Based on the outcomes that the polls suggest are lurking in this week's Super Tuesday contests and beyond, it would seem that for Donald Trump's remaining primary opponents, the cause of defeating the reality-television tangelo is more or less lost.
Curiously, however, the esprit de corps of the anti-Trump forces has never been in a fuller flower. And leading the charge is Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who has taken to dispensing bits like this on the campaign trail:
"You know what they say about men with small hands? You can't trust 'em."
Ah, yes! A dick joke. A nice, Graydon Carter-esque insinuation that Trump, the short-fingered vulgarian and self-styled white-supremacist alpha poodle, doesn't measure up in the manhood department. This capped a week in which Rubio joked about Trump's business failures, his vanity, his face, and his propensity for firing off subliterate tweets at odd hours of the night.
Rubio's abrupt about-face into insult comedy may not end up helping him win, and it definitely seems too late to dislodge Trump's rapidly consolidating support. In fact, it could backfire spectacularly by motivating Trump-supporting primary voters to get themselves to the Super Tuesday polls en masse.
Still, for the first time in a long time, Rubio looked as if he was having fun on the campaign trail. And for the first time in a long time, the cable news cameras actually stuck around for a few minutes to cover a campaign event that didn't feature Trump as its protagonist. Rubio's act basically got the hashtag "#nevertrump" trending on Twitter, as his social media allies furthered his ends over the weekend.
Republican digital strategist Patrick Ruffini summed up the ethos of this last stand like so:
Given the fact that Trump subsequently revealed himself to be uncertain about whether he was willing to turn down the support of the Ku Klux Klan, it would be hard to criticize Rubio for unleashing a barrage of dick jokes. And yet, from another corner of the political media came the hand-wringing. So it's come to this! Quips about penises! Whither our elevated American discourse? At one point over the weekend, my colleague and friend Sam Stein tweeted this:
And I had to call him out for it.
Why is this a bad tweet? Because in juxtaposing two famous quotations from the depths of his nostalgia with one of Rubio's insults, Sam is essentially endorsing the idea that America's political discourse is historically high-minded and that debasement of any kind goes against our noble traditions. That if you're insulting someone, you're losing. That stooping to a bully's level in an American political contest has never been the correct thing to do. It presents Rubio's tactics, in this instance, as a thing apart from the mainstream of American political culture.
And that's horseshit.
Seriously! That's a stupid, blinkered thing to think about this country. And yet, it's pretty widely held by those of us who chronicle American politics, mainly because deep down, we want to believe that what we're chronicling is something that's routinely noble and upright, where the "winners" are the people who always eloquently articulate wisdom and our accomplishments as a nation have always come about through magnanimity.
There have been moments, of course, where that gauzy trope has held. But it's never been a constant in our politics and it's especially zany to believe that it's ever been a feature of our election seasons.
When, exactly, was this exalted presidential race that was devoid of squalid rhetoric and sordid tactics? It surely wasn't the last cycle, when Mitt Romney was indicted by a Barack Obama-supporting super PAC of causing someone to die of cancer. It couldn't have been the cycle before that, when Obama was accused by vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin (a model of decorum and tranquility!) of "palling around with terrorists."
Was it the election cycle that featured Karl Rove? The one that featured Lee Atwater? Was it the one where Newsweek called Romney a wimp, or the one where they called George H.W. Bush a wimp? Or was it the one where George W. Bush called a New York Times reporter a "major-league asshole"? Was it the cycle where Bill Clinton left the campaign trail to grandstand over the execution of a mentally incapacitated man on death row? Was it the one with Lyndon Johnson's "Daisy" ad?
Maybe it was those great and noble Kennedys?
No? Well, surely this great nation, at its birth, lived up to the noble ideals of its founders:
In the presidential election of 1800, Alexander Hamilton penned and circulated a letter concerning the “public conduct and character” of John Adams, which among many unflattering characterizations, charged that Adams’ “ungovernable temper” rendered him unfit for executive office. In 1828, supporters of John Quincy Adams described Andrew Jackson as a “murderer” and “cannibal,” and further impugned the virtue of Jackson’s wife. Political campaigns had grown so riotous and debauched in the 19th century that an act of Congress was required in 1838 to prohibit the common campaign practice of dueling.
Oh, right! That's the guy who has a hit Broadway musical, and his contemporaries, calling each other "cannibals," and gunning each other down in the town square. You know, like gentlemen. Truly, these men presided over a more enlightened age.
Look, I shouldn't have to find myself at the precipice of using that hoary old saying, "Politics ain't beanbag." The truth is that American politics has always been the setting for crassness and incivility, and all of the prudes and scolds who lament this to this day peaked in 1798 when they passed the Sedition Act, proving once and forever that the cure for a cancerous discourse would always be worse than the disease.
But here's a nice thing that you can say about all the uncivil invective being directed at Trump: In this instance, it's at least being put to the noble purpose of attempting to prevent the further rise of a rancid, xenophobic demagogue. That's good, isn't it?
And as former Romney campaign manager Stuart Stevens opined to the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza, we've reached the point where it might be the only thing that could knock Trump off his stride.
Opponents to Trump should have a calculated strategy on how best to get Trump to respond. Once he starts to respond, hit him harder and drive the cycle. Trump is constantly in that Will Ferrell "Anchorman" moment: "Well, that escalated quickly." I'd put a communications team together with one goal: Get Trump to respond and award daily prizes for the most successful response. Trump has a pattern of late-night tweeting responses and that's a great time to taunt him. He has zero discipline and no one to stop him from not doing whatever he wants to do in a given moment. Use that and start to take control of the race.
When in a fight and an opponent doesn't fall down when hit, you don't stop hitting. To win, you hit harder and faster and look for any opening to land more punches.
I mean, what are you going to do? Appeal to Trump's better nature? Come on, now. It's been tried! Who can forget this moment from the Jan. 15 GOP debate on Fox Business:
BUSH: Donald, Donald -- can I -- I hope you reconsider this, because this policy is a policy that makes it impossible to build the coalition necessary to take out ISIS. The Kurds are our strongest allies. They’re Muslim. You’re not going to even allow them to come to our country?
The other Arab countries have a role to play in this. We cannot be the world’s policeman. We can’t do this unilaterally. We have to do this in unison with the Arab world. And sending that signal makes it impossible for us to be serious about taking out ISIS and restoring democracy in Syria.
So I hope you’ll reconsider. I hope you’ll reconsider.
That's ol' Jeb Bush, trying to get Trump to just be reasonable, man! Please, oh please, won't you reconsider this evil, debased position you've taken on Muslim Americans?
And that particular bit of Trump's putrid essence reminds me that if you didn't take Trump that seriously at the outset (like me, to be honest), or if you happened to be somebody who chin-stroked their way through his insult-glazed rise to prominence, waxing about how it was just one more fascinating side to our grand political debate, thus creating the opportunity for his toxic ideas to be normalized, then it's going to be a really bad look if you scold Rubio for making dick jokes. Especially if you're couching your dudgeon in this false idea that America has always been better than this.
Trump is an eminently rattle-able, vain and insecure princeling who claims the right to be politically incorrect for himself but starts to edge toward meltdown the moment anyone throws his reality TV-honed tactics back in his face. It's probably too little, too late at this point to keep him from winning, but what Rubio is doing is an authentically American way of responding to this dangerous nitwit.
If you can't deny Trump his nomination, honor demands that you, at the very least, deny Trump his fun. So let a thousand dick jokes rain down, now, and in the hour of Trump's inauguration. Trumpism may, sadly, be the custom of the day, but customs can change. And as far as I'm concerned, castigat ridendo mores, mofeaux.
Editor's note: Donald Trump is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist,
Jason Linkins edits "Eat The Press" for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost politics podcast "So, That Happened." Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.