Ted Cruz and Donald Trump: Keep Your Wives Out of Your Presidential Pissing Match

Ted Cruz and Donald Trump: Keep Your Wives Out of Your Presidential Pissing Match
Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

Despite his apparent aversion to saying or doing anything that might be deemed "traditional" presidential behavior, Donald Trump is now participating in a long-standing historical custom: attacking the honor of his opponent's wife. 

On Tuesday, the Republican frontrunner went after Ted Cruz's spouse, Heidi, following the release of a meme-like attack ad that targeted Trump's wife, Melania. The ad, which was released by the anti-Trump super PAC Make America Awesome, featured a nude photo of Trump's wife from a 2000 British GQ spread accompanied by the caption, "Meet Melania Trump, Your Next First Lady. Or you could support Cruz on Tuesday." 

Later that day, Trump posted a menacing tweet that accused Cruz of circulating it, telling his opponent to "be careful" lest he "spill the beans" on Heidi.

Cruz promptly denied responsibility for the attack ad, but also made a point of defending his wife's honor, warning Trump that going after Heidi would be a sign he's "even more of a coward than [Cruz] thought." 

The following day, Heidi responded to Trump's threat at a press conference, saying that his comments "have no basis in reality." 

While the initial attack ad was, indeed, released by a third party, both Trump and Cruz have gone along with its basic, horrifying premise: Their wives are not only fair game for criticism in the campaign, but also essentially collateral objects, just one more way to inflict damage to an opposing candidate during an election. 

Unfortunately, the shaming of presidential candidates' wives is a vaunted tradition in political history. During the 1828 presidential election, Andrew Jackson was forced to defend his wife Rachel's honor when his opponents called her a slut; well over a century later, Cindy McCain was accused of having a drug problem and had her personal information disseminated as part of a smear campaign against her husband, John McCain. 

Even when the wife is the candidate, she's expected to answer for her spouse's sexual sins. Just look at some of the attacks against Hillary Clinton, which have highlighted her husband's history of infidelity as an automatic reason to question her character in the context of her presidential campaign. (Wait, who brought that up again? Oh, right! It was Donald Trump.)

It's unclear what "beans" Trump has to spill on Heidi Cruz, if any. But one thing is for certain: By rushing to defend their spouses from political shrapnel, Cruz and Trump are trying to pass off male bravado as good husbanding. Never mind the fact that Heidi Cruz is a former investment manager at Goldman Sachs, while Melania Trump is a successful model who speaks four languages; clearly, both women are capable of defending themselves.

The fact that Trump has publicly maligned Cruz's wife — and that Cruz has taken Trump's bait — signals that not much has changed since the hardscrabble political campaigns of the early 19th century. Trump and Cruz are part of a long tradition of male politicians believing that wives are nothing more than either political targets or objects whose honor must be defended at all costs.