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Welcome to Our Post-Literate Political Culture

Donald Trump’s decision not only to threaten Ted Cruz’s wife but, now, to double down and mock her is the most loathsome moment yet in a campaign characterized by vulgarity and bullying. About Trump’s penchant for bullying I wrote yesterday. But about his misogyny, an additional thought.

The caption to Trump’s repulsive retweet reads A picture is worth 1000 words, which is generally a stupid thing people say to excuse themselves from the hard work of plumbing their mind for words. In reality, the pictures of Mrs. Trump and Mrs. Cruz reveal nothing. But, naturally, Trump thinks they do, because Trump works almost exclusively in the realm of images.

Consider Trump’s liberal use of the word “beautiful.” His wife is beautiful, and his daughter. But so are his hotels. So are “American tax dollars,” Trump campaign t-shirts, and standing ovations. So are his websites, and the door he’s going to build into the wall (also “beautiful”) that he is going to erect between the U.S. and Mexico. So is air.

None of those things is beautiful (and describing tax dollars as beautiful is borderline certifiable). But Trump calls them beautiful, because he’s all about appearances. The determinative factor is how things look. It’s the category in which he thinks. As he told Esquire in 1991: “You know, it doesn’t really matter what [the media] write, as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass.”

Of course, Trump has never been one to celebrate beauty in private. What he really meant in Esquire was: It doesn’t matter as long as everyone sees that you’ve got a young and beautiful “piece of ass.” Trump does not care about actual elegance, class, or beauty, which require cultivation to be able to discern. (His various construction projects are evidence enough of this. The Taj Mahal is beautiful. The Taj Mahal Casino Resort is a neon nightmare that would make Shah Jahan weep.) Trump cares that you think he knows elegance, class, and beauty. He didn’t spend years flaunting models and pageant contestants because he thought they were beautiful and wanted to exhibit the human form. He flaunted them to make sure you knew that he’s the kind of guy who goes around with models and beauty queens. And it’s not a mistake that Trump married two models and an actress.

That said, I’ve no aspersions to cast on the strength or depth of Donald Trump’s affection for Melania. But the implicit message of his retweet is that Melania is valuable because she’s pretty, and no one need waste a moment on Heidi Cruz, because she’s not. Needless to say, that is offensive to both women, who are more than their pictures (and every woman, if that’s the way he thinks about them generally). And it reinforces the idea that Donald Trump is less interested in his romantic partners as people than in being able to show that he’s the kind of guy who can score this kind of woman.

This will not doom the Trump campaign, of course (no doubt he’ll soon dust off his “Retweets aren’t endorsements!” excuse, last on offer when he retweeted a white supremacist). But the episode is instructive. The front-runner of one of the major American political parties is suggesting that he is the best choice for the presidency because he has the most attractive spouse — and lots of people are nodding along.

Welcome to our post-literate political culture.

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