Tim Murphy

Tim Murphy

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Tim Murphy is a senior reporter at Mother Jones. Email him with tips and insights at tmurphy@motherjones.com.

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Donald Trump ended his final campaign rally of the South Carolina primary Friday night with a story about a four-star general, Muslim insurgents, and bullets dunked in pig blood. Forty minutes into his address at a not-quite-full convention center in North Charleston, after mocking Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's lack of enthusiasm for waterboarding, the Republican presidential front-runner told the crowd that he wanted to share an anecdote he'd heard about General John Pershing.

"General Pershing was a rough guy," Trump said. He explained that during the early 1900s, when the general was battling Muslim insurgents in the US-controlled Philippines, he decided to make a point:

He caught 50 terrorists who did tremendous damage…and he took the 50 terrorists and he took 50 men and dipped 50 bullets in pig's blood. You heard about that? He took 50 bullets and dipped them in pig's blood [which is considered haram]. And he has his men load up their rifles and he lined up the 50 people and they shot 49 of those people. And the 50th person, he said, you go back to your people and you tell them what happened. And for 25 years there wasn't a problem.

"We've got to start getting tough and we've got to start being vigilant and we've got to start using our heads or we're not gonna have a country, folks," Trump concluded.

Snopes, the online mythbuster, classifies the Pershing tale—which is popular on the right—as a "legend." "We haven't eliminated the possibility…but so far all we've turned up are several different accounts with nothing that documents Pershing's involvement," it explains.

But a lack of evidence has never stopped Trump, especially when it comes to the anti-Islam invective that has helped keep him atop the polls in South Carolina. His proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States is hugely popular among Republicans; a recent survey of his supporters found that just 44 percent believed Islam should even be legal. So with his candidacy on the line, he's sticking with what got him to this point.

Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson told conservative voters in South Carolina on Friday that "godly" Sen. Ted Cruz offered them the best chance at preventing the United States from becoming "hell on Earth."

Appearing at a packed theater at the College of Charleston, Cruz was accompanied by a squad of conservative favorites the day before voters hit the polls in the critical South Carolina Republican presidential primary. This group of Cruz backers included Rush Limbaugh's brother, David, and Rep. Mark Sanford, who was once governor of the state and famously caused a scandal when he disappeared to see a mistress but told his staff he was hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Yet it was Robertson the audience came to see; some supporters even brought their own duck calls. Robertson tried to take front-runner Donald Trump down a notch by showing that Cruz has a reality television star of his own in his corner and, more important, God on his side.

Robertson's endorsement of Cruz could almost fit in a tweet. As Fox News host Sean Hannity interviewed Cruz on the stage, Robertson, clutching a Bible, walked up in camo attire and declared, "I'm for Cruz because you see this in my hand? Bibles and guns brought us here. And it will be Bibles and guns that keeps us here. And this man owns them both." Then Robertson picked up his camo backpack and walked back through the curtains.

About 15 minutes later, Robertson returned to the stage and read aloud from a book about presidents who pray. Prayer was the reason the United States won its independence, he explained, and it might be the only thing that could save the nation from its current fate. He expanded on his previous pitch for Cruz. "You say, 'Phil, you either got mighty lucky or God blessed you,'" he said. "But you know something, South Carolina? Can all the money the money I evvvvver make, can it remove your sin, South Carolina? That money? What about all this fame I received—will it raise me from the dead? That's why I follow Jesus. That's why I vote for people who follow Jesus."

Robertson continued: "We went with the atheists beginning about 50 years ago, and we've almost created in America a hell on Earth. Vote godly. I love you, and I love God. It's the only way to roll."

Cruz embraced Robertson warmly. In the past few days, Cruz has suggested that if he were elected president, he would nominate Utah tea party Sen. Mike Lee to the Supreme Court and ask Trump to build a wall on the Mexican border. Now he told the crowd there might also be a place for Robertson in his administration. "Can you imagine Phil Robertson as ambassador to the United Nations?" Cruz asked. "How much would you pay to see that?"

As the South Carolina contest hurdles toward its conclusion—and after Cruz has spent months hammering his opponents (especially Marco Rubio) on immigration—he is pushing a more fundamental message to voters on his final swing through the state: Vote for Cruz so that he can bring God back to America.

Cruz finished the event with a prayer. "If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways," Cruz said, reciting from memory 2 Chronicles 7:14, "then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sins."

The audience knew the rest and finished the prayer with him: "And I will heal their land."

By the way, here's a commercial that Robertson made with Cruz a few weeks ago:

While Sen. Ted Cruz was firing up conservatives at an arena in Greenville, South Carolina, on Thursday night, someone—presumably a supporter of Donald Trump—was leaving copies of a racist far-right newsletter on the windshields of cars parked outside the venue. Here's the front page:

The Conservative Action Report appears to be affiliated with the South Carolina Conservative Action Council, which "proudly" defends the "Confederate South" and the Confederate flag. (This weekend, the group will hold an event to commemorate the Union army's "satanic" attack on Charleston.) One front-page story in the newsletter is headlined "Is Barack Obama a Muslim?" Another is called "Blacks and the Confederacy—the story the leftist mass media will never tell." An op-ed in the newsletter refers to Gov. Nikki Haley by her birth name, Nimrada Randhawa, and attacks her for her "Stalinesque" decision to remove the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds after last year's mass shooting in Charleston.

The newsletter, which endorses Trump and hails his proposed wall along the Mexican border, also slams Cruz (on trade) and Marco Rubio (on immigration).

The South Carolina Republican primary this year has so far been bereft of the slanderous whisper campaigns that have marked elections of the past in the Palmetto State. And this isn't exactly a "dirty trick." But it is a glimpse of the far extreme of the Trump coalition, which may well carry the Muslim-bashing tycoon to victory on Saturday.

The premise of Marco Rubio's campaign in South Carolina is a simple one. It was best summed up by Rubio spokesman Alex Conant: Rubio is building "a Republican Party that doesn't look like your dad's Republican Party."

For evidence, one need look no further than the group of wisecracking young GOP politicians who joined him at the Swamp Rabbit CrossFit gym in Greenville on Thursday morning. The group included Sen. Tim Scott, the first African American senator from the South since Reconstruction, who occupies the seat formerly held by segregationist Strom Thurmond; Gov. Nikki Haley, the daughter of Sikh immigrants, who led the push to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state Capitol last year; and Rep. Trey Gowdy, who chairs the Benghazi committee. Okay, Gowdy is a white guy, but he is at least Gen X and also a wizard. And they were all at the gym to endorse the son of Cuban immigrants who jokes about his fluency in Spanish while campaigning in a state where legislators have regularly pushed English-only laws.

Rubio's surrogates drew attention to their diversity with varying degrees of subtlety. "He is honest, he is humble, he is historic, he represents our state in an incredible way," Gowdy said of Scott.

"She understands the journey of the American dream in a very unique way," Scott said of Haley.

"Take a picture of this," Haley said of the four of them, when they came on stage for a curtain call at the Swamp Rabbit. "Because a new group of conservatives has taken over America. It looks like a Benetton commercial!"

For his part, Rubio likes to emphasize his youth (he's 44, he says, but feels 45) and boasts that he hails from a "new generation" that can "turn the page" on the 20th century. He doesn't talk much about migrants or refugees. (When asked about American Muslims, he sounds like he'd rather be somewhere else.)

But two days before the primary, Rubio is in third place in the polls in the Palmetto State, and—not-so-fun fact—no third-place finisher in this state has ever gone on to win the presidential nomination. One reason he trails Donald Trump and Ted Cruz is because at this moment the Republican past is crushing the GOP's future. Rubio is getting hammered on the airwaves by his opponents for being too soft on undocumented immigrants. And his promise to usher in a new generation is being drowned out by the ultranativist promises of Trump, who derives much of his support from his pledge to build a gigantic wall on the Mexican border and his proposal to ban Muslims from coming to the United States.

Even as South Carolina has welcomed and embraced its Benetton conservatives, a huge chunk of Republican voters are apparently motivated by the traditional divides. For Rubio, this is an existential challenge: What happens to the candidate of the future if the future isn't really here yet?

Ted Cruz has many enemies in the United States Senate, and only one pretty good friend: Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, who, like Cruz, is a tea party darling. So it must have been welcome news in the Cruz camp when Lee came to South Carolina this week to hit the campaign trail with Cruz. (Remember, Donald Trump has been knocking Cruz as an unlikable, nasty guy, and pointing out that not one of his Senate colleagues has endorsed him.)

There was just one catch: Lee was campaigning with Cruz, but he wasn't endorsing him. In fact, hours before Lee gave a speech introducing and praising Cruz at a barbecue joint in Easley, South Carolina, Lee hailed Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida at a CrossFit gym in nearby Greenville, where he told an audience of conservatives, "I don't know anyone in Washington who knows the Bible quite as well as Marco Rubio does."

For now, Lee is undecided about whom to support in the Republican presidential primary and apparently playing the field. (He told reporters in Easley that he would endorse someone, sometime.) That has put him in an awkward position as a supporter of two competing candidates currently locked in a fight about who is or isn't a scoundrel. Even more awkward was that Lee delivered essentially the same speech for both Rubio and Cruz: a historical allegory about the lessons of the Boston Tea Party and the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.

As Cruz tries to maintain second place in the South's first primary state, he has brought in a few reinforcements. Reps. Steve King of Iowa and Louie Gohmert of Texas (known for coining the term "terror babies") joined him to talk up Cruz's anti-immigration bona fides. But Rubio, who is fiercely challenging Cruz for second—both trail Trump in the polls—has greater local support and is traveling the state with the "cavalry." That's what Republican Sen. Tim Scott calls the South Carolina lawmakers in Rubio's corner: Gov. Nikki Haley, Rep. Trey Gowdy (of Benghazi committee fame), and Scott himself. Scott and Gowdy, who each display a half-decent comedic repartee at Rubio campaign events, teamed up for a radio ad on Rubio's behalf.

In a street fight like this, Cruz could use more prominent allies. But he couldn't even get his buddy Lee to go all the way with an endorsement.

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