In March of 2016, Marco Rubio delivered an eloquent, anguished statement about Donald Trump. He accused the front-runner of goading his supporters to attack their rivals, and of fomenting bigotry against Muslim Americans, whose patriotism Rubio defended.
A similar moment occurred this weekend. Trump supporters in Texas ambushed a busload of Joe Biden campaign supporters, running them off the road and forcing them to cancel a planned campaign event. It may have been just one incident, but the spectacle of a party shutting down an opponent’s campaign event was truly chilling. A world in which this tactic became routine would be fundamentally undemocratic. Even more frightening, if utterly unexpected, was Trump’s response. The president praised the perpetrators, saying “these patriots did nothing wrong” and, after the FBI confirmed it was investigating, demanded the probe be halted.
Rubio, who long ago cast his lot with Trump, had not even a cautionary word about any of this. Instead he joined in with Trump’s goading, recounting the ambush and roaring, “We love what they did!”
Rubio is a talented politician with an instinct for finding his party’s ideological midpoint and locating himself there. (If you underestimate the value of that skill, consider the man who is probably going to defeat Trump.) In the spring of 2016, the midpoint of Republican Party thought considered Donald Trump racist, dangerously unfit for the presidency, and certain to lose in the fall.
The last of these beliefs was falsified in November 2016. The rest have been amply confirmed. Trump has not only displayed in office the racism and fundamental ignorance of public policy that his critics suspected, he has in many ways surpassed their worst fears. Trump’s racist tirades have, if anything, gotten worse — he now describes Muslims who immigrated to the United States legally as children as foreigners and encourages crowds to chant to “Send them back!” Few people in 2016 contemplated that Trump could go through the presidency and continue running a private business that profited from his decisions, shut down congressional oversight, and turn the federal government into a personal apparatus dedicated to self-promotion and harassing his critics.
But if Trump has not changed, or at least not changed for the better, his party’s assessment of him has. The midpoint of Republican thought on the eve of the 2020 election considers Trump a highly effective president who has changed the country for the better. His primary flaw is a compulsive rudeness that unnecessarily alienates voters and subjects his motives to unfair suspicion.
A good sense of how Republicans think about Trump can be seen in a trio of endorsement columns that have appeared the last couple days, by the Wall Street Journal, former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer, and former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen. (The Journal does not endorse candidates, but its position on the election comes through perfectly clear in its scathing attack on Joe Biden as an existential threat, combined with its mostly positive assessment of Trump.)
The three columns embody the mainstream Republican elite view of Trump. All three contain complaints about the president’s comportment and demeanor while praising his substantive record. “Trump says a lot of things that dismay even his supporters,” Thiessen acknowledges. “But what if we turned off our TVs, stopped looking at Twitter and looked at what he has done in office over the past four years?” Likewise, the Journal concedes his “chaotic governance has too often handed his enemies a sword,” but “ first-term accomplishments are real, and better than we expected in 2016.”
Fleischer allows that Trump “can be too hot to handle, insulting people and often making himself the issue, diverting attention from more important policy matters.” However, he insists that Biden is just as bad as Trump. Fleischer summons one example, from 2012: “His shocking allegation amid the 2012 campaign that Republicans under Mitt Romney wanted to place African Americans ‘back in chains’ was one of the worst and lowest race baiting statements ever made, not to mention it was blatantly untrue.” Biden’s one use of an overheated metaphor, eight years ago, is all the evidence Fleischer needs to declare the issue of rudeness a tie: “My choice in the 2020 general election is between a personally offensive outsider who signs good policies and a professionally offensive politician who will turn bad ideas into law. This is why I will vote for Trump.”
Both Trump and Biden have said one or more impolite things over the last eight years. Let’s call it even.
The real trick in the argument all of them make lies in what it ignores. There’s no mention of Trump’s undisguised bigotry, toddler-like unfitness for office, historic levels of corruption, or the refusal to follow basic democratic norms. Rudeness is the one flaw they can concede, because it is shallow enough to get past. They cannot admit that the president’s racism and authoritarianism are either acceptable or desirable.
Rubio’s value as a politician is barometric. He has learned that the voters he represents adore Trump not despite his racism and authoritarianism, but because of those things. And he has learned, too, that the party elites who perhaps might have screened out candidates who went too far in that direction will go along with it, first grudgingly, and then contentedly. Rubio will probably run for president again someday, and the lesson he’s drawn from his 2016 failure is clear. He won’t be out-demagogued again.