I spent the weekend watching righties on social media not only high-fiving over each new Rubio zinger — the spray tan, the bankruptcies, the insinuations about Trump’s manhood via his supposedly small fingers, a dig that’s been irritating him for decades — but talking themselves into believing that this is some sort of strategic game-changer in the race. I see the value in it as catharsis, a chance to kick Trump in the face a few times after months of enduring his Don Rickles routine. I sort of see the value in it as a media strategy, with Rubio cutting into Trump’s monopoly of cable news airtime by promising to give the media an even zanier show, although I’m not sure how gags about Trump having a tiny schwanz end up moving millions of votes. (Even though Rubio has done pretty well with late-deciders so far this year.) I certainly see the value in it as a technique to expose hypocrites, from Trump fans who are suddenly overcome by the vapors at the spectacle of a presidential candidate stooping to petty personal insults to media concern trolls who are shocked, shocked to find Bambi-esque Marco Rubio engaged in a brutal rank war with King Troll. As Andy Levy said, the media going after Rubio for lowering the discourse now is like the ref not seeing the initial penalty and throwing a flag for the retaliation. Given how much they’ve done for Trump over the past year, I’d say it’s more like the ref ignoring the initial penalty, sucker-punching the victim himself, then throwing the flag for retaliation.
I think there’s more to it than that, though. My sense of conservative opinion since the rout in Nevada, but especially since Chris Christie gobbled up Rubio’s post-debate buzz on Friday, is that people are experiencing an almost euphoric panic in which Trump’s nomination increasingly seems assured and therefore any display of forceful resistance feels exhilarating. It’s like an army digging in around its capital after a long retreat and finally decisively winning a few skirmishes. It feels great. We can still win this! Marco’s going to call Trump a needledick enough times that the spell will lift and we’ll break out on our own offensive! That’s … highly unlikely, but as a morale booster it’s good stuff, a version of “Nuts!” translated into Trump’s own crass lingo. Viewed that way, I think it’s no coincidence that the #NeverTrump phenomenon broke out on Twitter the same weekend that Rubio went on offense rhetorically against him. Both are declarations of “never surrender!” Team Marco has even embraced the #NeverTrump messaging, which I guess means Rubio no longer intends to honor his pledge to support the GOP nominee. You would never show the sort of disrespect that Rubio’s showed this weekend (“con artist!”) to someone whom you intend to follow as the new head of your party and maybe ultimately the head of state. The insult war is really an expression of total rejectionism, a sort of escape route for that dug-in army in which they get to abandon the capital if need be and then try to take it back sometime in the future, on a better day. This is, in other words, what a party schism sounds like. No surprise that you’re now seeing other conservatives, from U.S. senators to radio hosts to journalists, embrace it.
Who’s aboard a Trump-led GOP and who’s going independent? That’ll be the single biggest subplot of a Trump/Hillary race starting next month, if Trump finishes off Rubio and Kasich in Florida and Ohio, respectively. Which I think he will.