Ted Cruz Isn’t Here to Make Friends

How the Texas senator used the playbook of reality TV villainy to win by his own rules.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 11: Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), speaks at the 2013 Values Voter Summit, held by the Family Research Council, on October 11, 2013 in Washington, DC. The summit, which goes for three days, is attended by a number of Republican senators and high profile conservative voices in American politics. 
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Alex Seitz Wald
Oct. 21, 2013, 5:54 a.m.

With just 12 words last week, Ted Cruz may have re­vealed his motives in a way that hun­dreds of lengthy “think pieces” and hours of TV pan­el dis­cus­sions could not. “I’m not serving in of­fice be­cause I des­per­ately needed 99 new friends,” Cruz told ABC’s Jon Karl Thursday night in his first on-cam­era in­ter­view since the end of the gov­ern­ment shut­down. Wheth­er in­ten­tion­ally or not, Cruz was quot­ing, al­most word-for-word, the de­fin­ing phrase of real­ity tele­vi­sion, uttered by dozens of real­ity vil­lains since the dawn of the genre: “I’m not here to make friends.” The phrase, more than any­thing else, has come to define everything we love and loathe about real­ity shows.

And what is the Sen­ate, beamed live in­to the homes of mil­lions of Amer­ic­ans via C-SPAN, if not real­ity TV? It has all the ar­chi­tec­ture of Sur­viv­or, with its com­plic­ated rules, out­sized per­son­al­it­ies, and reg­u­lar elim­in­a­tions. Ted Cruz is just fol­low­ing the play­book writ­ten by Dav­id “Puck” Rainey on the very first sea­son of the Real World 20 years ago, and de­ployed by every real­ity vil­lain since, from Omarosa to the Real House­wives. It’s simple: Be brash, be out­rageous, be hated, but most of all be mem­or­able and you can win big out­side the game, even if you lose the game you’re sup­posed to be play­ing.

Al­lis­on Nowacki, who hosts the “I’m not here to make friends” pod­cast, which dis­cusses the latest in real­ity TV, says “Ted Cruz could eas­ily be cast on any com­pet­it­ive real­ity [show] today.”

“Polit­ics was and still is the first real­ity show in his­tory. There have al­ways been al­li­ances, her­oes, and vil­lains,” she said in an email, not­ing that be­ing mem­or­able for mak­ing in­flam­mat­ory com­ments “is a le­git­im­ate strategy in polit­ics as well as real­ity tele­vi­sion.”

Those who say they’re not here to make friends usu­ally end that sen­tence by de­clar­ing that they’re “here to win.” But that’s iron­ic be­cause “the per­son/people who ac­tu­ally uses the line nev­er wins — per­haps not sur­pris­ingly, as it tends to sign­post them quite clearly as an ar­rog­ant [jerk] who, un­less they can really win the audi­ence over, is likely to be at risk of be­ing voted off be­fore long,” ac­cord­ing to the web­site TV Tropes, which cata­logues such things. “There is also an im­plic­a­tion that the con­test­ant thinks they can win the con­test all by them­selves.”

But real­ity TV vil­lains, like Cruz, are play­ing their own game, not the one the show’s mas­ters want them to play. Puck got evicted from the “Real World” house for be­ing ob­nox­ious and ho­mo­phobic, but it is his name we re­mem­ber, not those of the oth­er cast mem­bers. Omarosa lost when Don­ald Trump “fired” her a few epis­odes be­fore the fi­nale of  The Ap­pren­tice, but she was the break­out star. Do you even re­mem­ber who ac­tu­ally won? Neither did we, his name is Bill Rancic.

And los­ing in one way can eas­ily be win­ning in an­oth­er. Puck turned his tele­vised jerkitude in­to a mod­est ca­reer, with oth­er tele­vi­sion ap­pear­ances and gigs. “How do you get fam­ous now?” he pondered in a 2013 in­ter­view look­ing back on his time as a minor cul­tur­al icon (the stuff of aca­dem­ic journ­als on Je­sus and Gen­er­a­tion X). “I did Cribs. I re­in­vent my­self a lot. All my friends in San Fran­cisco still do the same sh—.”

Omarosa has done even bet­ter, turn­ing her schtick as the “wo­man Amer­ica loved to hate” in­to sol­id gold. Since her first ap­pear­ance on Trump’s show, there have been at least 20 oth­er real­ity TV ap­pear­ances, mem­oirs, li­cens­ing deals, even a min­istry, and con­stant tabloid fod­der. She’s a house­hold name and a met­onym for a cer­tain per­son­al­ity type.

Sure they’re hated, but this is what win­ning in post­mod­ern Amer­ica looks like, and Ted Cruz is just ap­ply­ing the same for­mula to polit­ics. He’s not the first — take Michele Bach­mann or Sarah Pal­in, for in­stance — but rarely do politi­cians ac­tu­ally use the lan­guage of real­ity TV to ex­plain them­selves, as Cruz did. (In­cid­ent­ally, the House has a real real­ity TV star in the form of former Real World cast mem­ber Sean Duffy, but he’s tried to dis­tance him­self from that past.)

Cruz may have lost the shut­down in terms of se­cur­ing his de­sired policy out­come. He may nev­er be suc­cess­ful in ad­van­cing le­gis­la­tion. But in nine short months, he’s trans­formed him­self in­to a move­ment lead­er par ex­cel­lence, raised mil­lions of dol­lars, earned lim­it­less pub­li­city, and po­si­tioned him­self as the only True Con­ser­vat­ive™ head­ing in­to 2016.

He may have lost ac­cord­ing to your rules, but in every way that really mat­ters, he won. And if the his­tory of real­ity TV is any pre­ced­ent, there will be a lot more like him.