The big question since Donald Trump captured the Republican presidential nomination is: will he capture the party, too? Will his unique ideological combination—such as it is—change the outlook of the party as a whole? And for how long? One good measure of this is Senator Marco Rubio.
Why Rubio? Because he really, really wants to be president. He wants it badly enough to blow with the prevailing wind, and the prevailing wind comes from Trump.
You may remember that in the 2016 primaries, Rubio represented the ideological and stylistic opposite of Trumpism. I called it Rubioism, not because it’s really distinctive to him—it’s a retread of Reaganism—but because he was the only one left in the primaries to carry that message. “Rubio’s approach is to promote the ideas and policies of the right in a way that is optimistic, inspirational, aspirational, and inclusive. He exudes a heady confidence that limited government and free markets are for everyone, and that we should all join together as one America to follow that ideal.”
Now that Trumpism is (for now) the new Republican Party consensus and is absorbing former opponents like National Review‘s Rich Lowry, Rubio can’t be far behind. So last month he flipped to Trump’s side on trade, not only endorsing a trade war with China but urging us to “fight with everything we’ve got.” And now here he is with a manifesto of “national American conservatism,” his attempt to assimilate into the #MAGA Borg.
Ultimately, President Trump won the office I sought. As a participant in that campaign, I can attest that he owes his victory to the fact that he was the candidate who best understood that our political parties no longer appealed to millions of Americans—that being hailed as a “reasonable conservative” by CNN, or a “pure conservative” by conservative think tanks didn’t mean anything to the millions of Americans who felt forgotten and left behind.
They need leaders who appreciate that jobs are not just about making money so they can buy more things; jobs are first and foremost about dignity. They need leaders willing to put the needs of Americans before the needs of other countries. They need leaders who know that the global trade that makes it cheaper to buy something at Walmart is useless if it destroys the jobs that pay enough to buy it….
The American work culture—being able to earn enough to support a family—is under attack from global economic elites out of touch with working Americans. Insulated from the disruptions created by globalization, they care more about the profits multinational corporations can make doing business in China than they do about American workers losing their jobs.
The rest of the piece is more like boilerplate pre-Trump Marco Rubio—but with all of this new rhetoric grafted on top railing against out-of-touch global elites and the threat from China. He no longer exudes the sense of an America taking its first steps to the sunlit uplands of peace and prosperity. Instead, he has learned to appeal to the fear of American decline, to the politics of resentment, and to a populist suspicion of trade and capitalism. To be more exact, he has learned to try to appeal to these things, because I don’t think anyone is going to find it terribly convincing.
I supported Rubio in 2016 because I supported his Reaganesque approach, but I never had any particular illusions about him. He is a politician, and what does a politician do? He responds to the will of the people. If Republican voters want belligerent economic populism, he’ll do his best to give it to them.
So this is not really about Marco Rubio. He’s just the weather vane swinging in the wind to show us the direction of the party. It has been nearly a year and a half since Trump was elected president, and no obvious disaster has occurred. (That will come, if it comes, in November.) Meanwhile, the tribalism that lurks within the heart of every political party has been repeatedly rallied to Trump’s side to defend him against attacks, fair and unfair, from the “liberal media.” It is a counterintuitive truth that the more often Trump gets himself in trouble, the more times the tribe is required to rally to his defense, the more committed they become to him.
Whatever the case, Donald Trump has, for the moment, won the Republican Party’s heart. So it is no wonder that former opponents will try to copy him and that Marco Rubio will try to tick the box of “angry populist rhetoric” where he once tried to tick the boxes of “being hailed as a ‘reasonable conservative’ by CNN, or a ‘pure conservative’ by conservative think tanks.”
But the joke is on Senator Rubio, because I don’t think people are really looking for a box-ticker. One of the big lessons of 2016 is the extent to which electoral preferences are driven as much by personality as by ideology or policy—and how the latter two will be made to bend to accommodate a candidate who captures the personal loyalty of the base. After Trump, maybe the Republican Party will continue clinging to angry populism. But maybe they will fall for a strong new personality who will take them in a better, or worse, direction. I’m betting that leader is not going to be the guy who’s ticking boxes on a list of what he thinks the voters wanted in the last election.