Musings: How Ted Cruz helped turn politics into pro wrestling

by | Apr 3, 2023 | 2024 Elections, Musings

IN THE SPRING OF 2016, Ted Cruz and his closest advisers knew that he had a serious problem. 

Throughout the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, Cruz’s coronation had been disrupted. From the moment Cruz reached the United States Senate in January 2013 until this morning in March in Wisconsin, of all places, Cruz had calibrated his entire political existence to stoke the right-wing outrage machine to make himself the most appealing candidate he could to the rabid far right wing that decides most Republican nominating contests.

But after winning the Iowa caucuses by besting Donald Trump and Marco Rubio by a handful of points, Cruz just couldn’t close the deal. Donald Trump was in full ascent, winning the next three contests by double digits and coming out on top in most of the contests that followed on Super Tuesday.  

And Trump wasn’t winning by respecting the time-honored rules of political engagement. He wasn’t rolling out detailed policy proposals or increasingly impressive slates of endorsements from local kingmakers. Trump was riding a rocket to the top of the Republican primary by being bombastic and crass. He wasn’t just training his rhetorical guns on Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, Trump was eviscerating Republicans in uncommonly harsh terms.

At one of his first public events as a presidential candidate, Trump disparaged Arizona Senator and genuine American hero John McCain, who was held captive as a POW during the Vietnam War, saying that he “likes people that don’t get captured.” He tore former Florida Governor Jeb Bush to pieces with an unrelenting barrage of insults, dubbed fellow Floridian Marco Rubio “Little Marco,” and ripped into former President George W. Bush, the last Republican to occupy the Oval Office.

If all of that wasn’t enough to offend Republican senses, Trump started to hit Cruz in a way that hurts any person: by attacking his spouse. Trump made a series of despicable remarks about Cruz’s wife Heidi, most commonly insulting her appearance while drawing comparisons to his own wife, a former model.

To put it simply, Trump was deploying lessons that he learned not from notorious New York political fixer Roy Cohn, but from another close associate who would leave an indelible imprint on Trump’s life. Donald Trump was stealing pages from Vince McMahon’s playbook, saying whatever he felt was necessary to whip his fans into a frenzy and keep them coming back to his rallies.

And there wasn’t a single Republican candidate that seemed capable of stopping him. He had already dispatched an impressive who’s who of that era of Republican politics. Former governors like Rick Perry, Chris Christie and Bush were easily dispatched, as were Senators like Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham, who went from the leading anti-Trump voice to his biggest apologist. Right-wing darlings like Scott Walker, then the governor of Wisconsin, didn’t even make it to Iowa. The 2016 Republican primary was rapidly becoming a three-man race between Trump, Cruz and moderate Ohio Governor John Kasich.

Cruz had to do something before he became the next also-ran. He had to grab attention and seize the narrative and news cycle.

He had to cut a promo.

“Cutting a promo,” refers to the interview segments in a professional wrestling show, when performers take the microphone to insult the audience and challenge their rival to a steel cage match. Donald Trump had mastered the art of cutting promos and was using it to win the Republican nomination. Trump knew that spectacle sells, and he was doing his best to sell it to the cheap seats. Cruz had to turn the tables on Trump.

And he tried his best on that March day in Wisconsin, tearing into Trump for almost four minutes, calling him a “sniveling coward,” and telling him to “leave Heidi the hell alone.” 

It was a valiant effort that just…fell flat. It was too hard to take the tough-guy act seriously coming from Cruz, who couldn’t quite conceal his bookishness, the Ivy League elitist masquerading as a tough from Texas. While things did improve slightly for Cruz and he won a handful of contests in the later stage of the 2016 primary, the race was over. If that was the best  Cruz could muster, the Stop Trump movement was doomed. Certainly, Kasich, who was quickly becoming a man without a country in the Republican Party, wouldn’t fare any better. 

It would take a few months for Cruz to fully embrace Trump’s darker vision for American politics. It wasn’t until Trump had dispatched Hillary Clinton, something most of the world including Cruz didn’t expect to happen, that Cruz realized there was more upside in playing the heel than trying to be a healer.

IN A SENSE IT’S A NATURAL FIT. Perhaps no state has a deeper connection with the spectacle of professional wrestling than Texas. What began as a carnival attraction had become an American pastime, and there was nowhere that was more true than in Texas.

The first sports broadcast on television in Texas was professional wrestling in Houston. While Houstonians now know Mattress Mack better than perhaps any cultural figure in the region, for decades that distinction belonged to Paul Boesch, who served as the face of his Houston Wrestling promotion, drawing sell-out crowds every weekend and massive ratings for Houston’s channel 39.

Boesch wasn’t the only major player in the wrestling industry in Texas. Until the 1980’s, professional wrestling in America operated in a territory system, where local promoters managed their own operations in a specified geographic market. Boesch operated the Houston territory, while Dallas belonged to the Von Erich family’s World Class Championship Wrestling. Further west, the famous Funk family ran everything from Amarillo to El Paso where they partnered with one of the first internationally famous wrestling families, the Guerreros, who performed on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border, from El Paso to Los Angeles. 

It’s hard for a lot of younger Americans to fully grasp what a huge deal wrestling was in Texas. Live events drew thousands of fans to the Sam Houston Coliseum in Houston or the Sportatorium in Dallas. From the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, most Texans were passively aware of Reaganomics or Iran Contra, but they could tell you exactly where they were standing when they learned of each of the deaths of four of the Von Erich brothers, three from suicide. 

The Von Erichs were the biggest stars in Dallas, and that includes the Cowboys and their cheerleaders. They received what were essentially state funerals in Texas, with thousands of fans lining up to pay their respects. Public schools canceled classes.

The tradition of professional wrestling in Texas stretches back to the carnival days, and for decades the heart of storytelling in wrestling was the battle of good guys versus bad guys. In wrestling, the good guys were called babyfaces and the bad guys were called heels, and for a long time professional wrestling performers were honor-bound to maintain “kayfabe:” keeping up the illusion that what was happening in the ring was real.

Keeping that magic alive wasn’t easy, but professional wrestling performers adhered to the laws of “kayfabe:” maintaining the illusion that what was happening in the ring was real. Good guys weren’t allowed to ride from town to town with the bad guys. They ate in different restaurants, and stayed in different hotels. If a wrestler received a kayfabe injury on television, they wore a cast when they went out in public.

That adherence to keeping the secret was taken more seriously in Texas than any other territory. When promoters would run television segments where a heel performer injured a babyface, fans would damn near riot. Police departments in Dallas and Houston would be deluged with calls from concerned fans who weren’t in on the fact that the violence they were seeing was tightly choreographed and the outcomes were predetermined.

These weren’t wrestling storylines, they were cultural events. And despite popular culture changing over time, wrestling stayed mostly the same. The good guys fought the bad guys. Order was maintained. It wasn’t until Vince McMahon realized that violating the first rule of wrestling had a business upside that he started acknowledging that his shows were more entertainment than sport. 

It was what fueled the wrestling boom of the 1990’s, but it also carried practical benefits for McMahon. Acknowledging that his federation wasn’t running legitimate athletic contests meant that he no longer had to cooperate with local athletic commissions, which enforced the laws of each state and treated wrestling shows like legitimate competitions such as boxing. Those commissions could impose fines for rules violations, and even demand that performers take drug tests.

McMahon would famously face a federal trial in the early 1990’s that centered on accusations that he was trafficking steroids for his performers. The trial threatened to kill the wrestling business, with its biggest star at the time, Hulk Hogan, admitting under oath that he was doing more than saying his prayers and taking his vitamins. 

McMahon managed to survive that trial, and over the following decade would transform his wrestling promotion from a family-friendly touring show to a global spectacle that drew millions of television viewers and helped pioneer the television trope of the anti-hero by making a Texan who went by the name Stone Cold Steve Austin his biggest star.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that when politics went the way of professional wrestling, a Texan would be one of the first to lead the charge. And in the early days of 2017, while he was still licking his wounds from being routed by Trump a year earlier, Cruz began to reinvent himself. 

Somehow, he became even more obnoxious. Cruz and his staff began to assertively look for opportunities to get booked on Fox News and other outlets to defend whatever the latest indignity coming out of the White House was or to launch a broadside that might own the libs. The United States Senate, by design, moves at a snail’s pace. Cruz’s press operation would never say the same thing. The sheer volume of his media appearances revealed everything we needed to know about Cruz: he was desperate to stay in the conversation and increasingly willing to do or say anything he could to draw attention.

It was, unfortunately, kind of genius. Cruz found a way to do something that isn’t easily taught in the trenches of American campaigns. He took his greatest weakness and made it his greatest strength.

Cruz’s greatest weakness, of course, is that absolutely no one likes the guy. His entire personality in the early stage of his career was calibrated around being the smartest guy in the room, and as a result, he was widely viewed as the smarmiest sumbitch west of the Mississippi River. When he launched his presidential campaign, a senator in his own party speculated that he would receive a groundswell of support from his colleagues only because it meant it would get him out of the building. 

So Cruz did the natural thing: he leaned into playing the heel, devising his media appearances to do little more than stoke more outrage on the right, which would generate more clicks and retweets and make Cruz a darling of the conservative movement once again. 

It wasn’t that Cruz had suddenly become any less of a sonofabitch. He just tailored his own personality to appeal to the increasingly rabid right wing. For Trump supporters, everything Trump had said about Cruz was still true, as was a lot of what the left had to say about him. But Cruz made himself indispensable by being their sonofabitch, someone giving voice to their own inner monologue. 

CRUZ’S HEEL TURN DID HIT AN UNEXPECTED SPEED BUMP. In his 2018 re-election campaign, Cruz was nearly defeated by an underdog from El Paso. Beto O’Rourke was everything that Cruz wasn’t: he was younger, more engaging, and more energetic. He spoke more earnestly about what was wrong in our country, and created a sense of hope that solutions still existed.

O’Rourke played the babyface masterfully in that 2018 Senate race and came within 200,000 or so votes of defeating Cruz, who did everything he could in the final weeks of that race to tamp down his track record as a conservative firebrand, trying to create a little bit of separation between himself and Trump, who had grown so unpopular so quickly that Democrats were able to reclaim the House of Representatives and eat away at the Republican majority in the Senate. 

The 2018 Senate race could and should have been an inflection point for Cruz, but as he would throughout his career, the junior senator from Texas learned all the wrong lessons. Instead of moderating his bombastic image, he leaned further into the right-wing noise machine. Rather than confront the reasons voters defected from him in masses to support the upstart O’Rourke, Cruz continued to focus on an audience of one.

As the calendar turned to 2019 and Donald Trump faced challenging re-election, Cruz continued to be one of his biggest cheerleaders in the Senate. Tired of cable news networks that at least attempt to give both sides of an argument space, Cruz worked on building his own mini-media empire, with podcasts and book deals designed to feed more red meat to the far right.

Just look at Cruz’s social media presence. His Twitter feed is an almost constantly hellish slog of conservative virtue signaling and trolling. Taking another page out of Trump’s playbook, Cruz is almost always ready to fire off his latest shitpost, not to win an argument or pass a bill, but to feed the right-wing fanbase that retweets his trash and celebrates his stupidity. 

In just a few short years, Cruz fully transformed himself from standard-issue United States Senator to chickenshit heel. Cruz isn’t interested in creating policy, he’s only worried about cutting his next promo, staying relevant a little while longer, and keeping his options for higher office open in the future.

Cruz has ruled out a 2024 bid for the presidency, recognizing that his current standing in the polls (low single digits if at all) is a reflection of the fact that he’s made himself a Diet Coke version of Donald Trump. While Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has enchanted the Republican Party as a youthful, MAGA alternative to Trump, Cruz is kind of just there. He couldn’t run a credible campaign against Trump after so thoroughly embracing him for half a decade, and he certainly couldn’t steal Trump’s thunder as the MAGA standard bearer. 

So Cruz is seeking re-election in Texas at a particularly untenable time for his running buddy, the disgraced former president. When Cruz’s first experiment with cutting a promo failed in the 2016 primary, he largely focused on Trump’s noted issues with women, saying that the real estate heir didn’t respect women and that he feared strong women like Cruz’s wife Heidi. 

That tough talk from Cruz has been nowhere to be seen as former President Donald Trump is slated to appear in a Manhattan courtroom on Tuesday to become the first former president of the United States to be indicted for a crime. At the heart of those charges is a six-figure hush money payment that Trump made to Stormy Daniels, an actress who had appeared in adult films that Trump is alleged to have had a brief sexual encounter with.

In the waning days of the 2016 campaign, with the Trump campaign reeling from the release of the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump boasted about being able to sexually assault women because of his fame and wealth, Trump is believed to have instructed his attorney Michael Cohen to quietly pay the settlement to Daniels, which may have constituted a campaign finance violation because Trump worked to conceal the agreement from the public and reimbursed the expense to Cohen after he took office.

It draws an uncomfortable parallel between Trump and his longtime pal, the wrestling executive Vince McMahon. While Trump stands accused of using hush money settlements to hide sexual impropriety, McMahon himself has a checkered past doing just that. McMahon was forced to step away from the company he made a global phenomenon, WWE, last year amid Wall Street Journal reports that he had paid a series of settlements to female employees over a number of decades.

In addition to being forced to step away from an empire that began as a family business, McMahon had to reimburse his company more than $17 million dollars for the settlements. 

The bad headlines don’t seem to have slowed down McMahon, whose decades-long friendship with Trump is well known. In recent months, McMahon returned to lead the company and its efforts to find a buyer. This morning, those efforts paid off when the global entertainment and business behemoth Endeavor announced that they had closed a deal to merge McMahon’s WWE with the legitimate fighting promotion Ultimate Fighting Championships, creating a new global sports entertainment entity worth a reported $20 billion.

The massive, publicly traded corporation announced that McMahon will continue to lead WWE under the new entity. While the deal will require regulatory approval, it seems unlikely that the same senators stealing pages out of McMahon’s playbook will bat an eye at the deal, which is likely to close by the end of the year.

For Cruz, it’s just the latest sign that playing the heel can pay off.

Senior Advisor | + posts

Joe brings over a decade of experience as a political operative and creative strategist to Texas Signal, where he serves as our Senior Advisor and does everything from writing a regular column, Musings, to mentoring our staff and freelancers. Joe was campaign manager for Lina Hidalgo's historic 2018 victory for Harris County Judge and is a passionate sneakerhead.

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