As Donald Trump rolls toward the Republican presidential nomination, Sen. Marco Rubio has come up with a new pitch to stop him. Rubio says Trump is a racist. But the problem, according to Rubio, isn’t that this racist, if nominated, would win the election. It’s that he wouldn’t.
The controversy started on Sunday, when Trump, in a CNN interview, ducked an invitation to condemn white nationalist David Duke. “I know nothing about David Duke. I know nothing about white supremacists,” said Trump. The interviewer, CNN’s Jake Tapper, noted that Duke was connected to the Ku Klux Klan. Still, Trump insisted that he would have to research any group before denouncing it.
On Monday morning, Rubio raised the issue at a rally in Tennessee. He called Trump a “con artist” who had ripped off students and had hired foreigners and illegal immigrants. Then Rubio went after Trump for ducking the Klan question:
He can’t win, either. That’s the other big problem. He’s unelectable now. He refused to criticize the Ku Klux Klan. He’s now been given three interviews. … He refuses to criticize it. How are we going to elect—how can someone like that be our nominee? How can the [GOP] … nominate someone who refuses to criticize the Ku Klux Klan or distance himself from an avowed racist like David Duke? And we can’t lose this election. The media knows Donald Trump can’t win.
This was an odd way to talk about racism. Rubio was presenting it not so much as a sin in its own right, but as a matter of electability. The problem, as he explained at the beginning and end of his remarks, was that Trump “can’t win.” Rubio’s broken sentence in the middle was also curious: He began to ask, “How are we going to elect someone like that?” But then the senator caught himself and reworded his question: “How can someone like that be our nominee?” Rubio seemed more worried about failing to elect a bigot than about electing him.
A few hours later, at a campaign stop in Georgia, Rubio hit Trump again:
You know our country. You know your neighbors. You know your family, and you know your friends. Do you really believe that they’re going to vote for someone who refuses to disavow the Ku Klux Klan? Do you think they’re going to vote for someone with a record like his? They’re not. That means we’re going to lose. That means the winner of this election will be Hillary Clinton.
Again, Rubio’s angle was peculiar. He sounded as though he was going to conclude that Trump, facing a righteous electorate, would get what a bigot deserved. Instead, Rubio lamented that this would cost Trump’s party the election. When Rubio asked the crowd whether Americans would vote for a candidate who refused to disavow the Klan, a few people called out, “No!” But when Rubio said the result would be a Clinton presidency, the room erupted in shouts of dismay. Rubio was right: His audience cared more about beating Clinton than about repudiating racism.
That evening, at a rally in Oklahoma, Rubio continued his assault:
And let me tell you another reason why he won’t win. Because over the last 48 hours, Donald Trump has repeatedly been given the opportunity to denounce the Ku Klux Klan and David Duke, and he refuses to do it. They will tear him apart. This country is not going to elect someone that does not denounce the KKK. And in fact, there is no room in the Republican Party, and there is no room in the conservative movement, for the KKK or David Duke or anyone who will not condemn them. If we nominate him, let me just tell you: A vote for Donald Trump tomorrow is literally a vote for Hillary Clinton in November. And it cannot happen. We cannot elect Hillary Clinton.
Now Rubio was adding a moral statement against bigotry. But his bottom line was still political: The problem with nominating a racist was that the racist would lose.
On Tuesday night, as Trump racked up more victories and delegates, Rubio repeated his message in an interview with NBC News:
We cannot nominate someone in our party who—in addition to being a con artist and sharing all these opinions with the Democrats on Planned Parenthood and Israel and you name it—someone who this week repeatedly refused to condemn the Ku Klux Klan. That means devastation in November. A vote for Donald Trump now is a vote for Hillary Clinton in November.
That’s the fourth time in two days that Rubio has framed racism as an electability issue. Why is he doing this? Why is he arguing that racism is unpresentable, not simply unacceptable?
If you watch Rubio’s speeches with an open mind, it’s clear that he finds the Klan repellent and would like to purge the GOP of bigotry. But it’s also clear that he thinks the bigotry is broadly entrenched. That’s why he keeps reaching for indirect arguments against racism: He doesn’t think the direct argument—that racism is unacceptable—will move enough voters. Rubio believes that the people he’s trying to reach—Trump supporters, undecided Republicans, people who show up at Rubio’s rallies—won’t rule out Trump for failing to denounce the Klan. They need to be persuaded that this failure will lead to something worse than a racist presidency: a Clinton presidency.
Rubio is no hero. For months, he stood by as Trump insulted Mexicans, Hispanics, Cubans, Muslims, Seventh-Day Adventists, and other groups. Now, facing the prospect of defeat, the Florida senator has chosen a moment of obtuseness—Trump’s failure to repeat his disavowal of Duke during the CNN interview—as a late stand-in for those offenses. Rubio has picked the wrong example, he has done so out of selfish desperation, and he’s asking Republican voters to punish Trump’s demagoguery on the wrong grounds.
Nevertheless, I hope Rubio’s gambit succeeds. Part of the art of politics is persuading people to do the right thing, even if it’s for the wrong reasons. But if Rubio truly intends to lead his party and his country into a new American century, eventually he will have to teach Republicans that the worst thing about nominating a bigot is that the bigot might win.
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