America's internet users woke up Friday morning to see lots of elliptical Twitter references to a #CruzSexScandal, typically sniffy disapproving references. Unless, that is, your timeline includes lots of Donald Trump supporters, in which case they are cheering it on.
But mainstream news outlets had no information about a #CruzSexScandal largely because there is no actual evidence of anything scandalous happening. But then Cruz himself addressed the rumors, calling them "garbage ... complete and utter lies" that he attributed to "Donald Trump and his henchmen."
Trump denied being behind the Enquirer story in a statement given to the Washington Post, but not without adding that the tabloid has been "right about O.J. Simpson, John Edwards, and many others."
Statement from Donald Trump on Cruz allegations: pic.twitter.com/eRifGQO4Jr— Jose A. DelReal (@jdelreal) March 25, 2016
The result is a perfect postmodern scandal. The rumors have no evidentiary basis, but they are out there. And since they are out there, Cruz feels the need to address them. And since Cruz is addressing them, media sources that would never touch the original unsubstantiated rumors now have to explain their content.
National Enquirer suggested Ted Cruz has had multiple affairs
The essence of the story is that National Enquirer is out Friday morning with a "bombshell" story claiming, with the magazine's typically sketchy sourcing, that Cruz was the subject of an opposition research campaign to reveal alleged affairs with five women, some of whom work professionally in conservative politics.
There is nothing in here that would qualify as adequate evidence to publish these charges by any kind of conventional journalistic standards. But the Enquirer's willingness to push the epistemological and ethical envelope has, in the past, led it to be the first to break several sex scandals involving influential politicians. By the same token, its willingness to push the epistemological and ethical envelope has, in the past, led it to publish a lot of stories that turned out not to be true.
The Enquirer also seems to specifically have a pro-Trump agenda that would lead one to expect the outlet to be even more casual with the truth in this case than in a routine political story.
Donald Trump has been threatening to "spill the beans" on Heidi Cruz
The larger context for this story is Cruz's emergence as Trump's last major rival for the Republican nomination. The center of gravity of Cruz's political coalition is regular churchgoers, and they imagine him as a sincere and devout Christian in contrast to Trump's rather louche lifestyle, which is crucial to his argument.
But a recent internet ad run by an anti-Trump Super PAC (a group not affiliated with Cruz per se, but one whose interests are objectively aligned with his) sparked a growing spat between Cruz and Trump over each other's wives.
This led to an elliptical threat from Trump to "spill the beans" on Heidi Cruz.
Lyin' Ted Cruz just used a picture of Melania from a G.Q. shoot in his ad. Be careful, Lyin' Ted, or I will spill the beans on your wife!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 23, 2016
It's possible the Enquirer story is the beans.
A Breitbart reporter seemed to hint at this back in February
An intriguing subplot to this is that the conservative website Breitbart, whose relationship to the Trump campaign has already been the source of a lot of drama (see Tara Golshan's Breitbart explainer), seemed to hint at a version of this story back in February.
Allum Bokhari indicated on February 2 that he had some dirt on Cruz.
Some people think #MicrosoftRubioFraud is the big scandal from last night. Wait until they hear the bombshell about Ted Cruz.— Allum Bokhari (@LibertarianBlue) February 2, 2016
Then on February 4, he said the dirt would have to wait.
Been told it's a few more days before we can drop the new Cruz goss. Nothing I can do :(— Allum Bokhari (@LibertarianBlue) February 4, 2016
Then this morning he said he'd been scooped, though he did not specify by whom or about what.
I hate getting scooped.— Allum Bokhari (@LibertarianBlue) March 25, 2016
Trump has a longstanding alliance with the Enquirer
The occasion for Sherman's article was an Enquirer story slamming Ben Carson's skills as a doctor ("Bungling Surgeon Ben Carson Left Sponge in Patient’s Brain!"), which came, conveniently, during the brief period in which Carson overtook Trump in the polls. There was, Sherman noted, a pattern here:
At key moments during the GOP primary the Enquirer has helped boost Trump’s campaign by attacking his rivals and fawning over him. Two weeks after Trump launched his campaign in mid-June, the Enquirer reported that Jeb Bush was "involved in the drug trade in Florida" in the '80s and that, as governor, he was plagued by "sleazy cheating scandals … [with a] Playboy Bunny turned lawyer." In September, the Enquirer published an unflattering photograph of Bush’s adult daughter apparently taking cigarette breaks at her office. The article hit just days after Jeb told Americans they needed to work longer hours.
Carly Fiorina has also been slimed. After the former Hewlett-Packard CEO bested Trump at the second GOP debate last month, the Enquirer ran an article headlined "Homewrecker Carly Fiorina Lied About Druggie Daughter." The article attacked one of Fiorina’s best moments at the debate: her emotional account of her daughter’s struggle with drug addiction. "The National Enquirer has exclusively learned that Lori Ann Fiorina, who died in October 2009, was in fact Carly’s stepdaughter," the tabloid reported. "She was brought up not by Carly but by her biological mom, Patricia Fiorina, whose marriage allegedly was wrecked by the 61-year-old White House hopeful who is determined to knock Donald Trump from his superior front-runner status!"
This does not, of course, mean that Trump or his campaign is directly behind the Cruz allegations. After all, the National Enquirer’s motives could be purely about selling magazines — and nothing sells like a sex scandal.