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Ted Cruz Is the Biggest Protester in Cleveland

Why his villainous non-endorsement of Donald Trump was the grand theater we’ve been waiting for

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Cleveland is demanding our attention. From the Republican National Convention to the Cavaliers’ NBA championship, the Indians’ recent dominance to a surprising tech scene, we’re thinking about the city more than ever. This week,​ The Ringer ​is exploring why Cleveland matters.

My favorite part of Ted Cruz’s shivving of Donald Trump last night was the most subtle. After every speech at the Republican National Convention, the speaker waves to the crowd, then exits. A few feet from the stage’s edge, the speaker inevitably pauses, turns back to the crowd, and gives one final wave before vanishing.

After his non-endorsement of Trump, Cruz left the stage to thunderous boos. You might think he’d skip the bonus wave. But he did it! He waved and even gave a mini-bow to the crowd. It was like a waiter saluting customers who’d just thrown their food on the floor. Was it the robot-pol within Cruz executing a predetermined subroutine? Or was it the ultimate troll lapping up the chaos he’d unleashed on the floor of the convention?

I like to think it’s the latter. The GOP convention had been free of large-scale activism. That changed Wednesday night. Ted Cruz is now the biggest protester in Cleveland.

It’s hard to remember, but Cruz actually took the stage to thunderous applause. He still has lots of fans in the GOP rank-and-file. He led with a tribute to fallen Dallas police sergeant Michael Smith, which put any dissent on ice until the closing moments of the speech.

There were plenty of clues the non-endorsement was coming. At a rally Wednesday afternoon, David Weigel of the Washington Post found Cruz quoting give-’em-hell lines from the movie Patton: “I feel very much those sentiments expressed by Patton, that when we are old … we can say, we stood with the people who were fighting for this country.” Someone in the crowd shouted “2020!” — which is clearly at the front and center of Cruz’s decision.

Furthermore, The New York Times reported that the Trumpites saw the text of Cruz’s speech at 6:30 p.m. They knew what was coming, too.

Cruz may have been able to skirt the issue, like Paul Ryan. But at the beginning of the night, talk-show host Laura Ingraham went out onstage and challenged the “boys with wounded feelings and bruised egos” — a.k.a., Cruz — to “honor your pledge to support Donald Trump now. Tonight.” The delegates went crazy.

On a normal night, a talk-show host lecturing a U.S. senator would have been a huge story. After last night, it’ll be forgotten. But Ingraham took the issue and put it front and center. By the time Cruz spoke, the audience was primed.

“To those listening, please, don’t stay home in November,” Cruz said near the end of the speech. Would he do it…? “Stand, and speak, and vote your conscience, vote for candidates up and down the ticket who you trust …”

A brief boo was overwhelmed by a pro-Cruz cheer from the Texas delegation. But then Cruz did the weirdest thing. He inserted a gigantic, pregnant pause. On the video, it times out at about 40 seconds. It gave the crowd time to regroup and start yelling, “En-dorse Trump! En-dorse Trump!” Why’d Cruz stop? Why allow the delegates to work themselves into a frenzy? It’s the best evidence that Cruz wanted the reaction, or else realized it was unavoidable.

Rep. Peter King of New York — who on his best night makes Trump look like Walter Mondale — said later, “He’s a liar … [Cruz] disqualified himself from ever being considered for president of the United States.” A delegate told USA Today that Cruz “could not even bring himself to save our nation from Hillary.” Heidi Cruz was rushed from the arena. An attendee reportedly almost attacked Cruz.

That wasn’t even the most surreal part of the speech. As Cruz motored through his non-endorsement, the screens in Quicken Loans Arena began flashing, as if they were wired to Donald Trump’s brain and were switching off every time he blinked in anger. Eventually, they went out altogether. Later in the night, one of them showed an 8-bit version of Newt Gingrich.

And there was more! With a few minutes left in the speech, a weird murmur echoed through the hall. Delegates on the floor suddenly turned and looked toward the VIP section. TV anchors leaned out of the sets that are suspended above the floor. At first, I thought it was a Code Pink protester. (There were a handful on Monday night, one of whom was subdued by the president of Bikers for Trump.) But it was Trump himself! He was entering during the windup of a speech he knew would humiliate him.

A few minutes later, Cruz was executing that half-bow and exiting stage right as the heel.

Every four years, Twitter has fun mocking political journalists who pine for an old-fashioned “brokered” convention. The idea underlying this yearning is that politics as we know it is scripted, and the only thing we journalists have to judge is the slickness of the packaging.

Trump’s convention has a no-seatbelts quality. It’s the kind of convention where the PA announcer can say, “Ladies and gentlemen, the vice president …” — and you think, Cheney? Quayle? Nope, it turns out to be the vice president of the Eric Trump Foundation. In prime time.

It’s the kind of convention where Eric Trump can name-check everyone in his family except Barron. This isn’t even mentioning the plagiarizing ballerina, Scott Baio, Andy Wist, The Kiss, and “my dream was to be a circus performer.” (The only sure thing is that every night we hear REO Speedwagon’s “Roll With the Changes” sung by a member of the house band who looks like “Weird Al” Yankovic.)

Political writers ought to rejoice. The 2016 convention is not brokered but broken. This is the one we’ve been waiting for.