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Conservative support for Cruz shows #NeverTrump was never about opposing bigotry

GOP Presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz Holds Indiana Primary Night Gathering Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

On Tuesday night, as Ted Cruz dropped out and Donald Trump became the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, conservatives elites could hardly contain their complete and utter despair:

To non-conservatives and moderates, this might look like serious conservatives rejecting partisanship in order to help stop a truly dangerous nominee, much as many conservative elites abandoned and critiqued the Bush administration late in its second term.

That is not what is happening. If that were the story, the freakout would've come much earlier, when the race narrowed to Trump and Cruz. You would've seen a mass mobilization behind John Kasich, and pledges to not just #NeverTrump but #NeverCruz.

Though this is not often noted in press coverage, Ted Cruz is also an unacceptably bigoted candidate. He also wants to ban Muslim refugees from entering the United States. He also wants to build a wall on the Mexican border. And he's much more bigoted than Trump when it comes to trans people.

If #NeverTrump were about opposing Trump's demagoguery, it should've, by the same principles, dubbed Cruz unacceptable. The fact that they didn't says something telling about what is, and is not, a deal breaker for conservative elites. It suggests that what really bothers them about Trump isn't his racist rhetoric, but his deviations from Republican economic orthodoxy, or his poor general election prospects. These, suffice it to say, are not the things about Trump that make him such a terrifying figure in American politics.

Ted Cruz is a bigot, just like Donald Trump

I don't know who would win a bigot-off between Cruz and Trump, or by what margin, but what matters is this: By any reasonable definition, both are far too bigoted to be even remotely acceptable nominees for a major political party.

Ted Cruz, after all, said this:

This plan, at least in its original form, clearly violates the First Amendment, and would almost certainly backfire and fail to prevent any terrorist attacks. But whatever its efficacy, one thing is clear: it personally targets and victimizes a vulnerable ethnoreligious minority group. It is a bigoted proposal.

Then there are Cruz's comments on Muslim refugees. Just like Donald Trump, he has a very clear position: He wants them out of the United States.

"President Obama and Hillary Clinton’s idea that we should bring tens of thousands of Syrian Muslim refugees to America — it is nothing less than lunacy," he declared in November. But Christians? Totally fine: "On the other hand, Christians who are being targeted for genocide, for persecution, Christians who are being beheaded or crucified, we should be providing safe haven to them. But President Obama refuses to do that."

To be very clear, Cruz is proposing that the US explicitly discriminate against Muslim refugees on the basis of their religion and nothing more. When pressed on this point by CNN's Dana Bash, he didn't budge — except to say that he might support screening the Christians to make sure they're not Muslims hiding as Christians.

Then there's the fact that Cruz takes advice from notorious anti-Muslim bigot Frank Gaffney, who has said that President Obama "not only identifies with Muslims, but actually may still be one himself" and has accused everyone from Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin to Grover Norquist of being part of Muslim Brotherhood schemes to infiltrate the US government. Gaffney is currently spearheading an effort to push Norquist off the National Rifle Association's board of directors because of his role "as an agent of influence for assorted Islamic supremacists."

Another Cruz adviser (who's also involved in the anti-Norquist effort) is retired Lt. Gen. William "Jerry" Boykin, who first came to fame in 2003 when he said of a Muslim warlord in Somalia, "I knew that my God was a real God, and his was an idol." He also said that Islamists hate America "because we're a Christian nation, because our foundation and roots are Judeo-Christian and the enemy is a guy named Satan." Boykin has not exactly moderated with age:

It's not just Muslims, though. Cruz was the premier anti-trans bigot in the GOP field as well. He made trans bathroom access a key issue in the Indiana primary, telling crowds, "If the law says that any man, if he chooses, can enter a women's restroom, a little girls' restroom, and stay there, and he cannot be removed because he simply says at that moment he feels like a woman, you're opening the door for predators." He attacked Trump for (correctly) condemning laws like North Carolina's law that forces trans people to use the opposite gender's bathrooms as "discriminatory."

"Should a grown man pretending to be a woman be allowed to use the women's restroom? The same restroom used by your daughter? Your wife? Donald Trump thinks so," a Cruz attack ad blared:

The idea that letting trans people use the bathroom of their gender leads to sexual assault is a pernicious, persistent myth, and one that Cruz actively participated in spreading.

What is #NeverTrump about, then?

And yet elite conservative #NeverTrumpers got on board with Cruz. Erick Erickson endorsed him, Lindsey Graham endorsed him, National Review endorsed him, and on and on and on. The despair and panic of Tuesday night was a direct result of him dropping out. When Trump calls for a ban on Muslims entering the US, his conservative critics pounced; when Cruz wanted to ban Muslim refugees too, it didn't hurt him at all.

So what's really driving #NeverTrump, then? There are a few options. The most cynical is that Trump is just a really historically bad candidate who could alienate Latino voters from the Republican party for years or decades, and Republican elites want to avoid that. Maybe they're sincerely concerned by his isolation-ish foreign policy views or his trade protectionism or his support for Social Security and Medicare. Maybe they just don't think the party can control him.

All of this implies, though, that a hypothetical Trump who toed the party line on trade and entitlements and foreign policy, who stood a chance in the general election, and who was more plugged in to the party apparatus would be totally acceptable to the #NeverTrumpers, in spite of his obvious and dangerous bigotry.

That's disturbing. It suggests that #NeverTrumpers listen to Trump's anti-Muslim, anti-Latino invective and think, "This guy is unacceptable because he doesn't want to cut Medicare."