As the presidential primaries draw nearer, Republican hopefuls are beginning to grasp at any available straws protruding from the increasingly clamorous Republican base. Chief among the straws is the sour, yet low hanging fruit, of old-school race politics.
The issue of race, ever present in United States politics, exploded and slapped mud across the face of the presidential dialogue when Donald Trump gave his now-infamous presidential announcement in June, wherein he referred to Mexican immigrants as largely being criminals and rapists. The political punditry across the nation quickly dismissed Trump as a joke candidate and a passing fad. The Huffington Post even went as far as to refuse coverage of Trump within their politics section. However, the same comments that left many in the media, and even the GOP establishment chuckling with condescension, has roused the rabble of an extremely vocal artery in the Republican base.
Throughout the summer and into the first debates, pundits and politicians alike dismissed the prospect of a Trump nomination. As Trump survived the early grudge matches and held on to his lead in the polls it became clear that his campaign was here to stay, at least into the primaries.
The tidal power of Trump’s campaign is actually being fueled by the comments that were expected to have him laughed out of the political arena. The Trump base is largely comprised of white middle-class voters, with little to no college education, who hold a strong belief in a conspiracy-theory narrative filled with sheer terror over the Hispanic immigrant invasion. The Trump ideology is one that passes muster with a crowd that thinks President Obama is a Muslim, or at least not an American citizen. In fact, a pseudo-debate over the latter artificial issue was championed by Trump only a few years ago, and was arguably the most overt example of race politics jazzing a vitriolic section of poorly informed America. Still, the Trump campaign has done little to increase white nationalism in the U.S.; rather it has effectively legitimized it within the republican political debate.
The effect of this is nowhere more apparent than in the person of Trump’s fellow presidential hopeful, Sen. Marco Rubio. As a child of Cuban immigrants, Rubio has been ahead of his party on topics important to the Hispanic community such as immigration. In 2013, Rubio authored a bill aimed at reforming immigration policy, and provided a pathway to citizenship for the U.S’s 11 million undocumented immigrants already living within the country. Even though Rubio backed away from his own bill after it failed to stack up votes in the House, and said he actually advocated a cliché republican immigration talking point known as the “Piecemeal approach.” His record on immigration should have been a bolster to his campaign thus far among moderate voters and the Hispanic community. Enter Donald Trump.
As Rubio failed to turn heads among the large immigrant-fearing bloc of the Republican base, which has proven to be important for clinching a nomination in his party as of late, he has backpedalled even further on his immigration stance in order to appease the drooling masses that frequent Trump rallies.
Rubio has recently gone on the offensive against Trump, attempting to beat the man that President Obama called a “carnival barker” at his own game, after Trump began disparaging Rubio’s bid for the presidency because of his previous stance on immigration policy. Rubio called out Trump as a supporter of the DREAM Act and Amnesty saying, “he changed his position on those issues just to run for president,” he said in an interview with Fox News. According to Bloomberg Politics, Rubio even went as far as to announce that he would do away with President Obama’s deferred action for childhood arrivals, which protected undocumented children from deportation.
Rather than stick to his guns, and possibly garner the support of the more moderate chunks of America, Rubio has fallen prey to some of the nastiest rhetoric of the presidential race. Though these stances may aid his grab at the Republican nomination, recent polls have shown that the nasty race politics that held Trump atop the Republican field for so long don’t shine easily to the general electorate of a presidential election. New polling data from NBC/Wall Street Journal and CNN/ORC put Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders several points above Trump in a national match-up.
As the primaries close in on the candidates, they increasingly run out of opportunities to check their rhetoric. A move many will have to make before it’s too late.