The list of things for which one might muster some respect for Senator Ted Cruz is short. On some level, I think he knows this. (He’s smart, right? Everyone insists he’s smart!) I think that’s why he often tries to scrape up some grudging goodwill by playing a good sport, like when he went along with the meme that he was the Zodiac Killer, or when he gamely offered his Simpsons impressions to BuzzFeed. He’s sat down for interviews with me three times! Back in the more-forgiving pre-Trump years, he went on Stephen Colbert’s show and Seth Meyers’s; he played basketball (after a fashion) with Jimmy Kimmel. And Monday, he went on the ABC talk show The View.

You might think that daytime television would be a relatively gentle spot to promote a book, even if that book is Cruz’s latest, Justice Corrupted: How the Left Weaponized Our Legal System. But the quintet of relatable ladies who received Cruz have repeatedly mocked him over the years, and though their politics vary somewhat, they are generally anti-Trump and pro–January 6 committee. That Trump would somehow try to thwart the committee’s subpoena was, in fact, what they were talking about before Cruz joined them. I cannot prove, but I suspect, that whoever booked Cruz knew they were putting the senator in the lionesses’ den. Cruz must have known it, too.

To begin, Ana Navarro referenced his reception at the Astros-Yankees game in New York on Sunday evening (“Go back to Cancún!” was the nicest thing the crowd shouted at him.) His appearance wrapped with Whoopi Goldberg interrupting one of Cruz’s defenses of Trump mid-sentence to wave a copy of his book at the audience and tell them, almost apologetically, “You’re getting a copy.” He was briefly interrupted by climate protesters; since everyone on the stage ignored them, that was probably least hostile exchange of the hour. 

I don’t think he answered a single question. Sara Haines asked what he would say to “voters who say that economic cycles are to be expected . . . but it’s fundamentally un-American that a woman’s rights could fluctuate from state to state?” His response was about inflation. Alyssa Farah Griffin, the former Trump White House aide, asked him if Joe Biden’s election was legitimate. Cruz said, “Biden is the president.”

When Navarro ran a clip of Cruz denouncing Trump for insulting his wife in 2016 and asked him, “Were you lying then, or are you lying now?,” Cruz said he had a responsibility to voters to “do my job” no matter who was in office. This is a great answer, if more credibly claimed by any number of elected officials who define their jobs as something other than “keep Trump happy at any cost.” (He also said, “I’ll tell you, Heidi laughed” when Trump berated her. Nothing but us people who can take a joke here!)

Most of the questions were about Cruz’s toadying to Trump. Even the Republican Griffin held his feet to the fire (“I’ve made my peace with those decisions,” she contritely noted). She followed her admission that she had supported Cruz in 2016 with a pointed contrast between his lip service to the Constitution and his complicity in seeking to overturn the 2020 election: “How,” she asked, “can you be okay with an undemocratic action of trying to disenfranchise eighty million voters?” (His nonanswer: “Read the chapter [in my book] on January 6.”)

I find myself wanting to give Cruz credit for bearing up under the assault when he sits down in enemy territory like this—but, then, that’s exactly what he wants. That’s his calculation when he accepts these invitations. At some point, such gambits stop being signs that you’re able to take a punch and start looking more like slip-and-fall insurance fraud. 

His pasted-on grin didn’t waver. His body language conveyed the practiced casualness of someone who works on these things in front of a mirror. And perhaps he had. In his obligatory campaign-prepping memoir of 2015, Cruz relates a story whose first half would resonate with anyone who grew up as one of the smartest kids in the class (and here I will shyly raise my hand). Like many of us once deemed “gifted and talented,” he had trouble reining in his enthusiasm for—and pride in—schoolwork. I am equally familiar with Cruz’s other acknowledged weakness: being “lousy at sports.” As he puts it, “[t]hat mix was . . . not a recipe for popularity.”

Relatable, right? Then he goes and reminds you that he is not just like you and me; he is Ted Cruz. “Midway through junior high school,” he writes, “I decided that I’d had enough of being the unpopular nerd. I remember . . . asking a friend why I wasn’t one of the popular kids. I ended up staying up most of the night thinking about it. ‘Okay, well, what is it the popular kids do? I will consciously emulate that.’ ”

This is the story I tell when people ask me what I make of Cruz’s obdurate unlikability, though it also pulls at least a single heartstring for me. Many of us know what it’s like to fret over being unpopular. What makes Cruz come off like an alien (or the Zodiac Killer) is not just the diffidence of his plan (“emulate”!) but that to this day, he believes it was an unqualified success.

“I tried to be less cocky. When I received a test exam back, even though I’d probably done well, I would simply put it away. I wouldn’t look at it. It wasn’t rocket science, but it was interesting to see what these sorts of small conscious changes could produce.”

Again, there’s something vaguely human about learning not to crow about your good grades, an impression he promptly ruins by talking about his social life like it was a lab experiment. Cruz also appears to not understand that a fiftysomething U.S. senator bragging about cracking the popularity code back in junior high might mean that he’s even more insufferable now than he used to be.

Ted Cruz makes a guest appearance on The View
Ted Cruz with the hosts of The View on October 24, 2022.Lou Rocco/ABC

The nadir of the View segment was probably when, after repeated questions and outbursts from the hosts about the GOP’s acquiescence to election deniers, Cruz plucked from his coat a folded sheet of white paper and began to read examples of Democrats who have at some point called election results into question. By this stage, there was a lot of overlapping shouting around the table, so I didn’t get all of what he was saying, though I heard at least two references to Hillary Clinton and Biden criticizing the 2000 election. 

Let’s leave aside the hollowness of that supposed “gotcha” (unless you remember something about the aftermath of Al Gore’s concession that I don’t). Let’s talk about Cruz attempting to settle an argument by pulling out a set of prop notes from his pocket like he’s Matlock

Before you tell me that, well, it may have been an honest-to-God memory aid for the senator: nope, nuh-uh. Ted Cruz does not need his mind jogged when it comes to his arguments. He has delivered a filibuster. He was Texas’s solicitor general. In middle school, he went around to Kiwanis and Rotary clubs and recited the Constitution from memory. Cruz closed with “a patriotic poem,” “I Am an American,” set to “rousing music.” (How was this kid ever unpopular?)

So, his notes were a prop. And this gesture says more about Cruz than he intended it to, though, to be honest, I’m not sure what the intended message was. Did he think that the brandishing of a physical document would stun his opponents into silence? Or make his case more legitimate? (“I was unsure if I believed Ted Cruz, but then I saw he had his points written on a piece of paper.”) 

But his intentions were overshadowed, once again, by his being so thoroughly craven, so thoroughly driven to succeed that he can’t even pretend humility. He knew he was walking into an ambush, he knew he’d need backup of some kind, and he thought the paper-in-the-breast-pocket thing would work. He didn’t want to listen; he wanted to win. He didn’t go on The View to show the libs he could laugh along with them. He went on The View to own them.

It is a testament to our current state of thoughtless partisanship that this seems to have worked. Today, conservative sites are carrying clips of his View appearance with titles such as “Ted Cruz Crushes ‘The View’ Hosts & Triggers Woke Audiences” and “Watch ‘The View’ Hosts Lose It When Ted Cruz Shows Them Facts.” These reactions don’t suggest admiration or affection for Cruz so much as an artificial-intelligence program doing a search-and-replace for the name of whatever conservative personality most recently managed to get liberals mad. Cruz’s appearance was a form of “emulating the popular kids,” when you’ve decided the only kind of popularity that counts is getting on Fox News.

For his part, Cruz has learned enough to not spell out his desire to be liked. No, he went on The View because—as he told Fox News(!)—conservatives need to be “reaching a much wider audience.” Reaching, but not respecting, because Cruz also pointed out that his hosts were more rattled by the hecklers than he was and that he found Whoopi Goldberg’s refusal to engage about the “antifa riots” so ridiculous “I just had to laugh.”

It makes me sad to think about young Ted Cruz being so hung up on overachieving that he couldn’t even frame making friends as anything other than an assignment to ace. I get less sad when I remember that’s still how Ted Cruz thinks about other people—and when I think about to what ends he hopes to enlist the popularity he seeks.

Ana Marie Cox is a columnist for the Cut and the author of Dog Days: A Novel and a forthcoming memoir.