Late last week the Republican primary entered into the height of drama. At the last debate before the set of crucial Super Tuesday primaries, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz found a way to turn Trump-style insults against Donald Trump.
Rubio looked alive and frisky, and Trump looked tired and annoyed. In campaign rallies the next day, Rubio read and mocked Donald Trump's tweets and said Trump was a sweating mess the night before. "He asked for a full-length mirror. I don't know why, because the podium goes up to here. Maybe he was making sure his pants weren't wet. I don't know," said Rubio.
For the first time in a while, it was Rubio and his supporters smiling, rather than Donald Trump. It was as if, for one moment, the whole polarity of the race were reversed. Instead of Rubio the flibbertigibbet getting flicked away by the Alpha Trump, it was Rubio looking nimble and fresh against a tired old man.
But it's hard to believe this represents a major turn in the race. Later that day, Trump received his first major endorsement from New Jersey governor and Rubio-antagonist Chris Christie, creating a stampede of coverage away from Rubio. Newt Gingrich even began talking up the possibility of the party accepting Trump as its nominee. And in the polls it looks like Donald Trump is likely to win nearly all Super Tuesday states. The absolute firewall for Rubio comes on March 15, when Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Illinois, and Missouri vote, awarding the winner all their delegates. Rubio trails Trump even in head-to-head matches in Florida.
The rivalry between these two candidates may still turn on what they represent. And things are not as they seem.
Rubio talks about how yesterday is over and how he wants to lead his party in creating the next American century. The press burbles about how he "looks" like the future of the party. But Rubio is really the candidate of the past disguised as the future.
Rubio's membership in the Republican Party does not obviously represent a bold step forward. Cuban immigration and attachment to the Republican Party predated the 1965 immigration act that is transforming the country. Cuban-American loyalty to the GOP was a function of the Republican Party's stout anti-Communism. Rubio constantly invokes America's last Cold War president, Ronald Reagan, as his lodestar. But in his hawkish and assertive foreign policy, his constant leaning on America's values, his support for expanded legal immigration and comprehensive reform of the immigration system, he is a kind of re-tread of George W. Bush.
Donald Trump is the candidate of the future disguised as the candidate of the past. His social base and his campaign themes recall Pat Buchanan. His Archie Bunker-like way of talking about minorities and the poorly educated seems like a throwback to a more racist and xenophobic yesterday. But Trump is really the new wave. He is the celebrity that jumps into politics. He is running a campaign on earned media and social media. He invokes no historical antecedents, most likely because he is innocent of history. He is the Republican who has ditched all but the most symbolic and meaningless connection to the Moral Majority. "We're going to be saying, 'Merry Christmas' during a Trump presidency," he said.
Yes, Trump is the nationalist backlash candidate, and therefore that makes him seems like a fresh import from Europe. In the past I've predicted that political antagonism between a party dominated by white voters and a party that represents America's demographic future would increase racial antagonism generally. And now here it is. Trump is the candidate speaking obsessively about what may be the next century's major issue: how the cheap mass migration of people upsets the existing political order. Allow yourselves to contemplate that history doesn't move in one direction: racialist politics, nationalism, and xenophobia may be the future, not the past.
But even as I expect Trump will put the nominating contest away, there are still challenges for him.
Trump may have trouble maintaining the explosive fission of energy unleashed by his creative destruction of the Republican establishment and its nominating process. As the shattered Republican Party begins to reconstitute itself behind him, the party will urge him to take on all its baggage, adding the worst of the Republican brand to an already noxious Trump brand. Already in last Thursday's debate, Trump began revealing an inner lameness, as he started talking about substantive issues. He said he'd uncover "waste, fraud, and abuse" in America's federal spending — a perennial promise to deliver a nothingburger served lukewarm. His plans for immigration reform involve "touchback" proposals that are hard to credit. If he becomes the nominee, many of Trump's promises to deliver "something better" will in fact turn out to be something more specific and more unpopular: a set of re-heated white papers from the usual conservative think tanks.
Trump promises to unleash all the restraints of the present moment. But the Republican past, in the form of Marco Rubio as an antagonist, and Chris Christie as a partner, threatens to overwhelm him one way or another.