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.