When Florida Senator Marco Rubio dropped out of the Republican presidential primary Tuesday night, he expressed pride in having run an uplifting, forward-looking campaign.
It would be more accurate to say that as he came to accept inevitable defeat in his home-state primary to Donald Trump, and as Trump rallies descended into violence, Rubio wound down his candidacy by trying to reclaim as much of his dignity as possible. Most political commentators will remember his week of puerile anti-Trump jokes as the low point of his campaign, but Rubio really abandoned any semblance of positivity months ago only to find it again in the final stage of grief.
It’s easy to forget that Rubio’s campaign floundered until he adopted a dark, conspiratorial message in January—about Hillary Clinton’s supposedly calculated lies to the families of Benghazi victims; about President Obama’s supposedly deliberate efforts to sabotage the United States and weaken it “on the global stage”—at which point his appeal within the party (among both voters and elites) began to rise.
This should have alerted Rubio to something that’s been clear to many of us on the outside of Republican politics, looking in: that the rise of Donald Trump is overwhelmingly a function of dynamics within the Republican Party, not of some greater national decadence. That Trump is the consequence of the right’s wild-eyed and unprincipled reaction to Barack Obama’s presidency—a fostered, apocalyptic denialism and defeatism of which Trump is both the apotheosis and the promised remedy.
Instead, Rubio exits the race clinging to an extremely conventional conservative wisdom: that there’s blame to go around for Trump, and that much of it falls on President Obama, our education system, our media, and Trump’s pre-existing fame.
After a series of violent incidents at Trump rallies this week, Rubio held an impromptu Saturday press conference, which lit up the Internet for its unusual pathos. When asked “What do you think this means for the future of the Republican Party?” Rubio couldn’t help but deflect some of the blame away from the GOP.
“I think the question is what does it mean for the future of America,” Rubio said.
“It’s not just the Republican Party. Look, Barack Obama has used divisive language as well.” Rubio did go on to distinguish between Obama’s rhetoric and Trump’s outright incitement. But in his analysis—or the analysis he’s willing to enunciate publicly—what happened to him in this campaign, and what continues to happen within the Republican Primary, is a symptom of American peril, or bipartisan declension, rather than of rot within conservative political culture specifically.
This analysis prevails in the GOP despite the fact that the Democratic coalition, though divided over its future, is deciding between two primary candidates who are widely respected within the party; that Democrats are still strongly united behind the Democratic president, who is flirting with 50 percent popularity; and that polls showing the public believes the nation is headed in the wrong direction are driven entirely by a catastrophic sense of dread among 90 percent of Republicans, while a strong majority of Democrats believe America is on the right track.
We don’t need to belabor, again, all the decisions and tactics driving this incredible contrast. But the fact that Republicans don’t have a handle on it is also driving their indecision about how to handle the fact Trump is closing in rapidly on their party’s nomination.
Some conservatives are contemplating a third-party run against Trump. Others are looking into cannibalizing a smaller, existing party. Yet more are contemplating narrower strategies in order to limit down-ballot losses with Trump at the top of the ticket. And, of course, others are committed to seeing this election through as Republicans, Trump or no—and many of them have endorsed him. Even Rubio couldn’t quite bring himself to rescind his pledge to support the GOP nominee.
Trump, of course, could never win a Democratic primary on his current platform. He probably couldn’t win one on a different platform. The best a demagogue of Trump’s recklessness on the left could hope for in Democratic politics would be to commandeer a down-ballot race—and if that ever happened, the party would abandon him.
If Republicans were more clear-eyed about Trump, and committed to the kind of reforms that would foreclose another Trump, they would abandon him somehow, and do it in a way that reflects real recognition of their complicity in his rise. Instead, it seems much more likely that Trump and Republican Party leaders will approach each other gingerly, like dogs sniffing each other’s hindquarters.
Republicans will attempt to reason with him, dial him down a notch, and tout his strengths as a general-election opponent against Hillary Clinton. Once the Democratic campaign against him begins in earnest, however, many Republicans will distance themselves from him in an organic fashion, beginning with vulnerable, in-cycle Republicans in swing states and districts.
In a way, there’s a strong strategic logic pointing to the the GOP just trundling into a massive general-election defeat and then beginning the rebuilding process on the other side of 2016 without actively kicking Trumpistas out of the party, in the hope that they can be reabsorbed into the Republican fold in future elections.
We shouldn’t rule this out, either, because very powerful forces in the Republican Party want to put this Trump mess behind them and carry on as they have for the past eight years—as if the institution was basically sound until Trump wrecked it. Indeed, that’s what you’d expect based on Republican intimations that Trump is a fluke, or a force that emerged from the ether, rather than from the primordial soup of GOP grievance politics.
Until they dispel once and for all with this fiction, Republicans will be unable to wean themselves from the politics that gave rise to Trump, that led Marco Rubio to accuse Obama of trying to destroy the country, and that will leave their party vulnerable to being overtaken by another Trump in the future.