I’ve argued from the beginning of the Trump phenomenon that he is a mere symptom, not a cause, of the intellectual rot within the Republican Party. In a medical setting, he’s what the doctors would call an “opportunistic infection,” a malady that couldn’t take hold in a healthy host but that thrives in a host with an already weakened immune system.
Marco Rubio, the great slight hope of the waning Republican establishment, one of the supposed “responsible Republicans,” basically confirmed that diagnosis this week in a speech to an American Legion group in New Hampshire.
“It’s now abundantly clear,” Rubio told the Legion crowd on Monday. “Barack Obama has deliberately weakened America.”
Think about that, because it’s quite an accusation and Rubio — as carefully scripted a candidate as we’ve seen in a while — knew exactly what he was doing in leveling it. He wasn’t arguing that Obama’s policies had been flawed in either concept or execution, leaving the country weaker as a result. He was claiming intent. He was going to motive. Rubio explicitly argued that the twice-elected president of the United States, our commander in chief, set out to deliberately weaken the country because he believes it is a force for evil in the world.
We’ve always had people who said or implied such things, of course. Cynthia McKinney, the former Georgia congresswoman, believed that George W. Bush deliberately allowed the attacks of 9/11. A couple of generations back, some had muttered that FDR had exposed our fleet at Pearl Harbor to Japanese attack so he could draw us into World War II, or that Ike Eisenhower was a “conscious, dedicated agent of the communist conspiracy,” as the Birchers used to put it. But they have typically been fringe figures, people whose irresponsible rhetoric ensured that they were kept far from the levers of power.
The difference is — the sign of decay is — that Rubio is a leading presidential candidate, indeed someone viewed as his party’s probable mainstream champion. And he demonstrates that once you’ve made it acceptable in your party to spread such messages by dog-whistle, you have no standing to complain when someone else barges in and does so via bullhorn.
It’s also important to recognize just how corrosive such allegations are not just to the Republican Party but to democratic self-governance. In the end, our system is founded on mutual trust; without it, the Constitution is a dead letter. Republicans and Democrats will always fight and bicker, but if we accept the errors of the other party as errors made in good faith, we can also accept our victories and defeats and go on as fellow Americans to argue again tomorrow.
But once one party succumbs to the notion that the other is guilty of treachery, of actively trying to undermine the whole country, as Rubio implies, the system cannot function. In such an environment, the compromise that fuels a constitutional republic becomes redefined as collaboration with the enemy. Faith in the system disappears; radical responses are legitimized. And the door is opened to the likes of Trump.
It also explains how you end up with armed men and women seizing control of government facilities and demanding that the usurpers in Washington be overthrown by force. Because if you have been told over and over again that those in control are not just inept but out to “deliberately weaken America”, why wouldn’t you? Why shouldn’t you? It’s practically your patriotic duty.
Once unleashed, such an attitude can be difficult to contain, in part because any hack with a microphone or website can spread it and benefit by it. What we’ve learned to date in this primary season is that those old-school elements within the Republican Party that still appreciate its danger — Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Lindsey Graham, etc. — have lost the will or capability to corral it, and the likes of Rubio have surrendered to it. If it is to be consigned once again to the fringes, where it belongs, the American voter will have to resoundingly reject it.
I hope that’s what happens. But we’ll see.