Picture a Gadsden flag, so popular with conservatives, with its hissing rattlesnake posed above the slogan “DON’T TREAD ON ME,” hoisted high at a Donald Trump rally — a declaration that the flag’s owner will not be brought low by the insidious liberals who would like to destroy his America, who would take his gun and his truck and force him to live in a city and use mass transit.
Now picture that snake eating its own tail, and you have an approximation of what the Republican Party looks like this week.
The cause of the simmering rift in the GOP that has now burst into open warfare between the pro- and anti-Trump forces is last Friday’s leak of an old tape of Trump talking about women in terms so crude and dehumanizing that the ghost of Henry VIII was heard to say, “Hey man, take it down a notch.” Over the ensuing 48 hours, Trump fans and detractors found themselves at odds with each other. Some defended him while others rescinded their endorsements.
Then there were the Republicans who mostly hunkered down and waited until after Trump’s debate against Hillary Clinton on Sunday night before sticking their fingers in the air to measure which way the wind was blowing. Because sure, even the most committed GOPer perhaps can no longer deny they have nominated a raging, loathsome misogynist to be the leader of the free world. On the other hand, they are still craven careerists!
Which brings us to Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.
On paper, few people have as much reason to dislike Trump as Rubio and Cruz. Trump, the "short-fingered vulgarian," went after both during the GOP primary in the most vile and personal terms. Rubio endured being derisively called “Little Marco” in front of national debate audiences and then watched Trump beat him by 20 points in the primary of his home state of Florida.
As for Cruz, he heard Trump call his wife ugly and accuse his father of being an associate of Lee Harvey Oswald. He was nearly booed off the stage at the Republican National Convention for his refusal to even mention Trump’s name in a primetime speech where he suggested everyone should instead vote their consciences. It was as implicit a rejection of the nominee as one could imagine.
Yet both men still eventually endorsed Trump, albeit without overt enthusiasm. Okay, he may not be committed to conservative principles the way the two senators imagine themselves to be. On the other hand, Hillary Clinton!
The "Access Hollywood" tape leak gave Cruz and Rubio the perfect excuse to follow other prominent Republicans and un-endorse the candidate. They could say they are too disgusted by it to face their wives and daughters and mothers. They could say they are simply too disgusted as human beings who believe themselves fit for polite society. They didn’t have to make even that much of an excuse, and plenty of people would not have blinked.
Instead, both Cruz and Rubio announced on Tuesday that they are sticking with Trump. Maybe they were getting warning calls from constituents. Maybe they saw the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll indicating that, despite all the noise surrounding his weekend, Trump’s debate performance might have helped him slightly recover with Republican voters. Maybe they saw how hard Paul Ryan is getting hammered, even by members of the House caucus he leads, for his lame attempt at having it both ways by announcing he won’t rescind his endorsement but he also won’t help Trump’s campaign.
Most likely is that both are trying to keep on the good side of GOP voters so they can mount viable presidential runs in 2020. Which is as good an indication of the intellectual bankruptcy and fraught post-Trump future of the Republican Party as anything else.
Even if Trump loses the election, as seems likely, Trumpism seems to be here to stay, and Trumpism is not so much an ideology as it is a primal scream of seething rage. It demands not just unconditional surrender by opponents, but also those opponents’ abject humiliation. There is no room for young conservative leaders to help unite the party. They must instead bow down to the greatness of Trump and his supporters. The base, after all, is not going anywhere. And in the future, it will only demand more resistance to Democrats and the socialism they will be sure Hillary Clinton is bringing to America.
Much like vice presidential candidate Mike Pence, Rubio and Cruz have also signed away their future political ambitions without even realizing it. They may think they are keeping their options open for the election in 2020 and beyond. But as Cruz especially should have learned from his demeaning day of phone-banking for Trump, there is no room in the GOP for lofty conservative principles. They already lost to Trump once in the primary, and on Tuesday they both lost again.