will accomplish it, suggesting he’ll get better deals if he doesn’t show his cards. If Trump’s mantra is “The Art of the Deal,” Cruz’s may well be “No Deal.”
Cruz has shown a willingness to shut things down, even in the face of criticism from his own party. For the Texas senator, it is ideological purity above all else. As Mayor Bill de Blasio has found out, that doesn’t play in New York City. The people look at his sincere stance on animal cruelty, for example, and say, “Hey, enough with attacking the Central Park carriage horses, already.”
Cruz hopes his ideological purity will outperform Trump’s promises of great, big, huge accomplishments. While it’s a bad strategy in New York, it may be very effective in parts of the country that are less cosmopolitan.
The Arrogance Is Real
Most presidential candidates try to paint themselves as a regular guy, just like you and me. By now we all know John Kasich’s dad was a mailman and his grandfather was a coal miner. There are reports that Kasich’s great-grandfather was Sisyphus. Cruz has also referred to his father’s time as an immigrant dish-washer. This is all solid, salt of the earth stuff. Donald Trump? Not so much.
Trump is not a regular Joe. He’s a billionaire playboy, and finds many excuses to mention that fact. His own up-from-the-bootstraps story starts with a million-dollar seed loan from his dad. He claims to have one of the highest IQs, to have the best memory, to know more about everything than anyone. Frankly, this kind of arrogance is a New York value.
When New Yorkers say they live in the greatest city in the world, they don’t mean it as a platitude showing civic pride. They mean it as an objective fact. The reason they believe it is that it’s true, but also they kind of have to. After all, who would choose to live in the human meat grinder that is New York City if he didn’t think it was the best place on Earth?
The rest of the country knows New Yorkers think of themselves as superior, bigger, better, more relevant. Even the United Nations is in Gotham. Many resent this attitude, but New Yorkers couldn’t care less what those people think. Cruz doesn’t lack self-confidence, but in terms of pure braggadocio Trump mirrors his city. He thinks he is the best, plain and simple.
Over the weekend, Cruz released a video from the late 1990s in which Trump explains that his being pro-choice and (sort of) pro-gay marriage is the result of growing up in New York. It’s a damning video, and one the Cruz camp no doubt had in its back pocket when they decided to run against New York City for the GOP nomination.
But what’s telling is not that Trump has flipped positions, or is some kind of closet progressive, it’s that he doesn’t seem to care about these issues very much.
That is true of New Yorkers in general. Nobody cares what other people do to themselves as long as it doesn’t directly harm them. The population is so massive, diverse, and full of subcultures that sharing a set of social values is virtually impossible.
If Cruz really is using “New York Values” as a dog whistle, it is this “live and let live” attitude he is signaling. It’s not Jews or gays or blacks or trannies or privileged Park Slope apologists. It’s all of them. Worse, it’s the fact that not judging these people and their ideas and practices is a New York value. Nobody has much time to worry about social values when they are figuring out what they are going to do when the L train service to Brooklyn gets shut down for three years.
Cruz lost the battle over New York values in last week’s debate, but don’t expect him to lose the war. For the first time, an attack has broken through and rattled Trump. The king of the Twitter insult looks like he can’t take what he dishes out, which most certainly is not a New York value.
It’s a hard position for Trump, who must either defend his hedonistic hometown to a nation of GOP voters who like to visit but also have disdain for New York, or throw it under the bus. Trump cannot effectively distance himself from New York City. After all, his name is emblazoned on half its skyscrapers. Citing the heroism displayed on 9/11 will only work for so long. Eventually, he must defend or reject the culture and politics of New York.
Cruz is right. Trump has, and in his own words is, a product of, New York values. Most of us who live in New York, even conservatives, share and have pride in these values. But then again, most of us never expect to be the Republican nominee for president of the United States.
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