Well, that was really something, wasn’t it?
Last night, on the third night of the Republican National Convention—a night that’s historically served to showcase the vice-presidential candidate—Senator Ted Cruz got up and spoke at the Quicken Loans arena in Cleveland, Ohio.
But rather than endorsing one-time opponent Donald Trump, as he was widely expected to do, Cruz “congratulated” him once and spent the next twenty minutes pointedly talking about other things.
The crowd was into it, until they weren’t. Towards the end, as Cruz’s defense of individual liberty slyly segued into a plea to “vote your conscience” in November, the Republicans in attendance realized that he had no intention of endorsing a man who had called his wife ugly, who had suggested that his father was involved in JFK’s assassination.
That was when the crowd lost it. Viewers watching at home were treated to the spectacle of Ted Cruz leaving the stage to a deafening chorus of boos and yells. By some accounts the scene in the arena was even worse than it looked on TV. The former attorney general of Virginia had to escort Cruz’s wife out of the building for her own safety.
It was another weird twist in what has become the strangest election of our lifetimes.
Cruz succeeded in beating Trump at his own reality TV game. Today on the fourth and final day of the convention, his act of defiance in the arena last night is the only story anyone’s talking about. At a breakfast this morning Cruz admitted that he was driven by personal animus: “I am not in the habit of supporting people who attack my wife and attack my father.”
There’s been some debate in the twittersphere and the media about whether this helps or hurts Cruz’s chances in 2020. At the very least it seems to have raised his esteem among non-Trump supporters. Even people who haven’t had a kind word to say about him in the past were forced to admit he made a gutsy move last night.
As Todd VanDerWerff pointed out on Vox, Cruz was using classic storytelling tropes to create a moment of unforgettable drama. Somehow even the negative image of Cruz that most of us have—resentful, unloved, loathsome, a man despised by seemingly everyone he ever met—played into this.
It’s one of the most powerful narrative devices, and we’ve seen it used over and over in some of our best stories. The sad-sack, worthless loser whom no one ever loved suddenly redeems himself with an unbelievable act of courage.
It’s the story of Severus Snape, a man to whom Cruz has been compared before. It’s the story of Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities and Captain Renault in Casablanca.
But I have a suspicion that last night Cruz was going for something even more archetypal. Something… biblical.
Watching the end of Cruz’s speech, I kept wondering why his brazen act of defiance appealed to me on such a visceral level. I realized it was because I had grown up reading stories from the Bible about courageous prophets who stood their ground and refused to surrender their principles even when they were hopelessly outnumbered.
The parallels are especially striking given how rapidly the rest of the Republican party has surrendered to Trump. For me, and probably for a lot of people, the entire convention has been a nightmarish symbol of decadence, like the court of King Herod or Nebuchadnezzar.
And then Cruz marched in there last night and refused to kneel before the new pagan emperor. He refused to kiss his ring even though he must have known he was endangering his own safety.
It was a spectacle whose biblical echoes are legion. For a few minutes Cruz was Samson, “eyeless in Gaza,” trotted out by his rivals to be humiliated only to bring down the house on them.
He was Micaiah the prophet who spoke doom over Ahab when the 400 court prophets spoke victory.
He was Daniel in the lion’s den; Daniel’s three friends refusing to kneel before the hugest and classiest golden idol ever built.
I don’t know if those echoes were deliberately cultivated by Cruz when he planned that speech. But I know that I felt them, that they resonated. Whether he intended it or not, Cruz was playing directly to his base of social conservatives and Evangelicals without having to use words.
I’ve never been a fan of Ted Cruz, but what he did last night was a legitimately brilliant act of protest. One might even call it a prophetic act. Millions of Christians saw it. And they will not forget.