Commentary Magazine

Careening Toward the Abyss

Image by © Chris Sweda/ZUMA Press/Corbis

Conditions were some of the darkest of this election cycle on Saturday morning when Marco Rubio made what may have been the most compelling comments of his presidential campaign.

The Florida senator spoke to the press after a now infamous Trump rally in downtown Chicago was mobbed and infiltrated by organized Black Lives Matter and pro-Bernie Sanders protesters. For hours, broadcast on live television, America watched as this boiling caldron of vitriol sporadically broke down into bouts of physical violence. It was Trump, not the Chicago Police Department, as he claimed, who made the decision to shut down that event before things got even further out of hand. This dynamic, one in which Trump protester and supporter square off amid the tensions of imminent violence, has come to characterize many Trump gatherings since Friday. The candidate himself is now a secondary attraction at his own traveling roadshow. The latest titillation toward which his fans gravitate is the prospect of watching blood spill and of coming dangerously close to the action.

Asked about this deeply regrettable spectacle, Marco Rubio made it perfectly clear who was to blame. “This is a man who, in rallies, has told his supporters to basically beat up the people who are in the crowd and he’ll pay their legal fees,” Rubio said. “And I think the media bears some responsibility.” He added that Trump is responding to a perverse set of incentives in which the free media coverage from which his campaign has benefited is only sustained so long as he can continually increase the ante, and that is a recipe for disaster.

“This is what a culture and a society look like when everyone says whatever the heck they want,” he added. “If I’m angry, it gives me the right to say or do anything I want. Well, there are other people that are angry, too. And if they speak out and say whatever they want, the result is it all breaks down. It’s called chaos. It’s called anarchy.”

Rubio noted, as have others, that many of the liberal protesters who descended on Trump rallies were a professional sort of agitator, but he was also clear that the tensions that typify Trump events are the result of a conscious calculation on the candidate’s part. The design of many of these protesters is to provoke a confrontation and present themselves to a sympathetic media environment as the victims of a dangerous movement. This is not a new tactic, but past targets of it have previously been wise enough to avoid giving their harassers precisely what they want. In Trump’s case, violent agitation is meeting with violent agitation. And it is happening repeatedly, across the country, and only at Donald Trump’s events.

“Forget about the election for a moment,” he added. “This boiling point that we have now reached has been fed largely by the fact that we have a frontrunner in my party that basically justifies physically assaulting people who disagree with you.”

The Florida senator observed that a supporter at a recent Trump rally “sucker punched” an African-American protester on camera and, after his release following arrest, promised next time to kill him. Rubio noted that Donald Trump has not condemned his supporter, nor has he offered any thoughts for the man he attacked. Instead, on “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Trump revealed that he was looking into making good on his promise to pay the legal costs associated with the execution of violence in the name of Trump. This is a formula for tyranny, and it is one that Donald Trump is skillfully exploiting. He sows the seeds of disorder and will soon present himself as the only candidate that can contain the forces he has unleashed.

I had initially assumed that Trump’s irresponsible rhetoric was simply a strong-arm political tactic — that Trump campaign operatives threatening chaos, or worse, was a strategy designed to intimidate the Republican Party into giving their candidate the nomination at a potentially contested convention. That might have been the original plan, but it’s not any longer. The violence Trump has stoked has arrived months ahead of schedule. It suggests that this is a phenomenon over which Trump no longer has full control, and the cooler heads that we all expected to prevail are still largely silent about it or positioning themselves to benefit from it.

The country is careening into a familiar dark abyss. Trump supporters now feel confident enough in their surroundings to scream “go back to Africa” at blacks and “go to Auschwitz” at Jews. This anti-social behavior is being abetted from the top, because the top seems to have no interest in stopping it. Indeed, the celebrity candidate appears to think he can ride this ugly wave into power.

Only under the assumption that 2016 is still a winnable election for Republicans does it make sense to try to avoid alienating the cohort of new GOP voters attracted to Donald Trump and his dangerous brand of politics. The GOP should embrace the liberation that comes from knowing that the stability and continuity-seeking general electorate will not endorse the kind of chaos they’re seeing on television. This is a candidate who continues to employ a campaign manager who is facing a criminal complaint alleging assault on a female reporter. This is a candidate who has made no effort to shun the violent or the racists openly amassing around him. Those who continue to stand by him have by now seen enough to know exactly what it is they are validating.

“Every major institution in our society has failed us,” Rubio concluded. “You’re working as hard as you ever have, and you can’t make ends meet. And along comes a presidential candidate and says to you, ‘You know why your life is hard? Because fill in the blank. Somebody, someone, some country; they’re the reasons for it. Give me power so I can go after them. That’s what he’s feeding into. That is not leadership. That is not productive leadership. That is not good leadership. And that is not in keeping with our American tradition.”

Ted Cruz and John Kasich both deserve credit for not mincing words about what Donald Trump has invited, but no Republican elected official has yet identified the forces at work here as clearly and succinctly as Rubio. More in the GOP would do well to echo his concerns. Chicago was only the beginning; either the beginning of the end of the Trump phenomenon or the beginning of something much worse.

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