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Ted Cruz played Donald Trump's reality TV game — and won

His non-endorsement captured the drama of the most addictive reality shows.

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

When Ted Cruz slickly evaded endorsing Donald Trump for president — live from the stage of the Republican National Convention, no less! — he beat Trump at his own game.

Trump’s rise in the summer of 2015 was predicated largely on understanding the power of certain reality television tropes and playing them up for the right-leaning audience, which loves the genre. (Among others, Duck Dynasty and, yes, The Apprentice have generally played more strongly with Republicans than Democrats.)

In particular, Trump played the villain. The guy who would say anything to win, no matter how outrageous. The man who wasn’t there to make friends.

At times, he seemed to have modeled his candidacy on the famous Survivor season one victor, Richard Hatch, a man who seemed to exploit the rules of the game even as he was just figuring them out. Most famously, Hatch invented the reality show alliance, thus casually disposing of the vast majority of Survivor castaways before they knew what had hit them.

Trump, similarly, seemed to realize that a lot of the rules that guided polite politics could be subverted or even disobeyed entirely, to his benefit. (You can read much more about this here.)

But since Trump clinched the nomination — and has seemed less and less interested in even running — he’s lost some of that early sense of outrageousness. His speeches have become longer and more rambling. His convention has been listless and lacking in a clear narrative. He’s even barely deigned to show up.

That made the moment ripe for someone to seize up the mantle of massive drama. And who better than Cruz, the runner-up, going right back to the reality show playbook and playing the turncoat?

Ted Cruz seems to have learned a little something from reality TV as well

Go back to Hatch, and you’ll find a guy who played the villain less by saying outrageous things (that spot was reserved for many other players in that Survivor season) and more by making sure he was always doing something underhanded and shady for the cameras to catch. This led to better drama, which led to Hatch dominating storylines, which led to his eventual victory.

Now, I highly doubt that Cruz went back and watched the first season of Survivor to understand why Trump rose and other Republicans couldn’t manage the feat. But his non-endorsement was directly out of the Hatch playbook: Just when your opponent thinks he’s got you dead to rights, slide in the shiv.

And, honestly, was there a more dramatic moment on television in recent months than watching a room full of angry delegates boo and scream as they slowly realized what was happening? (To be sure, it made Cruz’s play even more devastating — how many people would have realized what was happening in the moment without those boos?) This isn’t the sort of thing that’s supposed to happen at heavily scripted modern political conventions; it’s supposed to be saved for things like House of Cards.

It’s debatable how this will benefit Cruz in either the short or long-term. But his flair for drama left even a fair number of people who would almost certainly disagree with him on 80 to 90 percent of his policy positions salivating with excitement.

And it’s easy to see why. Trump was the master of turning politics into reality TV, making it seem easy to turn every news appearance into a chance to say something that wouldn’t feel out of place being scored with "Can you believe he said that?!" music during an otherwise dull episode of America’s Next Top Model. Nobody else in the Republican field was able to figure this out in time to stop him in the primary — nor did they even seem to try.

This experience gap makes sense. Most politicians likely don’t watch a lot of reality television, being busy with work and all. Considering The Apprentice was the main thing Trump had going for the better part of a decade, he was steeped in that particular culture.

But look back at something I said last summer about Trump’s rise: When watching a reality show, look to the character creating drama, the character the cameras gravitate toward. You’re often looking at the eventual winner. Cruz can’t win this election. He can’t even run again until 2020. But he found a way to create drama — and if Trump loses in November, Cruz will almost certainly reap some sort of benefit. Drama works in reality TV, even if you play your cards when it seems too late.

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