Ted Cruz has certainly had his fair share of uncomfortable exchanges during the 2016 election. Heck, his young daughter once refused to hug him in a very public rebuff on the campaign trail. Yet even that doesn't come close to the strain and tension in Cruz's exchange with Donald Trump supporters in Indiana on Monday, which involved the latter calling him "Lyin' Ted" and asking the Texas senator if he was Canadian. But while some may take a certain glee in watching the notoriously unlikable Cruz face especially persistent heckling, the interaction was more sad than awkward to me, because it served as a depressing microcosm of why the bombastic, nonsensical Trump has been unstoppable.
At a campaign stop in Marion, Indiana, a man holding a Trump sign interrupted Cruz as he was in the middle of a pretty generic, positive, and placid exchange with a voter about how important it is for him to be campaigning in the state. The Trump supporter plainly told Cruz, "We don't want you." Cruz began trying to respond to this, which may have been a misstep, because in the end, no one ended up looking good. MSNBC captured and aired the nearly seven-minute exchange, during which it was abundantly clear that the Trump supporters had absolutely no desire to hear facts or arguments. It was equally clear that Cruz, while admirably keeping his cool, had no idea how to sway them, or even really communicate with them.
One of the most telling parts of the exchange was when Cruz asked one of the Trump supporters to say what he liked about the Republican frontrunner — a pretty basic question for someone who is not only voting for Trump, but eager to tangle with a U.S. senator on his behalf. The supporter said "everything" — a non-answer — before finally saying ,"The wall." Cruz then countered with a number of facts challenging Trump's record on immigration, but it was clearly futile. The Trump supporters were not having it. They had already made up their minds.
There wasn't one specific thing they liked about Trump; it was the indescribable "everything." And that's why it is so hard, if not impossible, for other Republicans to beat him. Many of Trump's supporters may not care about his policies, his proposal, or even the facts. There is simply something about him that attracts them to him, and that intangible is more important than any comments Trump made to the New York Times editorial board or his $1 million lawsuit over hiring undocumented immigrants (which Cruz did, in fact, bring up in the exchange).
Now, obviously, Trump supporters are far from a monolith, and this group of supporters is far from representative of all or even most of them. But their frustrations with Cruz and the government speak to an anger that has certainly helped Trump to succeed, and which may make it impossible for any Republican politician to catch him. It is painfully clear from this exchange how much distrust there is for elected officials. Cruz could've simply said that grass is green, and I bet these people would have had their doubts because they were so resistant to anything a member of the government told them. "You are the problem, politician. You are," one of them told Cruz. That pretty much speaks for itself.
I must admit, I actually thought Cruz did a decent job of keeping his cool and trying to be respectful and calm in the face of anger and nonsense. But the thing is, there is something petty about a politician engaging so strongly with hecklers. Almost anyone would come off as condescending in this situation, and frankly, it's an effort for Cruz not to seem like a patronizing, pompous jerk even in the best cases. Cruz was fighting a losing battle, but scolding that "civilized people don't just scream and yell" immediately erased any hope of creating some sort of common ground with the Trump supporters.
However, I actually don't blame Cruz for this mess of an exchange, and that's because it's not really about him. This incident shows how impossible it is for Republicans, or any conventional politicians, to connect with a strain of angry Americans who feel their voices have been ignored for far too long. They don't care about policies at this point because they've learned (perhaps not wrongly) to distrust anyone who sounds overly polished and practiced — and Trump is well-practiced in sounding perfectly unpolished.
Cruz concluded the tension-filled exchange with Trump supporters, saying America "is better than anger and insults and cursing and rage." Oh Ted, appealing to the "better angels of our nature" may have worked for the Abraham Lincoln Republican party, but you all have got to come up with something better in the era of Trump.