The big political story of the day is the continued fallout from Marco Rubio’s performance in Saturday night’s Republican debate, when he repeated a particular line about Barack Obama multiple times, even after being ridiculed by Chris Christie for doing so. This has led to all kinds of uncomplimentary questions about Rubio.
But what’s missing is the context — exactly what Rubio was trying to argue, and where it comes from. What’s missing from much of the discussion is that Rubio is embracing some of the most lunatic ideas on the right — and he’s managing to do so without most in the media hearing the dog whistle, even as he’s being criticized for being overly scripted and robotic.
In case you missed the debate, Rubio said over and over, “Let’s dispel [sic] once and for all with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows exactly what he’s doing.” That’s because, Rubio repeated, Obama is trying to change America into something unrecognizable, even horrific.
Today, all of the focus is on Rubio’s seeming inability to stray from his prepared talking points. “Debate slip-up seems to halt Rubio’s momentum,” says the Post’s story; “Rubio starts digging out after debate debacle,” says Yahoo News; “In the light of the morning after, how bad was Rubio’s repetition?” asks NPR; “Rubio’s problem: an excess of caution,” concludes Politico. Rubio’s opponents aren’t letting it go either. “Marco just — you know, he gets told what to say and he repeats it. That is what he does,” said Chris Christie. Jeb Bush called him “totally scripted and kind of robotic.”
But to understand what Rubio was trying to communicate, you have to see it on two levels. On the surface, Rubio’s claim about Obama is a defense of his own youth and limited résumé. Some Republicans have said of Rubio that he’s too inexperienced to be president, just like Barack Obama was. So Rubio can counter that argument by saying that despite his short time in prior office Obama has actually been a brutally effective president, skillfully carrying out his nefarious schemes, and therefore experience isn’t all that important. But the real message goes deeper, into the dark heart of the conspiracy theories and twisted loathing of Obama that has persisted on the right for the last seven years.
Let’s look more particularly at what Rubio said, after saying that Obama knows what he’s doing. “Barack Obama is undertaking a systematic effort to change this country, to make America more like the rest of the world,” Rubio said. “That’s why he passed Obamacare and the stimulus and Dodd-Frank and the deal with Iran. It is a systematic effort to change America.” He repeated the line about Obama wanting America to be like the rest of the world, and summed up at one point: “All this damage that he’s done to America is deliberate.”
Just to be clear, when a Republican talks about “the rest of the world,” he doesn’t mean it in a good way. So when Rubio says Obama “wants America to become more like the rest of the world,” he’s saying that Obama is trying to harm America, to bring it down, to weaken it, to punish it, to make it less than it has been and should be.
Let’s pause before we proceed to acknowledge how positively insane this idea is. The fact that it has been espoused by untold numbers of supposedly mainstream conservatives in recent years makes it no less so. It’s one thing to say that your political opponents are wrong, that their plans will fail, that they are unconcerned about problems that you believe demand immediate action, or even that their values are misguided. But it’s quite another to think that they are intentionally seeking the destruction of the country.
Yet that is just what Rubio argues. In his bizarre telling, Obama didn’t pass the Affordable Care Act because he wanted to provide health insurance to the millions of Americans who lack it and rein in runaway costs; he passed the ACA because he wanted to ruin the American health care system. He didn’t pass Dodd-Frank to avoid a repeat of the Great Recession; he passed it in the hopes of sabotaging the American economy. Obama, in short, wants his presidency to be such a catastrophe that we can never recover, because he is so driven by his hatred of America.
If you’re saying, “That’s ridiculous, nobody really thinks that,” or if you’re reminded of General Jack T. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove ranting about the communists sapping and impurifying our precious bodily fluids, it means that you’ve never watched Fox News or listened to conservative talk radio. Because these ideas have been staples of right-wing media for Obama’s entire presidency. The audiences for those programs have been told constantly that whatever problem Obama claims to be trying to solve, his actual intention is not to solve problems but to create them, so that out of the chaos will come a twisted, unrecognizable version of the country we once knew.
As Glenn Beck said, “Changing America into something other than it always has been is the goal, always has been the goal of this administration. There are enemies inside and outside the gates of our country.” And there’s no escaping the racial undertones of this argument, because that’s where so many on the right find the explanation for Obama’s supposed hunger to bring woe and misery down upon us. “Obama has a plan,” Rush Limbaugh tells his listeners. “Obama’s plan is based on his inherent belief that this country was immorally and illegitimately founded by a very small minority of white Europeans who screwed everybody else since the founding to get all the money and all the goodies, and it’s about time that the scales were made even.”
Or as Newt Gingrich said in 2010, “What if he is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anticolonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]? That is the most accurate, predictive model for his behavior.”
Marco Rubio knows full well that conservatives have been imbibing these ideas for years, and so he has essentially staked his campaign on being the candidate who hates and fears Barack Obama as much as primary voters do. None of his opponents talk about Obama nearly as much; in some of the debates it has become almost comical, as every question Rubio gets on any subject is answered with a diatribe about Obama’s malevolent schemes. Rubio is now sending out fundraising emails referencing Saturday’s debate, saying that “President Obama has been very deliberate about achieving his bad policies — they’re no accident; he’s really trying to change this country for the worse.”
This is the deep irony of Marco Rubio’s campaign. He is presenting himself as the candidate above all of those who are frightened of change, for whom Barack Obama is a symbol of everything they think has been lost from the America of their youth. As Rubio said in an ad he began airing in December, “This election is about the essence of America, about all of us who feel out of place in our own country.” That is indeed a powerful feeling among many Republican voters: older whites, often in rural areas, who feel that the country is changing around them too fast. Their values are being questioned, they hear unfamiliar languages all around them, today’s technology is baffling, and they generally feel as though they’re being left behind, just like older people always do.
Yet it’s a bizarre message coming from Rubio, whose attraction was supposed to be precisely that he’s a Republican who doesn’t feel out of place in a changing America. Young and Hispanic, he was supposed to be the fresh face who could sell conservatism to the new polyglot America. Rubio was going to be the candidate of the future, yet he’s presenting himself as the candidate who is as disturbed, as unsettled, and as angry as you are that the past is slipping away.
You can mock Rubio for repeating himself all you like. But the substance of what he’s saying is a lot more troubling.