by Max Boot
I should be inured to it by now, but it still hurt — it was still soul-crushing — to see Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) beaming in the audience as President Trump kicked off his reelection campaign with an Orlando rally on Tuesday. In a speech marked by his trademark combination of self-pity and self-aggrandizement, Trump boasted about his supposed achievements, smeared old opponents such as Hillary Clinton and whined that he wasn’t getting the credit he deserves. Applauding this blizzard of bunkum was Rubio, who tweeted, like the fan-boy that he has become: “It’s official #KeepAmericaGreat.”
Hard to believe, but only a little more than three years have passed since Trump was calling Rubio “Little Marco” and Rubio was calling Trump a “con artist” who was seeking to perpetrate “the biggest scam in American political history,” an “erratic” liar who couldn’t be trusted with the nuclear codes and a candidate who “isn’t gonna make America great, he’s gonna make America orange.” Rubio’s transformation from “Never Trump” to “Forever Trump” is, of course, hardly unusual in today’s principles-free Republican Party. Sitting next to Rubio, after all, was Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who, before becoming Trump’s caddie, once called him a “jackass,” “kook” and “idiot.”
But being reminded anew of Rubio’s transformation was particularly distressing for me because of how hard I worked in 2015-2016 as an unpaid foreign-policy adviser on his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. This week, for the first time in years, I opened the “Election 2016” file that contained the work I had done. There was policy paper after policy paper, talking point after talking point, beginning with a counter-Islamic State strategy. One of the last documents in the file is headlined “Donald Trump Controversial Foreign Policy Positions.” The first line — “Trump repeats over and over that he’ll ‘make America great again.’ But if he’s president, we’ll actually be a laughingstock” — gives you the flavor.
That was written in late February 2016 during the brief period between the time that Rubio deigned to notice Trump’s existence as a rival candidate — previously, he had been ignoring Trump in the naive expectation that the front-runner would implode of his own accord — and the time that Rubio left the race and kissed Trump’s ring. I sent that memorandum to the campaign, but as far as I know, it was never used; Rubio preferred to mock Trump for his spray tan and “small hands.”
When Rubio endorsed the “con man” for president, I was aghast and incredulous. I called one of his senior aides to ask how someone who had said he was “Never Trump” could be for, well, Trump. The lame answer I received was that Rubio was only “Never Trump” in the primaries.
Even then, Rubio made a small show of independence by declining to appear at Trump’s coronation; he recorded an endorsement video that was played at the Republican convention in Cleveland. But three years later, any last embers of independence have been extinguished. Rubio has become codependent on his abuser.
When Michael Barbaro of the New York Times commented on Twitter, “Very strange, for those of [us] who covered 2016 campaign, to see Sen Marco Rubio smiling and chuckling in this audience,” Rubio shot back: “As opposed to smiling & chuckling at a rally for a radical liberal candidate for President who will undo policies to confront China, reduce regulations & taxes, defend liberty in Venezuela & protect the unborn?”
I doubt that a Democratic president would stop supporting the dissidents in Venezuela or stop cracking down on Chinese trade abuses; he or she might even implement those policies more consistently and effectively than Trump has done. (Trump is already tiring of the Venezuela policy that Rubio has advocated.) It’s true, however, that a Democrat probably would reinstate the emissions limits on power plants that Trump is repealing and that are necessary to fight global warming. A Democrat might very well undo Trump’s tax cut, which has sent the deficit soaring without having any significant impact on economic growth. And a Democrat would no doubt appoint pro-choice, rather than antiabortion, judges.
But do you know what a Democratic president probably wouldn’t do? A Democrat wouldn’t obstruct justice, ignore congressional subpoenas, break campaign finance laws, malign the FBI or invite foreign interference in our elections. A Democrat wouldn’t engage in racism or xenophobia to win votes. A Democrat wouldn’t vilify immigrants and lock children in cages. A Democrat wouldn’t call the media the “enemy of the people” and accuse the opposition of treason. A Democrat would not lie incessantly. A Democrat would not trash America’s allies — or kowtow to dictators such as North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The old Rubio — the silver-tongued, high-minded orator who attracted me to his campaign in 2015 — would have cared about that. The new Rubio doesn’t. Whatever he tells himself, his motivation is obvious to all: He needs to stay on the good side of the “con man” to keep his Senate seat in 2022 and to stand a shot at winning the White House himself in 2024.
Rubio has decided that Trump is the future of the Republican Party. He’s probably right. That’s why I’m not a Republican anymore — and why I couldn’t imagine supporting Rubio for any office ever again. I’m sorry I supported him in 2016.
Max Boot, a Post columnist, is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a global affairs analyst for CNN. He is the author of “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam,” a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in biography. Follow Max