Are Republicans so afraid of Ted Cruz that they'll let Trump win?

Yet the annoyingness of Cruz’s tactics has exaggerated their importance in the Republican mind. If you look at the reasons my colleague Caroline Bankoff compiles for why Republicans hate Trump (“He puts what’s good for him ahead of what’s good for the GOP; He’s a grandstander; He attacks fellow Republicans; He’s rude.”), they’re really all describing the same behavior. And that behavior is limited to a particular set of circumstances — Republicans control Congress but not the White House — that, by definition, would no longer apply if Cruz were elected president.

And Cruz, unlike Trump, is a full-fledged member of the conservative movement. You cannot have a more certain loyalist; he was literally raised from birth to enact the conservative agenda. What’s more, Cruz’s reputation for extremism is overstated. As Eliana Johnson shows in a wonderful joint profile, Cruz and Rubio are more or less the same politician. They have pursued divergent strategies with the same end goal. Rubio is building a persona optimized for a general election, while Cruz is building a persona optimized for a primary.

For that reason, Cruz would stand a somewhat weaker chance of winning than Rubio, but the difference is really marginal. Cruz would not be the Establishment’s first or second choice to run atop its ticket, but he’s far from the disaster Trump would pose. He’s substantively a garden-variety right-winger. Cruz is the candidate who can harness cultural alienation, populist distrust of elites, and anti-immigration sentiment into safe channels — safe meaning something that could result in something less than the meltdown that would be a Trump nomination. If Republicans despise Cruz so much that they allow Trump to prevail, they are making a historic mistake and choosing the devil they don’t know over the one they do.