The competitive reality series entitled “Republican National Convention” hit an astonishing climax in its penultimate episode Wednesday night, when Senator Ted Cruz — a fallen competitor from a previous season — took the stage under the guise of friendship, only to use his speech to metaphorically bite his thumb at the Republican nominee, Donald Trump.
Of course, this reality series takes place in an arena we like to call “real life.” But this Cruz/Trump showdown had all the hallmarks of a highly produced television match-up — an old foe returning to the WWE arena, only to heel turn at the climactic moment; a previously ejected contestant returned to compete with the finalists, purely for the added drama.
The audience played along, too. The crowd whipped itself into frenzy as Cruz’s speech didn’t arrive at the declaration of endorsement that everyone expected from his short remarks. By the end, audience members were booing, loudly. Cruz, like so many stage villains, seemed to welcome the cavalcade of insults, which briefly made him the center of attention in the arena, even if it was at the end of negative energy.
After the speech, the details emerged via journalists on the scene that Cruz went off of his Trump-approved teleprompter remarks to stick it to his former rival in the primaries. Newt Gingrich, who spoke after Cruz, tried to patch up the obvious snub by “paraphrasing” Cruz’s endorsement. But it was too late. Cruz and his wife Heidi were reportedly physically threatened by angry convention attendees after the speech.
For the Trump campaign, it’s another disaster in a long string of disasters for this RNC. Following Melania Trump’s plagiarism, Ben Carson’s “Lucifer” analogy, and Governor Chris Christie’s show trials, Cruz’s blatant non-endorsement is a sign of not just disorganization but outright mutiny. Reality TV producers opting for maximum drama might have planned this unhinged snafu, but event producers hope for smooth sailing.
They did not get it. It wasn’t just Cruz: Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi seemed to perform a Nazi salute to one half of the audience before bending it into a desperately casual hand wave. The screen behind the speakers from Cruz onward was so glitchy and pixelated it looked like viral marketing for “Mr. Robot.” When Trump went out to shake hands and pose with his running mate Governor Mike Pence, the two somehow managed to nearly kiss mid-air. And in the biggest tell for failure from live TV producers, the event ran over a good 15 minutes, pushing back programming across broadcast networks and leaving primetime for late-night.
If Trump is at all like a TV producer, he’s much more an instigator of chaos than he is an agent of order. It’s been long-discussed that Trump’s campaign strategy reflects a reality-television sensibility; it cannot be any more obvious than in Trump’s decision to invite Cruz to the convention, without having a guaranteed endorsement from the former rival. Perhaps the impulse to rub Cruz’s face in Trump’s victory was too much a sell for the Republican nominee. But Trump also has a distinct flair for the messily dramatic. In reality TV, it doesn’t matter if it’s a mess, so long as it gets great ratings. In politics, well, the virtues of chaos remain to be seen. But Trump seems genuinely surprised, day after day, that the excellent television he’s providing for the audience at home — a plagiarized speech, a show trial, canned conservatism from his robot sons and daughters —is going unappreciated. The news is focusing on the mess, but Trump instead sees spectacle. He might as well throw off his helmet (of hair), spread his arms wide, and cry out, like Russell Crowe in “Gladiator”: “Are you not entertained?” The questionably qualified speaker Michelle Von Etten referred to Trump as a “ringleader,” and given the night’s disjointed proceedings, that seems entirely accurate.
The problem is that now, the focus isn’t on Trump or his ilk, it’s on Ted Cruz — a man who with one 13-minute speech stole the news cycle of the third night right out from under Trump’s attempted narrative of Pence as GOP unifier. And the whole thing made him look good. Cruz is a despised politician, both within and without the Republican Party, but it is impossible to deny that his decision to take a stand against conforming for Trump required quite a bit of chutzpah. There is something awesomely terrible about his conviction and desire for revenge taking him all the way to that podium on live television. This convention has been such a blunder that it has been impossible to focus on issues, and I probably agree with Cruz even less than I do with Trump. But from outside that room, watching someone take on the contradictory, empty rhetoric that has been this RNC felt just a little bit triumphant. Cruz upended the night’s narrative, changed his own political trajectory, and made himself an even more formidable candidate for upcoming elections. This feeling I am experiencing? It may be respect.