A thought inspired by this morning’s skirmish. Everyone understands why Cruz is laying off Trump. Cruz wants his voters and he’s afraid that if he attacks, those voters will turn on him viciously. It’s painful to watch a guy who built his career as a fearless warrior against RINOs fawning over the biggest RINO in the race out of naked self-interest, but you can’t fault his strategy. Trump doesn’t just have a base, he has a cult of personality. Attack him and they’re apt to treat you as an outright enemy. You tread lightly around a man like that when you want something from his supporters.

That calculus doesn’t apply to Trump, though. Cruz has lots of fans, some very devoted and some less so, but he doesn’t have a cult of personality like Trump does. That’s because, I think, Cruz’s personality isn’t much of an asset to him. (It may be a liability.) Cruz fans like him because he really is a dogmatic conservative who’s on the right side of nearly every issue. Their loyalty is to the cause more so than to the man. Not so for Trumpers. Which means, if he wanted to, Trump could unload on Cruz without alienating the entirety of Cruz fans the way Trump fans would be universally alienated if Cruz went after Trump. Some Cruz fans would hold a grudge; if Cruz started to slip in the polls because of the attacks, many of them would opt for Marco Rubio over Trump on the theory that Rubio is a good conservative on most issues. But some Cruz fans, I think, would shift to Trump for a reason articulated by Cruz himself this morning:

Not a word about conservatism there, just “the Establishment.” Some Cruz fans probably prefer him to Trump because they’d rather nominate a populist who’s conservative, because they respect Cruz as a man of faith, because they like Cruz’s polished speaking style more than Trump’s, etc. But those people aren’t “Cruz or bust” voters. Primarily, as Cruz said, they’re against “the Establishment.” And if Trump could prove to them that he’d be better at bringing down the Establishment than Cruz would, some would shift to him. To put it another way, what Cruz fans and Trump fans all have in common is that they’re populists. Some Cruz fans are more populist than they are conservative. Those people are gettable by Trump. So why isn’t he trying to get them?

One possibility is that Trump is playing the same sort of game Cruz is. Why risk alienating another candidate’s supporters by attacking before you absolutely have to? But Trump has never followed that logic. He ripped Jeb Bush apart, went after Rubio as a “lightweight,” attacked Ben Carson — whose voters also want an “outsider” as nominee — as borderline nutty because of his youthful violent behavior, and so on. Trump’s always been willing to risk annoying other candidates’ committed supporters in the name of shaking loose the not so committed ones. Jeb is an especially instructive example because Trump’s main line of attack on him is that he’s a weakling. He’s “low energy,” he seems reluctant to fight back when Trump attacks, he’s not the sort of strong, self-assured leader America needs in troubled times. For all the ink spilled about why Trump’s fans are so dazzled by him, I think the alpha-male factor continues to get short shrift. Trump’s takedown of Jeb resonated because it exposed Jeb, the supposed 800-pound establishment gorilla, as a beta male who didn’t know what to do when he got slapped. He’s never been the same.

So here we are in December and there’s another guy who reeks of weakling jitters around Trump. It’s not the same type of jitters as Jeb — Cruz’s toadying to Trump has a tactical purpose whereas Jeb’s hesitance seemed more a product of his character. Even so, Trump seems to relish diminishing the men around him and Cruz’s reluctance to attack is an inscribed invitation to begin the diminishing. No one is more contemptuous of a beta male than the alpha to whom he’s toadying. Even some Cruz fans are disgusted with how far Cruz has gone to avoid conflict:

If you like Cruz because he’s willing to tell Mitch McConnell to go to hell, watching him rapidly backpedal from Trump — who’s really not even pretending to be conservative at this point — is gross, whatever the strategic considerations. Which brings me back to the question: Why won’t Trump needle Cruz for acting like a beta the way he needled Jeb? He’s hinted at it before. He pointed out this morning that Cruz seems willing to criticize him in private but not in public, and he likes to note when asked about Cruz how Cruz seems to agree with literally everything he says. Painting Cruz as a beta male instead of criticizing his positions would also spare Trump from saying anything that might be taken as a criticism of conservatism, which would be a dangerous move. Again, if it’s true that Cruz’s fans are mainly loyal to the cause more so than to the man then Trump can get personal with Cruz without hopelessly alienating too many of them — weakling! toady! dumb shutdown idea! bought and sold by his alpha-male donors! — so long as he doesn’t get political. And Trump has good reason to do it. Now that polls are showing Cruz ahead in Iowa and with him having just landed Bob Vander Plaats’s endorsement, the sooner he tries to start taking Cruz down, the better for him.

If Trump launched an attack on Cruz, it would put Cruz in a bind. If he continues to hold his fire to appease Trump voters, even with Trump giving him both barrels, he’ll look even weaker than Jeb. If he decides he has no choice but to engage then he’ll probably end up alienating Trump voters even though Trump started it. That’s how cults of personalities work, after all; the leader is always right. That is to say, Trump could force Cruz into a situation where he has little to gain no matter what he does and much to lose. I think Cruz would have no choice but to hit back and to do it as politely as possible, hoping that the spectacle of him RINO-stomping Trump would appeal to some undecided anti-Trump voters on the right and boost his numbers that way. There may be voters out there who are leaning towards Rubio over Cruz but who hate Trump and would give Cruz a second look if he led the charge (reluctantly) against Trump. After all, it’s not as if Rubio’s been some warrior against Trump thus far — although he’s been tougher on him than Cruz has. How could he not be?

One more thing. The “true conservative” theory of elections for years now has been that the party will only win when it finally nominates a principled conservative who’s skilled at preaching for the cause. That’s Cruz. That’s the “bold colors, not pale pastels” strategy. Supposedly there’s a winning conservative majority out there but those voters aren’t showing up because you’re not connecting with them. You can’t win with a squish like McCain or Romney because guys like that aren’t selling full-spectrum conservatism. Go out there, show people that you’re going to govern like they want, and you’ll win every time. How come that approach isn’t working with Trump voters? Cruz is out there, preaching the good news of Reaganism, and not only is Trump leading nationally and in most states but Cruz is terrified that calling him out as a RINO, which he is, would backfire horribly. We’ve got the right messenger here, supposedly, and he’s offering the right message. Trump fans aren’t buying (yet). Why not?