As the reality of Donald Trump’s nomination descends upon the minds of the GOP’s less obviously crazypants voters, a powerful strain of what-if-ism has elevated Marco Rubio’s campaign beyond its pitiful quantitative results. Former Bush donors, conservative columnists, and, in the pages of the Washington Post, a liberal “political theorist” from Harvard University are all arguing that Trump must be stopped — and that Marco Rubio is the candidate to do it.
Because math alone doesn’t make this feat seem especially likely (remember, Rubio isn’t even the second-place GOP candidate right now), pundits have gotten creative in imagining how this electoral rescue mission might play out: Everyone drops out and endorses Rubio; Democrats who can switch parties in time for their states’ primaries vote for Rubio; Rubio names Cruz as his vice-presidential pick; Rubio names Kasich as his vice-presidential pick; Rubio names Kasich as VP and promises to appoint Cruz to the Supreme Court; and every political bookie’s favorite long-shot option: Rubio sticks it out long enough to fight Trump at a multi-balloted contested convention, in a procedural, and perhaps eventually literal cage match. (Finally, Trump’s WWE experience becomes part of a presidential election!)
What they see in Rubio, and what they desperately want to believe would appeal to a general electorate, is a shinier, more relatable version of the Republican Party. But here’s the problem: It’s still the Republican Party. What’s really odd about the echoing calls for Rubio-to-the-rescue is that they rarely hit upon what, exactly, would be preferable about a Rubio presidency — or even what would bedifferent about it.
Don’t get me wrong. I am as fearful and anxious as the next mammal about the possibilities of President Trump. Style DOES matter in politics; the ability to have conversations without resorting to name-calling and to conduct debates moored in the same basic sense of reality is what enables diplomacy at home and abroad. And Trump’s personal thuggishness enables his supporters in a way that raises not just First Amendment alarms but first-aid ones.
I am not as concerned for my immediate personal safety under a President Rubio administration, and I think his conversations with other world leaders might continue beyond an initial “fuck you.” But policy-wise, Rubio has pledged to carry out some of Trump’s most belligerent and/or reckless ideas.
He’s pro-torture, pro-bulk metadata collection, pro-military engagement with ISIS. Like Trump, he has embraced the Second Amendment as a blanket license for unregulated gun ownership and argued that Americans need weapons to personally defend themselves from terrorism. He has said that law enforcement should shut down not just mosques, but any place where “radicals are being inspired.” He has used the threat of terrorism to justify harsh immigration measures: “When I’m president, if we do not know who you are, and we do not know why you are coming … you are not getting into the United States of America.”
On some key economic and social issues, Rubio stands to the right of Trump. He wants to overturn marriage equality and make abortion illegal even in cases of rape and incest. He wants to completely eliminate the capital gains tax, effectively creating a nearly zero-percent tax bracket for anyone earning most of their income off of investments. No other major presidential candidate in recent times had even contemplated that kind of blatant blow job to the super-rich. Trump (who would benefit YUGELY from such a change) at least has enough awareness to try to sound like a populist.
Even more to the point: Rubio’s gut-level appeal is ultimately the same dubiously derived sense of grievance and unfairness that Cruz and Trump make explicit. Rubio’s most ignominious sound bite — “make no mistake, Barack Obama knows exactly what he’s doing” — was a veiled version of his frequent contention that Obama has “intentionally” made America “weaker.” On the stump, he talks about representing “all of us who feel out of place in our own country,” validating the sense of loss felt by those who think America was once “great,” and now is not, without promising to do anything about it.
Which is probably why he’s losing: Rubio edges right up to the line of taste and dignity, but all he does is tap his boot heel across it. What’s more, an apparently stubborn tether to reality has limited the expansiveness of his promises — at least compared to the next-day-air immediacy of Trump, whose pronouncements about future presidential actions float loftily above the gravitational pull of the Constitution and common sense alike.
Detailing Rubio’s backhanded extremism can generate a kind of grudging respect for Trump. After all, Trump does not try to sneak his authoritarianism or dictatorial impulses by people. Instead, he advertises them: Any American gulag built during the Trump administration will have his name on it as surely as he’d brand a hotel. His admirers read his lack of artifice as authenticity — and why cast an unenthusiastic vote for Trump Lite when you get such a great contact high off the real thing?
Elites’ insistence that Rubio is the solution for their party’s meltdown suggests that they are learning nothing from Trump’s success. I hesitate to believe they’ll learn from his defeat.