Editor's note: LZ Granderson, who writes a weekly column for CNN.com, was named Journalist of the Year by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association and is a 2011 Online Journalism Award finalist for commentary. He is a senior writer and columnist for ESPN the Magazine and ESPN.com and the 2009 winner of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation award for online journalism. Follow him on Twitter at @locs_n_laughs.
(CNN) -- It seems fitting that Herman Cain has surged into the top tier of the GOP candidates just as "Celebrity Apprentice" announces its new cast for the upcoming season.
I suspect a year from now the two will be one.
After all, reality TV is at its best when there's a villain we can't take our eyes off of, and over the past two weeks, can you think of anyone who one has benefited more from playing the bad guy than Cain? Back in August he received less than 10% of the Iowa straw poll vote. At the beginning of September, he was still near the bottom in the polls. Now he's a front-runner.
How'd he do it?
By imitating Omarosa -- the villain from the first season of "The Apprentice," who has since made a career out of being bad on reality TV.
You see there are three things the media absolutely loves: white women (preferably in jail or missing), a sex scandal (preferably with photos or text messages) and inflammatory comments (preferably involving black people, so we can quote Jesse Jackson).
The latter's particularly effective in raising a person's profile because like with reality TV, the more controversial things you say, the more screen time you get, the more popular you become.
This is why I believe Herman Cain stopped running for president on September 28.
That was the day he went on CNN's "The Situation Room" and told Wolf Blitzer he believed the reason blacks don't vote for Republicans is because they're "brainwashed." Days later he went on ABC's "This Week" with Christiane Amanpour and repeated himself. Sunday he went back to CNN and told Candy Crowley that he didn't "believe there is racism in this country today that holds anybody back in a big way," and by Monday he was in the zone, telling Fox's Sean Hannity that he "left the Democrat plantation a long time ago."
The more inflammatory his statements were, the more television time he received, and the more his numbers climbed. He's not campaigning for president; he's auditioning to be the next pop culture bad boy, and he's using the media to do it.
Now, some pundits say Cain catapulted from curious long shot to unlikely front-runner because of the growing popularity of his 9-9-9 tax plan, which calls for a 9% national sales tax, a 9% personal income tax rate and a 9% corporate tax rate. I say he's been touting that plan of his for months, but he didn't move the needle until he started tossing the poor and the black community under the bus two weeks ago.
Since the change in strategy, everyone from Cornel West to Harry Belafonte to yes, Jesse Jackson (told you we love him) has taken time to condemn Cain, which now enables him to frame himself as a victim of internalized racism. That tack will certainly keep this routine of his going for at least another week.
And yes, I said routine.
Cain may like to brag about having never held office before but that's because he lost his bids for president in 2000 and U.S. Senate in 2004, not because he's new to politics. (And you don't rise to the level of CEO without playing politics.)
When Texas Gov. Rick Perry took heat because the N-word was reportedly being painted on a rock on a hunting property his family leased, Cain knew how to get in front of a camera and talk about how offensive that word was to the black community. So if you're a Cain supporter, don't be fooled: That man is not socially tone-deaf. The candidate who knew to take advantage of Perry's misfortune is the same man who knew that hurling a grenade like the word "plantation" in the context of race would raise eyebrows.
Would get him on camera.
Maybe even change his fortunes.
Now, there is certainly a thoughtful conversation to be had about the voting tendencies of the black community, but that conversation does not seem to be of interest to Cain. No, when a former talk-show host repeatedly chooses the language he did in describing the voting habits of an entire race of people, he knows exactly what he's doing -- and it is not seeking an understanding.
It's trying to start a fight.
And Cain's in a unique situation in that this particular fight is one only he seems qualified to fight.
A white GOP candidate calling blacks "brainwashed" on national TV is committing political suicide.
But a black GOP candidate who says such a thing is controversial, but as Cain has proven, far from dead.
In fact, in some circles he becomes beloved because he is able to be a voice for the voiceless in the GOP: the white people who are tired of hearing about race and slavery but are not comfortable saying so in public for fear of being deemed a racist. Cain may feel that blacks are not as well-versed on the candidates as they should be, but his word choice suggests his primary concern is himself. He knows the tone of his rhetoric will not win over many black voters.
The reality is he doesn't care.
He stopped running for president two weeks ago.
Today he is trying to raise his public persona so he'll be in a better position to sell books, do high-priced speaking engagements and maybe join the cast of "Celebrity Apprentice" as a quick-witted bad boy who is not afraid to tell it like it is.
But the thing is, if Cain really wanted to tell it like it is, for his next interview, he would lean back, let out a big ol' belly laugh and begin to share with the American people how he is using the media to play us all for fools.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of LZ Granderson.