Tonight was supposed to be a show of strength for the Trump campaign and a show of unity for the Republican party. The convention program called for a parade of Trump’s vanquished primary rivals to endorse him, in escalating order of the delegates they’d won: first Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, then Florida senator Marco Rubio, and finally the runner-up, Texas Senator Ted Cruz.
The first two speeches went according to plan. Walker delivered an impassioned endorsement of Trump and indictment of Hillary Clinton. Rubio chimed in along similar lines, albeit not in person, but rather through a short, somewhat subdued video. Then Ted Cruz took the stage to thunderous applause—and that’s when everything fell apart.
The iconoclastic Texas lawmaker congratulated Trump for securing the party’s nomination, then never mentioned his name again. Instead, Cruz pivoted to his principles for conservative governance—from limited government to fealty to the Constitution—that he had insisted throughout the primary that Trump did not share. “Freedom means religious freedom, whether you are Christian or Jew, Muslim or atheist,” Cruz said, in a surprisingly centrist appeal that many observers saw as a gesture toward an eventual 2020 presidential run. “Gay or straight, the Bill of Rights protects the rights of all of us to live according to our conscience.”
But if those inclusive overtures were unexpected, they were nothing compared to what came next. “To those listening, please, don’t stay home in November,” Cruz entreated, in what appeared to be the perfect pivot to endorse Trump. Instead, he pointedly refused to do so. “Stand, and speak, and vote your conscience,” he said. “Vote for candidates up and down the ticket who you trust to defend our freedom and to be faithful to the Constitution.”
This unexpected turn initially evoked both cheers and boos from the divided crowd of delegates. But as Cruz continued in this vein, the heckling became louder, with a reported assist from Trump staff who were tasked with whipping up boos.
In the end, a Cruz speech that was supposed to last 10 minutes went on for 23. Throughout, Trump’s family sat stony-faced in the hall, without applauding. Finally, as Cruz approached his conclusion and the boos crescendoed, Trump himself entered the arena to steal the spotlight and effectively photobomb the finale of Cruz’s address.
After Cruz exited, the outrage began.
Felt legitimately frightening being in a room watching that much hate directed at one person inside. Unreal.
— Benjy Sarlin (@BenjySarlin) July 21, 2016
HEIDI CRUZ escorted out by security as crowd gets angry at Cruz for his speech. One Trump supporter shouting “Goldman Sachs!” at her
— Manu Raju (@mkraju) July 21, 2016
Angry Ken Cuccinelli escorting Heidi Cruz out as Trump supporters yell at her pic.twitter.com/G6USuhoSx2
— Graham Moomaw (@gmoomaw) July 21, 2016
As one presidential historian put it:
Never seen anything quite like this.
— Michael Beschloss (@BeschlossDC) July 21, 2016
Outside the hall, however, others lauded Cruz for maintaining the courage of his convictions in the face of a hostile crowd and overwhelming political pressure:
Never said this before & will probably never say it again. But tonight @SenTedCruz is my hero. Weathering boos for pointed non-endorsement.
— Max Boot (@MaxBoot) July 21, 2016
It’s possible that this hurts Cruz in 2020. It’s possible it helps him. Who knows? The future is unwritten. The point is: Keep your honor.
— Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) July 21, 2016
The evening concluded with the maiden address by Trump’s vice presidential nominee, Mike Pence, who delivered a serviceable if predictable performance. But Cruz had ensured that the talk of the night would be his unprecedented refusal to pay fealty to the nominee—and the unprofessionalism of a Trump campaign that ceded him the stage to do it.