Marco Rubio came out of Super Tuesday looking a lot like Walter Mondale. The 1984 Democratic nominee won only a single state, Minnesota, and the District of Columbia in his campaign against Ronald Reagan. In this year’s contest for the Republican nomination, Rubio likewise can only boast of winning in Minnesota and the D.C. area—not in the District itself, which has yet to vote, but in the Northern Virginia suburbs, which on Tuesday brought Rubio within three points of Virginia’s actual winner, Donald Trump.
Trump fended off a close challenge from John Kasich to win Vermont as well. His successes in Georgia, Massachusetts, Alabama, Tennessee and Arkansas weren’t close—and in all but Georgia, Rubio finished third behind Ted Cruz or Kasich. Cruz, as expected, won Texas, plus Oklahoma and Alaska. Rubio placed third in all three, and with less than 20 percent of the vote in Texas he missed the threshold for receiving any delegates from the Lone Star State.
Cruz has now beaten Trump four times and has the second largest number of delegates heading into the winner-take-all battles of March 15. But a Twitter campaign to stop the front-runner—#NeverTrump—hasn’t rallied support to Cruz. Instead, the movement conservatives who live in those Northern Virginia suburbs that gave Rubio his strongest show of support have directed their media firepower and donor connections to making the Florida senator the party’s nominee. To hell with what voters—whether Trump’s or Cruz’s—say about it.
Rubio’s record of failure makes him an implausible nominee at this point, but not an impossible one. And the gurus of the professional right have a plan. It happens to be the same plan routinely employed by the left against conservatives of all stripes: branding the enemy as extreme, fascistic and racist. That Donald Trump is indeed given to authoritarian pronouncements—about everything from Muslims’ religious liberties to Americans’ freedom of the press—and is shamelessly politically incorrect makes the "enlightened" right’s task easier.
Attacks once used against Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan are now deployed by Beltway consultants and neoconservative publicists against Trump. When, oh when, will Goldwater denounce the John Birch Society? What does Reagan say about the Ku Klux Klan’s endorsing him? Why won’t Trump “disavow” David Duke—and when did he stop beating his wife?
Rush Limbaugh complains that Democrats never have to “disavow” Al Sharpton, but that misses the point. The proper analogy isn’t between Sharpton and Duke or the Klan but between Sharpton and the establishment conservatives who are now as quick as Sharpton ever was to exploit accusations of racism for political gain. Trump’s movement-conservative enemies, to borrow a line from Marco Rubio, know exactly what they are doing: they’ve weaving a tale familiar and comforting to the mainstream media, in the hopes that its bias against the right can be harnessed to destroy a right-wing rival.
In Virginia it almost worked. With Hillary Clinton ally Terry McAuliffe as the commonwealth’s governor, there was never any risk that Bernie Sanders would win Virginia’s Democratic primary. That freed up plenty of liberal Democrats to cross over and vote Republican in the name of stopping racism and fascism—by backing Rubio over Trump. Just how many Democrats did so is anybody’s guess, but conditions in Virginia were optimal for Rubio’s strategy. Yet still it came up short.
Rubio’s other line of attack has been to imitate Trump, nastily insinuating that the front-runner suffers from incontinence and raising questions about the measure of his manhood. Trump has all along mocked Rubio’s sweatiness and evident dehydration during debates and other times of stress; he’s “a choke artist,” says Trump. Rubio’s resort to similar tactics undercuts the idea that Trump is just too vulgar to be president. But derision may still succeed where robotically recited talking points failed. And combined with a media onslaught on the theme of racism, perhaps Rubio really can close the gap with Trump in the major races between now and March 15, including the all-important battle in his home state of Florida. Rubio did cut Trump’s double-digit advantage in Virginia down to less than three points in the end. But then again, other states don’t have anything like the culture or the professional conservative class of the DC suburbs.
And the Trump revolution—a populist uprising against the Beltway’s mandarins—has been a long time coming. Ron Paul’s insurgent 2008 presidential campaign, followed by his stronger performance in 2012, was an early warning. Another was the spate of defeats Tea Party candidates inflicted on establishment senators and senate hopefuls from Delaware to Utah to Indiana in the years between 2010 and 2014. Movement conservatism was paralyzed in such cases, impotent to choose between a populist base that demanded candidates like Christine O’Donnell and the reality that such candidates could not always, or even usually, win.
That the grassroots right had fully slipped the leash of conservatism’s kingpins was demonstrated to dramatic effect two years ago, when Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor was defeated by a primary challenge from a political neophyte, economics professor Dave Brat. Then last year the antiestablishment right drew blood even higher up the chain of command, by prompting House Speaker John Boehner to resign.
None of these developments were instigated by movement conservatives—who indeed were none too pleased by most of them.
And now the insurrection has reached the presidential level, with Republican voters from New Hampshire to South Carolina, Massachusetts to Alabama, choosing Trump over establishment and movement-conservative champions like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. (The fact that the Republican establishment and movement conservatism tend to settle on the same candidates—a Bush or Rubio—in itself says everything.) For Republican voters in 2016, conservatism no longer means whatever National Review or the party apparatchiks in Northern Virginia say it means. Populist or nationalist voters now want conservatism to mean what’s good for themselves—not for the donor class and its pet ideologues.
If Rubio can’t stop Trump the establishment might yet try to deny him the nomination at a contested convention. But even if they succeed in that, or if Trump goes down to ignominious defeat in November, the realignment of the right will not be arrested. Marco Rubio puts a fresh Hispanic face on shopworn policies of the party of Bush. But a cosmetic change is not nearly enough to save the establishment right from reaping what its policies of war and globalization have sown.
Daniel McCarthy is the editor of The American Conservative.
Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore.