It is not easy to cede the moral high ground to one Donald Trump, but Ted Cruz accomplished this remarkable feat by accusing his rival for the Republican presidential nomination of being an incarnation of “New York values”—“I think most people know exactly what New York values are: socially liberal, pro gay-marriage, pro-abortion, focused on money and the media.” Trump, in response, knocked Cruz’s crude slurs out of the park, speaking of 9/11 and the subsequent rebuilding.
It is a myth that New York City is the archetypal liberal city. Since the end of the term of John Lindsay in 1973 to the election of Bill DeBlasio in 2013, New York City elected exactly one liberal for one term, David Dinkins, along with the moderate Democrat Abe Beame; three terms of the conservative Democrat Ed Koch; two terms of the even more conservative Republican, Rudolf Giuliani; and three terms of the moderate to conservative quasi Republican mega-billionaire, Michael Bloomberg. And as Trump pointed out, New York City was the home of William F. Buckley, to which many other conservative luminaries can be added; Brooklyn born and raised economist Milton Friedman, as well as that lifetime New Yorker, Madison Grant, the author of The Passing of the Great Race, and in my opinion, the most influential anti-Semite in American history.
And speaking of anti-Semitism, is there any doubt that this is what Ted Cruz was really saying, in line with hoary anti-Semitic tropes of old, accusing Jews of being both communist radicals and money-grubbers, a race of Rosa Luxembergs and Nathan Rothschilds? (While of course taking New York money, in the form of an unreported campaign loan from the most famous “Jewish” of all New York banking firms, Goldman Sachs.)
Having said that, there is no doubt that Donald Trump exemplifies one version of “New York values.” And so does the other native New Yorker running for president this year, Bernie Sanders. As does, in a way different from both Trump and Sanders, the former US Senator from New York State, Hillary Rodham Clinton. To say nothing of Nelson Rockefeller, the Lubavitcher rebbe, Malcolm X, the late David Bowie, and on and on and on. And while we’re on the subject, I’d like to think that I too, a native of New York City who lived there until I was forty, and a historian of the city, represents New York values as well.
I don’t know if there really are a set of “New York values” that captures all these figures. Perhaps it is a sense of ambitious, though G-d knows I have met myriads of unambitious New Yorkers. Perhaps it is an embrace of urban complexity, though I certainly wouldn’t put Donald Trump in that category. But I would say if there is a paradox at the heart of New York City, it is that for two centuries it has been at the center of American and world capitalism, and for most of that time it has been at the center of American efforts to make America a fairer and more just country. And this paradox is central to all of American history.
Cruz made these comments in South Carolina, where I now live, and he said, sneeringly, that “of course South Carolinians understand what I mean by New York Values.” As the Daily News cover implied “Drop Dead, Ted” with a picture of the Statue of Liberty with an upraised middle finger, —– you.” Cruz was of course speaking to and about white South Carolinians, ignoring blacks and other minorities who comprise one-third of the state’s population. And even conservative white South Carolinians, who last summer finally agreed to take down the Confederate battle flag from the state house, aren’t as backwards, bigoted, or benighted as Cruz implied or wants. And New York values, trying making sense of this astonishing country, with its abundance, its ugly racial history, its simultaneous embrace and rejection of immigrants, its tolerance and intolerance, its over 300 million people trying to improve their lives as best they can, are the values of South Carolina, and of all of America.