I didn’t watch much of the Republican debate last night. From what I heard, it was like the one before: basically a street brawl. What I did see showed that the non-Trump candidates really don’t understand their party. They keep hammering away on Trump from the right, as though the Republican base really cares about the ideology of the party. I would think after all these months, everyone would understand: Trump is a conservative to the base because he is a jerk. He struts around like a dictator, and they love it. To them, he is an “every man” because they too would act that way if they had billions of dollars.
But what is perhaps most notable is that it isn’t just the Republican base. According to all the candidates — most especially Rubio — Trump is completely unacceptable. Yet Rubio will support Trump if he is the candidate — so will they all. Similarly, Mitt Romney came out with a big anti-Trump speech. But ultimately, his argument was not that Trump would be a terrible president; his argument was that Trump would be a terrible nominee. I’ve argued from the beginning that the establishment’s problem with Trump is only that they think he’s unelectable — not that he’s a bigot and an authoritarian.
During the debate, Marco Rubio was asked about the lead poisoning in Flint, “Without getting into the political blame game here, where are the national Republicans’ plans on infrastructure and solving problems like this?” He gave no answer other than that the government ought to have some role in the situation. Otherwise, all he talked about was how the Democrats were politicizing the issue and he pushed this straw man argument that Democrats were saying that the Republicans set out to poison the people of Flint.
Let’s be clear here. The argument that Democrats are making is that the Republicans just didn’t care. They did dangerous things to save money. And when they were alerted to problems they ignored them. You could say the same thing about global warming or dozens of other things. This is because the lead poisoning of Flint exists in a larger narrative that the Republican Party is against any kind of infrastructure spending or any kind of spending at all for the common good. “The free market will fix all problems!” Nowhere in Rubio’s answer was there any acknowledgement that decades of Republican ideology has brought us children in Flint and many other places who have brain damage because of lead poisoning.
Establishment Doesn’t Understand Republican Base
The main attacks that Rubio and Cruz made on Trump were of the kind, “Trump would do things that might stop the children of Flint from being poisoned!” That isn’t a winning argument for the Republican base. They don’t care about Trump’s heresies, just as they don’t care about Reagan’s. They love the show. They love the idea that America is all powerful — largely because the base knows just how non-powerful it is. The audience applauded when Rubio said, “I don’t think that someone woke up one morning and said, ‘Let’s figure out how to poison the water system to hurt someone.'” Because the Republican base isn’t primarily made up of awful people. But the Republican establishment acts as though it were.
The Clean Water Act was enacted under Richard Nixon in 1972. But “moderate” Marco Rubio can’t even bring himself to make a clear argument that we must keep our water clean. Instead, he talked about how horrible it was that Democrats were saying things that Democrats are not saying. According to the establishment, the second worst thing that could happen to the party is that Donald Trump would become the nominee; the worst thing that could happen is that it would lose the election.
There is a huge divide in the Republican Party. The establishment should have learned by now that the Republican base just isn’t that into its policies. It was always the belligerence and the racism. It was never the tax cuts and lead-filled water.