This week, the two leading Republican presidential candidates spiraled into a hypermasculine feud over each other's wives.
Donald Trump responded to an attack ad in support of Ted Cruz that used a nude photo of Trump's wife, Melania, with a vague threat to "spill the beans" about Cruz's wife, Heidi.
The Facebook attack ad, targeted at Utah's conservative Mormon base before Tuesday's primary, was sponsored by Make America Awesome, a Super PAC supporting Cruz. It used a photo from a GQ spread with the caption, "Meet Melania Trump. Your Next First Lady. Or you could support Ted Cruz on Tuesday."
Trump followed up his threat by retweeting a follower's post comparing Melania Trump and Heidi Cruz's looks. In return, Cruz defended his wife's honor, calling Trump a "sniveling coward" for involving her in the rancorous political back and forth.
"Real men" don't attack women, Cruz told reporters on the campaign trail in Wisconsin.
This is Wifegate: an incredibly regressive back and forth over Cruz and Trump's spouses' looks and alleged dirty laundry. Here are some resources to catch up on the wives in question, and the role of political spouses in presidential elections.
Heidi Cruz is a political career woman in her own right
1) Heidi Cruz has played the role of campaign spouse effortlessly throughout the election cycle, warming up the crowd at Cruz's campaign rallies and speaking to her husband's emotional side on television.
But she is more than a wife on her husband's campaign. She serves as the campaign's chief fundraiser, while on leave from a high-ranking managing investment banking position at Goldman Sachs. Before Texas, she worked on George W. Bush's 2000 campaign.
Coming to Washington she was a "star" with positions both at the Treasury Department and as a Latin America director on the National Security Council in the White House, while her husband Cruz floundered, the Washington Post reported in its piece "Heidi Cruz is the high-powered political spouse we've rarely seen since Hillary Clinton":
But the more apt comparison for Heidi Cruz may be to Hillary Clinton. Since Clinton’s years as a campaign partner and first lady, few political spouses have redirected their own ambitions to the degree that Heidi Cruz has this cycle. And few since Clinton, now trying to follow her husband into the White House, have demonstrated, as Heidi Cruz has, the kind of political talent and experience of her own to prompt speculation among those who hear her speak that she, too, could someday be a formidable candidate.
2) When Cruz left Washington, DC, for Texas, he and Heidi spent more than a year apart. She had to leave her job to join him. The transition, well-documented in this BuzzFeed profile "The Trials and Triumphs of Heidi Cruz," was a challenging time for her, culminating in an incident that found Heidi apparently having a mental break on the side of a Texas expressway:
The heavily redacted report goes on to describe that Davidson believed Cruz was a "danger to herself," and notes that she was sitting 10 feet away from traffic. He asked if he could transport her somewhere — the proposed location is redacted — but she was "reluctant, stating that maybe she should … get a ride home" instead. Eventually, Cruz followed him to his patrol car, and they departed the scene.
In response to questions about the incident, an adviser to Heidi Cruz’s husband, Sen. Ted Cruz, sent a statement to BuzzFeed News shedding light on a period of their lives that the couple has not previously discussed in public.
About a decade ago, when Mrs. Cruz returned from D.C. to Texas and faced a significant professional transition, she experienced a brief bout of depression," said Jason Miller, an adviser to the senator. "Like millions of Americans, she came through that struggle with prayer, Christian counseling, and the love and support of her husband and family.
Melania Trump, a successful model and fashion businesswoman, has taken a back seat in this election
3) Other than a few appearances onstage after primary wins, and providing support at debates, Melania has not been in the forefront of Trump's presidential election. In New York Times profile "Melania Trump, the Silent Partner," her absence was presented as a calculus of the Republican's conservative views for traditional marriage. Melania, a Slovene American, is 24 years Trump's junior.
When at the Republican debate in September the moderator Jake Tapper invited the assembled hopefuls to introduce themselves, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky was quick to note his quarter-century marriage to his wife, Kelly. Following suit, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas then referred to his longtime spouse, Heidi, while Senator Marco Rubio of Florida ticked off the 17 years he’d been married to his wife, and both Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina made references to the individuals they’ve been wed to for decades.
When it came time for Mr. Trump to introduce himself, the New York-based billionaire said nothing of his wife, stating only: "I am Donald Trump. And I wrote ‘The Art of the Deal.’ "
4) Melania is most commonly described as the "unconventional spouse of a most unconventional presidential candidate," like in the Washington Post profile "Meet Melania Trump, a new model for first lady." She is pushing the boundaries for what America has seen in presidential spouses thus far — the essence of the attack ad featuring her nude GQ photo shoot.
And as the Washington Post reported, she's a lot of firsts:
She would be the first first lady born abroad since Louisa Adams, wife of John Quincy Adams, who moved into the White House in 1825. She is Trump’s third wife — another potential first for a first lady. Ronald Reagan, with a single ex-wife when he took office, so far is the only divorced U.S. president.
She might also be the most linguistically gifted first lady, as she speaks four languages, including heavily accented English. And, without doubt, she would be the only first lady to have posed in the buff while lying on a fur blanket handcuffed to a leather briefcase, as she did aboard Trump’s jet for British GQ in 2000.
"She provides great balance" to Trump, said Roger Stone, the candidate’s former political adviser who has known the couple since before they were married. She is smart — "not just an armpiece," Stone said. "She would be the most glamourous first lady since Jackie Kennedy."
The role of first ladies has been evolving, slowly
5) Though an unpaid and undefined position in the White House, the role of the first lady is one that has filled a certain norm over time: a maternal figure, advocating for health and children's issues, caring for wounded soldiers and broken families. While this has slowly changed over time, a lot has not, as pointed out by reporting from the Atlantic in the piece "What's the point of a First Lady":
First ladies are notoriously targeted for appearance-based criticism (just last month, a talking head on Fox News suggested that Michelle Obama "drop a few" before promoting childhood nutrition). But today, it’s not just the way they look. Since the role has morphed into something more than mere hostessing but less than an elected official, there’s a wide range in which to castigate them for not doing enough.
6) A first lady is expected to halt her own careers, take up a hostessing role as the president leads the free world, and, often, react to her husband's indiscretions, according to the piece "Why Should Wives Have to Answer for Their Husbands’ Behavior?" from Rebecca Traister in New York magazine:
Husbands act; wives react to them. Husbands behave poorly; people look to wives for explanations of why. Wives pay prices for goods they never bought; they do time in publicity hell for actions they never took; they receive judgments for crimes they did not commit. They are offered impossible choices: Do they condemn their partners and thereby destroy the legacies and legitimacy they have helped to build, and if they do not, do they become culpable in those partners' misdeeds?