CLEVELAND — Two southern delegates discussed Ted Cruz’s speech last night in the slow-moving cattle drive toward the security perimeter exit outside Quicken Loans Arena last night.
“Ted’s speech was one of the greatest speeches I’ve ever heard,” said one.
“Until it wasn’t,” said the other.
“Until it wasn’t,” the first agreed.
Oddly, almost everyone in attendance had expected Senator Ted Cruz to actually endorse Donald Trump, despite it being widely reported beforehand that he didn’t intend to. (Though I suppose plenty of “widely reported” news doesn’t make it through the filter bubble in which your average Republican delegate resides.)
“To the very final moment I was hoping he would make the endorsement,” Virginia state Senator Dick Black (yes, that one), a former Cruz campaign co-chairman, told me earlier in the evening, in the middle of Mike Pence’s boring, endless speech. Behind me, an AP reporter asked a delegate what he thought of Cruz’s speech, and the delegate began loudly clucking like a chicken, to indicate that he thought Cruz had been, you know, a chicken. (She asked him to please try again, using words she could write down.)
This was a crowd that wanted Cruz to demean himself and pay fealty to a man who really, really treated him like absolute shit, probably planted rumors of an affair, and branded him a liar to a national audience. For attendees, all of that should be water under the bridge—even Little Marco did his little video, after all—though I can’t figure out how anyone who has ever paid much attention to how Cruz operates would have ever expected him to show up and join the long line of losers going on stage this week to eat shit and endorse that purse-lipped second-rate would-be Berlusconi.
Certainly Trump’s camp didn’t actually expect him to! What was obvious to everyone but, perhaps, those on the floor, was how manufactured the entire moment was, by both sides. Cruz purposefully avoided endorsing Trump knowing full well that an arena mostly full of Trump supporters would be pissed. Trump purposefully arrived in the arena midway through Cruz’s speech, and stood, glowering at him, as the endorsement pointedly didn’t come. Trump’s team reportedly even whipped up the boos.
But if the reaction was perhaps a bit more heated than Cruz expected, it was still exactly what he wanted: To once again be the lone, brave voice of liberty, standing up to those who seek to betray the principles of conservatism. And when Trump loses in November—which he will—many of those who booed tonight will rewrite their own memories to place themselves on his side.
This was another self-mythologizing moment for the deluded, messianic Cruz, who is currently LARPing as Ronald Reagan in 1976. But he really will emerge from this disaster as the most high-profile right-wing dissenter, and despite his general odiousness, that might actually be enough to propel him to the nomination in 2020, against whatever theoretically appealing young governor the GOP establishment will try to prop up. That whole speech you forgot about, before the booing? With the usual right-wing bromides and terror-humping, delivered with Cruz’s patented self-satisfaction? The crowd loved it. Until they didn’t.
Last night’s real winner, though, was the press. For journalists, if not delegates, the whole thing was a change of pace. This whole week has been about waiting for a little action. The widely predicted apocalyptic clashes between protesters and the massive cop army have thus far failed to happen. The floor rebellion was quashed and quickly forgotten. Instead of Don King and bizarre sports celebrities, we got minor soap actors and a multilevel marketing scam artist. Instead of punches, we got plagiarism. No actually effective fascist, one might think, would have programmed such a boring lineup of prime-time speakers.
But this was the first moment where Donald Trump’s supposed television instincts actually appeared to be working. He scheduled a villain—Ted Cruz is not at the Republican National Convention to make friends—to create some drama. Of course, Trump’s love of drama may have slightly sabotaged the GOP’s efforts to actually win a presidential election. The Republican nominee for the vice presidency (a man the presidential nominee seems have no interest in or ability to interact with), also spoke last night, though you wouldn’t know it from watching or reading the news today.