At the latest Republican debate, it almost seemed like for the first time Ted Cruz was a bigger deal than Donald Trump. Much of the night was spent with Cruz being either on the attacking or receiving end of some serious fighting words, in what was the most crazy and raucous debate yet. We saw Cruz fighting with Trump about how Trump is really extremely liberal; which is true, in a New-York-business-guy-liberal sort of way. And Trump in turn fought with him about his alleged dirty tricks in the Iowa caucus.
We saw Cruz fighting with Marco Rubio about Rubio being pro-amnesty (which is true). And Rubio in turn fought with Cruz about who was more Latino, accusing Cruz of not even knowing Spanish. Cruz shot right back in Spanish, and I can tell you that even though his accent is thicker than mine, his Spanish is clearly pretty fluent. Mind you, I’m not really sure how much of a winning point that is in the current Republican party.
Finally, he even fought with debate moderator John Dickerson, where Dickerson demonstrated a pretty clear Anti-Cruz bias, arguing with him (more like a participant than a moderator) on Cruz’s point about how unusual it is to appoint a Supreme Court justice in an election year. When Cruz complained, Dickerson, in a dick move, said: “Sorry, I just want to get the facts straight for the audience.” Cruz’s reaction was quite perfect, staring down at Dickerson disapprovingly to give time for the Republican audience to boo the CBS journalist.
Quite a few were booing Trump when he was arguing with Cruz too. Cruz clearly had a lot of support. This, in spite of by all accounts being a very unlikable person. Trump was exaggerating only a little bit when he said that Cruz “didn’t have one endorsement from any of his colleagues.” Politically, Cruz is almost the man with no friends, partly because he’s difficult to deal with – but also because he’s not willing to back down from his agenda; and he’s not supported by the Republican establishment because he’s already proven that he’s never going to let himself be controlled. A lot of people also seem to think that Trump may also have been right in calling Cruz the “biggest liar,” even though when it comes to abortion, even partial-birth abortion, Cruz was telling the truth about Trump:
So why is Cruz both so disliked and so successful?
I think I’ve figured out the answer to both – and it dawned on me when I was watching Cruz’s latest campaign ad. It’s vicious, hilarious and brilliantly produced all at once. Check it out:
The song parody and scene of “Hillary” destroying her emails are both references to the nerd cult-classic film Office Space. And it cemented to me that the whole key of Cruz’s edge and likability issues, his biggest strength and his biggest weakness, are on account of the fact that Ted Cruz is a massive Nerd.
The rest of his ads have that same sense of humor. That is, an anti-authoritarian, mocking kind of humor that you see on South Park and sometimes Saturday Night Live. Look at this one where he gets at Trump:
Or this one, at Rubio:
Note how in that last one, he acknowledges that his lack of likability extends to definitely not having a “pretty face.” In fact, more than one person has said he’s got one of the most “punchable” faces in America.
When we look at these videos, though, we see just how smart Cruz really is. He’s smart enough to know he’s not going to win on looks or on charm, and to point that out to people as a way to win them over. He’s smart enough to attack his opponents in a way that seems sharp, and not brutish like Trump does it. He acts, in other words, with all the experience of the nerdy kid who knew that smart but mean words, quick comebacks and vitriolic humor are the only protection he has against the musclebound jocks out to bully him. All his “dirty tricks,” the realpolitik of campaigning that others resent mostly because he’s better at getting away with them, are the sort of divide-and-conquer and deflecting tactics that any nerd from his generation would have learned to survive junior high school.
Now, you might be thinking that a few campaigns ads are no great proof. It’s not like Cruz made these himself, and maybe didn’t even have anything to do with thinking them up. But the people who did were very clearly nerd-savvy. So it already proves that Cruz is surrounding himself with his own type of people.
And believe me, there’s LOTS more proof of Cruz’s nerdiness. When interviewed about Superheroes, Cruz listed Rorschach as one of his favorite characters. This isn’t like Iron Man or Superman, it’s from a comic (and movie flop) called Watchmen that is legendary among nerds as the greatest comic ever made but something no non-nerd would ever cite. Rorschach, by the way, is a violent psychopath with strong ultra-patriotic right-wing sympathies, very clearly mentally imbalanced, but in the end loses his life by standing up to a godlike being rather than agreeing to cover up mass-murder because his principles about justice and truth wouldn’t let him. His motto is “never compromise, not even in the face of Armageddon.” I’m not sure if he’s a great character for a future president to look up to, but it definitely proves Cruz is a nerd.
And this is important because being a nerd informs Cruz’s approach to politics. Another little known though not secret fact about Cruz is that he’s a gamer. He’s posted his Candy Crush level on Facebook, and college friends remember him playing “Japanese fighting games” and Super Mario well into the night. And he approaches politics the way nerds approach a lot of things: he gamifies it. I don’t mean that it’s just a game to him or anything like that, but that his tactical approach to how to win is informed by tactics any nerd would recognize in video games. What others interpret as “sneaky,” “dirty tricks” or even “dishonest,” he’s treating as tactics for leveling up.
Want more? Cruz has admitted to being a concert-going fan of progressive rock (the nerdiest form of rock). He likes Katniss from the hunger games. He confessed to being a huge Star Trek fan (original series, not that wimpy Picard stuff), gave a coherently nerdy answer to a question about Captain America (and to loving the Avengers movies, but said he was more of a Spider-Man and Wolverine fan in the comics) and admitted to having owned every last Star Wars action figure as a kid (in a Darth Vader carrying case, no less). He’s claimed that Han Solo was his childhood idol, much like frequent readers will know was the case for me.
There’s another bit of evidence I discovered when I started writing this piece, that also felt very personally familiar to me. In his own book, Cruz outright admits his nerdiness, as a kid: “Midway through junior high school, I decided that I’d had enough of being the unpopular nerd. I remember sitting up one night, asking a friend why I wasn’t one of the popular kids. I ended up staying up most of that night thinking about it. ‘Okay, well, what is it that the popular kids do? I will consciously emulate that’.”
That’s a quote from Cruz’s book A Time For Truth, but it was pretty similar to a pivotal moment in my own youth. I describe it, in Dungeons & Dragons terms, as the day I realized that Charisma was a much more important ability score in the real world than Intelligence. Of course, if you can learn how to have both, that’s even better.
So we both learned how to win people over – and often not by being the nice guy. A lot of candidates are more likable than Cruz, but there are other forms of Charisma than just being friendly. On the other hand, I think a difference between him and I is that Cruz didn’t just learn how to be popular, he repressed some kind of naturalness along the way of all that emulating and that’s part of why he always feels kind of insincere, even when he’s telling the truth.
People support Cruz because he’s clever, convincing in his arguments, knows just how to be mean in a smart and funny way, a very skilled debater, a master of the backhanded compliment (like in the recent debate: “I like Donald… he is an amazing entertainer”) and gives that impression of never compromising. People dislike Cruz because he’s awkward, often seems smug or arrogant, doesn’t seem to care who he offends, doesn’t seem to either need or even want official endorsement from his own side (in other words, he’s a loner), doesn’t actually care if you don’t like him (and is thus immune to your threats of ostracism or condemnation) and seems to be willing to resort to dirty tricks to survive. Looking at those lists, you can only conclude that Cruz (like any of us who went through it) never actually stopped being the nerdy kid. Everything that has made him win and everything that might make him lose is wrapped up in it.
If he were to read this, I might tell him to loosen up a bit more and let that side of his be more visible. In 2016, nerds ARE the popular kids, Ted, and you could be the first full-blown Nerd President. You probably won’t ever reach Reaganesque levels of charm, but you might come off as less punchable and more personable if you owned up a bit more to your Nerd Side.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Kasimir Urbanski doesn’t write on a specific subject; he’s EveryJoe’s resident maniac-at-large. A recovering Humanities academic and world-traveler, he now lives in South America and is a researcher of fringe religion, eastern philosophy, and esoteric consciousness-expansion. In his spare time he writes tabletop RPGs, and blogs about them at therpgpundit.blogspot.com. Follow Kasimir on Twitter @KasimirUrbanski.
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