Donald Trump has and will continue to dominate the political headlines for the foreseeable future. He’s the frontrunner, and the vitriol directed at him by those hostile to his candidacy is both expected and part of the process. But all that vituperative rhetoric aimed at Trump means the man running a (relatively) close second is getting less acrimony than usual: Ted Cruz has had years to accrue the ill will Trump has amassed in mere months. In The A.V. Club’s first assessment of the 2016 presidential primary season, I noted in passing that Cruz is a dick and no one likes him. Some readers took umbrage with that assessment, but as the weeks go by, it’s become apparent that I undersold the man’s unlikability. Calling Ted Cruz “unlikable” is akin to saying the latest Fantastic Four slightly underperformed.
From an early age, Ted Cruz has engendered a degree of repugnance so out of proportion with the average person, it’s become one of his defining traits, along with a nasal voice and a general demeanor that inspires fantasies of defenestration. His first-year college roommate calls him “a nightmare of a human being.” The famously genial George W. Bush opined of his former employee, “I just don’t like the guy.” Cruz’s coworkers and colleagues in the Senate can’t stand him. Former speaker John Boehner called him a “jackass.” Republican Senator Lindsay Graham famously opined, “If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody would convict you.” Most members of his own party, currently on a frantic “anybody but Trump” snipe hunt, won’t even begrudgingly endorse Cruz, so thoroughly has he burned bridges while in office. Collecting quotes from famous names who find him excruciatingly awful has become a routine pastime. The reasons appear simple: He’s a rude, arrogant, uncompromising jerk who puts himself ahead of any higher purpose and shits on anybody who disagrees with him.
But imagine that national dialogue being about you. It’s almost impossible to consider how difficult it would be not just to be hated, but to be defined by people’s hatred of you. That self-amplifying narrative of Cruz against the world helps to explain why Cruz gravitates so forcefully, so desperately, to the American lingua franca of popular culture. Far more than his fellow candidates, Ted Cruz routinely professes a passion for nostalgic touchstones in film, television, and music. This habit first became noticeable last year, when Cruz visited the offices of Buzzfeed and professed his love for The Simpsons, a love that manifested itself in a cringe-inducing series of voice impressions. It wasn’t quite Andy Kaufman’s foreign man stammering through Archie Bunker, but it’s not far.
Another headline-making pop-culture reference came last November when Cruz performed an impromptu reenactment of the entire “mostly dead” scene from The Princess Bride. While it’s fair to give him credit for doing a halfway-decent Billy Crystal voice, what’s noteworthy isn’t Cruz’s acting voice, but the length to which he goes in pursuit of a reference presumably shared by every reporter in the room. He acts out the whole damn thing, the way that kids who have memorized an entire Spongebob Squarepants episode might do for their parents. You can see him light up with a genuine smile, something he rarely does, at least not when cameras are on him.
These are not isolated incidents. Cruz has performed impressions of Yoda and Darth Vader amid a broader critique of Star Wars fandom vis-a-vis presidential politics. (Vader seems to be a favorite of his, as he also did it during his Senate filibuster in support of defunding Obamacare.) He’s tweeted out videos touting The Force Awakens and painted Hillary Clinton as Kylo Ren. Plenty of politicians trawl the waters of pop culture as a way of proving their “typical American” bona fides. Jeb Bush, for instance, thinks Supergirl is “pretty hot.” Hillary Clinton tried out this “dabbing” thing with Ellen DeGeneres. But for Ted Cruz, pop culture isn’t just a clever reference to pepper into his speeches and interviews. It’s arguably the only way he can communicate directly to most people without them disliking him.
Take a look at the above videos again. Those may be unplanned moments in his campaign, but they are far from unpracticed. Each performance bears the stamp of someone who’s rehearsed and reenacted those impressions within an inch of their lives. Observe how he pauses for laughs during the Billy Crystal impression: That kind of tenacity isn’t just the mark of a politician delivering a stump speech. It’s a human being delivering a stump appeal for human connection. One of the many wonderful things about pop culture is how it creates a shared language, a shorthand way of saying to another person, “We have something in common.” It’s all too easy to imagine that, when you’re a public figure whose personality rubs people the wrong way, these little offhand gestures and signifiers become more than just the familiar stamps of social exchange. They would become a bulwark against loneliness, a means of affirming that, yes, you’re a regular person, too.
Here’s a comparison Ted Cruz probably wouldn’t mind hearing: He’s similar to Tom Cruise. Whether in magazine profiles or (less flatteringly) in juicy tell-all books like Leah Remini’s, people regularly remark upon how Cruise often acts so excessively “normal” that it enters the uncanny valley and Cruise becomes a discomfiting facsimile of everyday people. Cruise enacts the hallmarks of easygoing “guy” behavior a little too earnestly, because his isolation from the ordinary conventions of social settings make it so difficult for him to connect with others. As a result, he leans hard into the typical routines of male bonding when he interacts with others, presumably in hopes that trying a little bit harder will bring others that much closer.
For Cruz, his Star Wars movie quotes and his Simpsons impressions are his cultural capital. They’re all he’s got, and so he’s come to depend on them, to embrace them with gusto. The easy recognition and familiarity others evince at their unveiling become his confirmation of normalcy, his benediction upon the altar of “just one of the boys” relatability. Much like his hardline fundamentalist Christianity, exchanges of Office Space quips serve as a comforting blanket of ritual, where nostalgia becomes a dependable substitute for actually engaging with the person in front of you. And unlike most of us, Cruz treats these moments as performances; he doesn’t wait to hear from the recipient of his recitations, and forge some connection beyond the entertainment object itself. For him, it’s a one-sided presentation. It must be painful to be informed, over and over, that you’re a supremely dislikable person. Such cutting sentiments could make a person very empathetic—or very bitter. The temptation to employ pop-cultural references, those shared collective pleasure nodes, as means of eliciting a smile and a fleeting moment of human connection, would be overwhelming.
Cruz won Utah last night, and hit the all-important 50 percent mark that guarantees him all the state’s delegates, meaning he’s got a strong chance of being the alternative option should it come down to a brokered convention. (This, despite his outlined policies being even more deranged and terrifying than those of Trump’s “whatever works” process.) So look for him to continue his ongoing tactic of generating emotional responses via pop culture folderol, in any and all forms that he finds useful. Ted Cruz, ironically, is at his most human during the very moments he’s evacuating his own personality from the equation.