Why the Trump-Cruz War of Wives Shouldn’t Be Surprising

The meme retweeted by Donald Trump. (Photo: Twitter)

Just when you thought the Republican presidential campaign couldn’t get any uglier, in came the meme to end all memes: side-by-side photos of Heidi Cruz and Melania Trump, with Heidi looking crazed and slightly disheveled as Melania does up the male gaze with perfect smoky eyes and dewy skin. “No need to ‘spill the beans,’” the caption reads. “The images are worth a thousand words.”

The image, retweeted by Donald Trump, after it was posted by a fervent supporter (named Don Vito on Twitter), was the latest in the my-wife-is-better-than-yours battle between Donald and Ted Cruz, who engaged in a late-night Twitter bicker on Wednesday. “Donald, real men don’t attack women,” Cruz tweeted. “Your wife is lovely, and Heidi is the love of my life.”

It all started on Monday, when anti-Trump super-PAC Make America Awesome released a photo of Melania, a former model, posing nude on a fur rug. It was targeting Utah voters ahead of the Republican caucus, particularly with the text on the photo, which read: “Meet Melania Trump, your next first lady. Or you could support Ted Cruz on Tuesday.” In response, Donald tweeted to his opponent, “Be careful, Lyin’ Ted, or I will spill the beans on your wife!“ And then came the meme to end all memes.

Ted denounced the original Melania photo on Thursday, declaring wives to be off-limits in campaigns.

But the tacit agreement among political candidates has always been to avoid attacks on family members — especially kids, but also spouses — so this series of wife attacks has come as a shock to many observers.

But is it really any surprise?

Not at all, say experts, who point to the overriding theme of the current GOP contest.

Another pro-Trump meme that’s been circulating on social media (not by Trump). (Photo: Twitter)

“This race has demonstrated, more than any in history, that it’s a battle over who’s man enough to be president,” Kelly Ditmar, a political science professor at Rutgers University and scholar at its Center for American Women and Politics, tells Yahoo Beauty. “The candidates have continuously competed over this question, from blatant references to each other’s manhood to this situation now. Trump is basically saying, ‘I have a hot wife, and that’s evidence of how much of a man I am.’”

But campaign history itself should also lessen any shock about the current spat, says first lady historian and biographer Carl Anthony

“As always, these individuals are still being judged on their ‘morality,’” Anthony tells Yahoo Beauty, “meaning the initial charge against Melania Trump is very much like [1828 presidential candidate Andrew Jackson’s wife] Rachel Jackson — a question of her ‘moral suitability’ to become first lady.” In that centuries-old example, he notes, evidence was collected to prove Rachel had been a bigamist (they were married before he double-checked that her first husband had divorced her) and Andrew was charged with “lawlessness.”

The anti-Trump Melania photo that started all the drama this week. (Photo: Twitter)

Before that, in 1808, newspapers supporting the opponent of candidate James Madison circulated a story that Madison’s wife, Dolly, had made herself sexually available to the widowed incumbent President Thomas Jefferson. “The Madison and Jackson charges — ironically the first two earliest examples — were pretty rough, for they actually charged these women with being sexually immoral.”

Anthony recounts many other examples — including tales of Nellie Taft being a gambler back in 1908, and, in 2012, the “high-cost horse-riding lifestyle” of Anne Romney — in his Thursday blog post, “Whore, Hayseed, Bigamist, Bigot, Slut, Snob, Drunk: Candidate Wives as Campaign Issues.”

There was also the famous 1972 incident that essentially ended Democratic candidate Edmund Muskie’s presidential bid: He cried in public. “And why was he crying?” asks Ditmar. “Because they had just insulted his wife,” she says, referring to a newspaper editorial implying that she enjoyed drinking and telling jokes.

And not much has changed about the tenor of insults today, she says. In referring to the Melania photo distributed in Utah, she explains, “The first threat is so reminiscent of the restraints we have always put on first ladies — to be demure and proper. A woman who is in touch with her sexuality and less demure? How could she be the model of a wife for our nation?”

While attacks on politicians’ children are generally seen as worse on the campaign trail — and should be, Ditmar says, as kids have less or no say, compared to spouses, in opening themselves up to such scrutiny in the first place — the current display of misogyny, and the public’s reaction, is disheartening.

“On a bigger scale, it’s frustrating to see that the times we talk about these wives is during these types of debates, instead of looking at their [very accomplished] backgrounds,” she notes. “I think more people should be outraged about it, but I’m not surprised that they’re not, because that’s the case in most instances of sexism.”

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