Cruz played his role in Trump’s script for the GOP Convention TV show
Last night, Donald Trump got exactly the kind of television show he intended at the Republican National Convention.
Ted Cruz bet his career on distancing himself from the Trump candidacy with his speech. He was gambling that Trump will lose big, and that in 2020 a repentant party will turn to the constitutionalist standard-bearer it mistakenly shunned, intoxicated under the spell cast by Trump. In this narrative, Cruz suffers the slings and arrows but in retrospect will be seen as principled and wise.
The slings and arrows part has already started. The moment Cruz told the convention-goers to vote their conscience, spontaneous boos broke out:
Lest the TV sound favor the podium, here is an account of what it was like in the back of the house, from lefty site Vox. Libby Nelson writes:
As Cruz told the attendees at the Republican National Convention to vote up and down the ticket, the chants started to ring out: "Go home!" When it became clear that this was as close as he was going to get to an endorsement, the restive audience turned to angry: "We want Trump!"
On the stage, Cruz was circling back to a meant-to-be-touching anecdote about the child of a fallen police officer, but from the back of the arena — where the view of his face on the Jumbotron was unobstructed — it was impossible to hear anything but the boos of the angry crowd, louder than it had been for most of the convention. I couldn’t tell you how his speech ended. Almost everything after Cruz said "vote your conscience" was subsumed in an angry roar.
Conservative Guy Benson described the mood change during Cruz’s speech at TownHall:
Cruz is the story tonight. He arrived to surprisingly prolonged and generous applause, held the crowd in rapt attention for the vast majority of his address, and scored with line after line. His tone and message were excellent. And then it happened. Having congratulated Trump for securing the nomination right out of the gate, Cruz closed by urging Republicans not to stay home in November, exhorted them to back pro-freedom and constitutionalist candidates "up and down" the ballot, and advised them to vote their conscience in November. Once that third line was uttered -- perceived by many as a dogwhistle to the 'Never Trump' faction -- it became clear that a formal endorsement wasn't forthcoming, and the boos rained down. The opprobrium, reportedly egged on by Trump floor captains, reached a crescendo as the Texan left the stage. The Senator was angrily, almost violently, confronted by donors. His besieged wife had to be escorted out of the hall by security. Prominent Trump allies ripped into Cruz's performance in public. And the narrative was set: Nasty discord. Disunity.
A Trump-hating conservative pundit privately told me it was a “brilliant tactical move” and a “win-win” because Trump is going to lose big. I am not so sure, both because I think Trump has a decent chance at winning and because Donald Trump is a highly successful TV producer/host of reality TV shows, and national political conventions are organized as reality TV shows. Trump wrote the script and set up Cruz as the heavy. Here is what happened next on the TV show, via Meaghan Keneally of ABC News:
Shortly after Cruz exited the stage to a growing round of boos, Trump entered the arena on the opposite side to sit with his family and watch his son Eric address the crowd.
I am unable to find a video clip of the entrance, but Trump was beaming, giving thumbs up, and being cheered. He took his seat, and we all heard together his son’s paean to his father, which was, not so incidentally, moving and impressive.
C’mon, pundits. Put on your drama critics’ hats and consider the impact of that drama. Go back to early television history, to the very first reality TV ratings hit, pro wrestling. Loosely scripted, focusing on cartoon-like heroes and villains, full of improv. Trump was like the good guy wrestler entering the arena after the bad guy had entered first. Boos turn to cheers, providing an opportunity for cathartic affirmation of the good.
I see some pundits wondering why on Earth Trump permitted Cruz to speak, especially since he had a chance to review the speech and knew that Cruz would snub him. No doubt the Trump floor captains were prepared.
Thus, Cruz was slotted before what was intended to be the emotional high point of the evening, the advancement of the family narrative, introducing the remarkable Trump family to the nation. Cruz played exactly the role Trump, the reality TV producer, had for him.
Time will tell as to the wisdom of Cruz’s gamble. If Trump fulfills the NeverTrumpers’ dreams and loses big, we’ll see how Cruz does. But in the short run, his brand now includes a wisp of villainy.