As Darth Trump’s death squadron ascends from South Carolina and streaks across the galaxy, thirsting for more worlds to conquer, the Republican establishment channels Princess Leia and pleads, “Help me, Marco Rubio, you’re our only hope.”
Marco Rubio? Really? The most charitable thing I can say is that this situation is pathetic.
Thanks to the white right-wing evangelicals who dominated Saturday’s crucial primary (67 percent of the voters!), this is what the GOP has been reduced to: a xenophobic hate-peddling vulgarian whose sole agenda is Himself; a religious extremist loathed by one and all, who fights dirty with God on his sleeve; and – here he is, our only hope – a callow freshman senator who thinks that man-made global warming is a myth (despite the seawater bubbling onto the streets of his own south Florida), and whose sole Senate achievement was fleeing from his own immigration reform bill.
This trio makes Mitt Romney looks like Pericles.
But hey, if Republican voters – in all income and ideological categories, according to the exit polls – want to give the nuclear football to a feckless narcissist (true quote: “The only thing I’m a little weak on is my personality, but who the hell cares?”), who are we to diss democracy in action? Although it can be argued that any democracy that makes South Carolina so consequential is a tad flawed in practice. A white right-wing primary electorate is light years from the ideologically and racially diverse American mainstream.
Although, for better or worse, we now have clarity. This is essentially a two-man race, Trump v. Rubio, with Cruz hanging around to snarl at the margins. Cruz indeed took a major hit last night. He had spent a year on the ground in South Carolina, plowing that rich Christian conservative turf, advertising himself as uniquely sympatico – and yet, in the end, his share of those devout whites was a pitiful 26 percent. He finished in third place, behind Rubio, largely because Rubio managed to pick off 21 percent of the folks Cruz sought to cultivate. Cruz may do well in home-state Texas on March 1, but he’s basically dead meat in the diverse big states.
What’s arguably most remarkable is that Trump – the thrice-married, foul-mouthed epitome of greed, gluttony, and other biblical sins – was the top choice of the dominant white evangelicals. I’ve spent considerable time in South Carolina over the years, talking to faith-based voters, and they were always fixated on finding a candidate who lived their values. So how was it possible, this time, that a plurality of 34 percent gravitated to the likes of Trump? Why did so many of them place their moral principles in long-term parking?
Because anger and fear can make people do things they’d normally not dream of contemplating. Just like the largely secular GOP voters in New Hampshire, these South Carolinians are furious at the party establishment and government-as-usual, and they’re freaked about terrorism. They don’t care that Trump tramples all the standard Republican shibboleths, and that much of the time he traffics in incoherence; what matters is that he’s a TV star and they revel in his shtick. Basically, they just want to smash the furniture and start over. (And build what, exactly? Who knows.)
All of which explains The Fall of the House of Bush. There’s no better metaphor for the changing GOP than the sad spectacle of Jeb turning in his exclamation point.
South Carolina used to be ground zero for the establishment GOP. In 1988, when the senior George Bush had early-season primary problems, South Carolina put him on the path to victory. In 1996, when Bob Dole was getting harassed in the early primaries by pitchfork populist Pat Buchanan, South Carolina gave Dole his wings. In 2000, when the junior George Bush limped out of New Hampshire, having been thrashed there by John McCain, South Carolina did wonders for Dubyah. But not this time. In these roiling waters, the family dynasty sank like a stone. Trump trashed Dubyah’s foreign policy record – until now, a sacred cow – and the voters didn’t care. History has turned a page.
So now the Jeb donor money will likely flow to Rubio, as the last best hope. John Kasich, the Ohio governor, is still a candidate, but it’s clear by now that Republican voters don’t want anyone with actual executive experience. Ben Carson is still a candidate, but it’s clear by now that Republican voters won’t abide his sleepy lunacy. So it’s down to Rubio, and, at least on paper, there’s plenty of time for him to thwart the mogul. Even after Nevada Republicans vote on Tuesday, only four percent of all GOP delegates will have been chosen.
The big question is whether young Rubio is up to the daunting task of trumping Trump. Just two weeks ago he was being mocked for his sweaty robotics at a GOP debate – yet now, presto, he’s supposedly poised for liftoff on the basis of winning 22.5 percent of the votes in one unrepresentative southern state. (The columnist Jimmy Breslin was right when he said that politics is “blue smoke and mirrors.”) His tax and budget plan is widely derided as a joke, he’ll continue to be harassed by Cruz for his ex-friendliness toward undocumented immigrants, and Trump will paint him as the establishment’s poster boy, citing the flow of donor money as proof. That could simply strengthen Trump’s outsider “brand.”
Indeed, the other night in South Carolina, Trump gave us a preview of how he’ll handle the lad. Trump was talking about the debate where Rubio was off his game. Welcome to the politics of sweat:
“Marco Rubio, who stood with me, he was with me when he had the meltdown, and I’m telling you, it wasn’t a pretty sight. No, he was standing right there, no, he was soaking wet, I’m telling you. He was wet. I say ‘What the hell’s going on over here?’ I thought he just came out of a swimming pool, he was soaking. I said ‘Look! Wow.’ Said ‘Are you okay?’ When we get in with Putin, we need people that don’t sweat. No, it’s true. We need people that don’t sweat. Can you imagine Putin sitting there and waiting for the meeting and this guy walks in and he’s like a wreck? No, you got to have Trump walk into that meeting folks, we’ll do very nicely. We’re gonna do very nicely.”
We’re in uncharted territory, people.
I almost forgot: In Nevada, Hillary Clinton scored a solid victory over Bernie Sanders. The most disappointed people right now are the folks at American Crossroads, the Karl Rove attack firm that’s been running ads boosting Bernie. (Gee. I wonder why.)
We’ll look at that race tomorrow.