If there is a sweet-spot persona for Ted Cruz to hit in public appearances, it is, for many audiences, “not as repulsive as you might have previously suspected.” Cruz is often considered, among both political opponents and congressional colleagues, a bit of a reptilian creature, the sort of Nixonian calculator who inspires memes that he’s the Zodiac killer and widely shared videos about a strange thing he does with his lips while accepting applause. But there’s something surprising about Cruz that sneaks out occasionally, like on Wednesday night’s appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live!: He’s incredibly comfortable, and almost even appealing, on television.
This hasn't been the conventional wisdom about Cruz in this campaign. It’s Donald Trump, after all, who has supposedly mastered the art of media manipulation and transfixing television theater. But Cruz turns out to be just as much a creature of television, in a very different key. Unlike Trump, Cruz—who, we remind, is younger than Melissa McCarthy, Matt Damon, Tina Fey, Sarah Silverman, Mariah Carey, Jay Z, Jennifer Aniston, Jack Black, and Marilyn Manson—grew up in an age where television was the dominant form of media, when the ability to craft a clever quip, at a slight ironic remove, was the primary currency of a social economy. Cruz is not of Hollywood, but he’s a child of that David Letterman/Generation X comedy age that, in a certain way, will always see the world partly through the prism of Simpsons quotes.
Thus, when he enters a place like Kimmel’s studio, a Sodom’s den of Hollywood liberals, he is able to instantly speak the language. He knows when to pause for a punchline, he knows when to be self-deprecating—he said he wanted to be an actor but “I didn’t have good looks and I didn’t have talent,” drawing a chuckle from the Los Angeles crowd, always a challenge for GOP candidates on talk shows—and he knows when to let the air out a bit of his own policies, joking that Kimmel was currently on the terrorist watch list because he was growing a beard. Cruz isn’t necessarily funny, but he knows how funny people talk, and he can impersonate it effectively. He’s a son of Letterman like the rest of us.
Cruz’s views couldn’t be more opposite from Kimmel’s, but he understands how to come across as more reasonable than he might actually be, simply because he knows how to talk on television and is exceptionally skilled at reading an audience. When Cruz’s “debate skills” are praised, they’re usually in the context of, well, a debate, but that ability to pivot off points and make your own is also a sort of improv.
Cruz always says he “doesn’t get angry often,” and he has a way of modulating his tone even when speaking ideas that will be poorly received by the audience he’s speaking to. Thus, when Cruz talks to Kimmel about his plan to monitor Muslim neighborhoods—an idea that’s abhorrent to liberals, and to Kimmel—he does it in a way that sounds conversational and sane. It might not make the idea any more palatable, but it doesn’t make Cruz sound like a raving lunatic either. Note how Kimmel, after Cruz finishes describing his plan, simply backs down, saying, “Yeah, I don't know, I don't—I'm not with you on that one, but—well, you know what, we will agree to disagree on that.” It leads to a good Cruz quip that comes with as warm a smile as Cruz is capable of: “I’ll cross you off the list for Homeland Security.”
It was evocative of another of Cruz’s excellent talk show appearances, on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert last year, in which a discussion of gay marriage—a topic Colbert’s audience was even more engaged about than Kimmel’s was about Muslims—turned into Colbert asking the audience to be more civil to his guest. Cruz smiled again. For a guy who is supposedly so despised by his colleagues, he has a way of being comfortable with a comedian in a sit-down interview. That comes from years of watching television. Cruz disagrees on ideas, but he knows how to sit down on a host’s couch and look at ease there.
Which brings us back to, as all things do, Trump. Cruz had a good line—referring to a previous segment of Kimmel’s show, before Cruz came on—saying, “If I were in my car and getting ready to reverse and saw Donald in the backup camera, I’m not confident which pedal I’d push.” It was, finally, a sentiment he probably did share with the studio audience. And as Trump continues to flail about in public appearances after perhaps the most tumultuous 24 hours of his campaign, Cruz is on national television looking, well, human. Notably, he didn’t take Kimmel’s bait to trash the popular president, Barack Obama; when Kimmel asked him whom he hated more, Obama or Trump, he said, “I dislike Obama’s policies more,” which is a pretty perfect way to differentiate yourself from Trump right now. Trump is appearing more unhinged than he has in any of the months of his ascendance, and the relaxed Cruz, joking about roach clips and Men at Work concerts and standing in line for two hours to see The Empire Strikes Back, looked downright normal in comparison.
If Trump’s temperament and demeanor worry you, Cruz is saying: Look at me. I’m a little awkward and I’m a little dorky but I’m really just a normal person. This may not in fact be true about Cruz. But he has learned how to come across that way on television, and in this campaign, that might be all that actually matters.