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The Promise and Peril of Marco Rubio’s Trump Triangulation

He has unwittingly outflanked the Republican front-runner—on the right.

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

If the range of Republican attitudes toward religious minorities and non-citizens who want to live in the U.S. extends from one exclusionary pole, represented by Donald Trump, to another pole of grudging tolerance, represented by Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio is dancing around the middle point between them.

While Trump wants to deport millions of unauthorized immigrants, and Bush does not, Rubio selects his words carefully to keep himself in the good graces of voters of both proclivities. Trump is stoking Islamophobia shamelessly. Bush is criticizing him. Rubio is tiptoeing around the conflict as painstakingly as he can.

In purely affective terms, Rubio is positioning himself masterfully, courting, or at least refusing to offend, both the party’s nativist faction and its more ethnically inclusive donor class. The trouble for him is that the rhetorical middle between Trump’s xenophobic policies, and Bush’s reality-based rejection of them, is an incoherent substantive realm that is in many ways crueler and more reactionary than Trump’s outright rejectionism. By successfully adopting a more measured, less inciting form of rhetoric, but refusing to condemn Trump’s bigotry, Rubio has unintentionally outflanked Trump—on the right.

The question of a policy’s relative left-ness or right-ness is inherently subjective. Rubio is eschewing absolutism precisely because he expects to correct course toward the center if and once he cinches the nomination, and to the extent that he does intend to veer leftward in the general election, he is indeed a less extreme politician than Trump. But if you’re an undocumented immigrant or a devout Muslim, life under Rubio’s policies would be harsher and more uncertain than under Trump.

Deporting millions of immigrants would be cruel and impracticable, but would eliminate the limbo of life in the shadows just as surely as a legal-status guarantee. As Francis Wilkerson detailed elegantly for Bloomberg View recently, Rubio would split the difference by making the limbo more hellish for the people already in it.

His plan would defer the legalization question for “10 or 12 years,” as he told Sean Hannity recently, until the country has adopted and implemented an impervious immigration-control system, including a requirement that employers verify the legal status of their workers. Even if existing workers were grandfathered out of this requirement, it would amount to nothing less than complete economic upheaval for immigrant communities across the country. Undocumented workers without steady employment would become ineligible for it. Undocumented workers with steady employment would serve at the mercy of their current bosses like never before. And since most unauthorized immigrants work temporary jobs or stay in the same job for fewer than 10 years, by the time Rubio gets around to issuing work permits to them, they will have been immiserated, driven deep into the black market, or forced to deport themselves.

“[A]fter ‘10 or 12 years’ of families living with no incomes there wouldn’t be many left to provide with green cards,” Wilkinson wrote. “He is proposing the equivalent of Mitt Romney’s self-deportation, preceded by mass evictions and mass privation.”

Trump’s plan, which would at least provide immigrants the means of returning to their countries of origin, and the opportunity to return legally, is sensible and humane by comparison.

There is nothing, by contrast, that could be construed as sensible or humane, let alone constitutional, about Trump’s promise to close down certain mosques in the United States and systemically track Muslims throughout the country. That Jeb Bush earned high marks from liberals simply for having the temerity to oppose Gestapo-like profiling and police tactics is a testament to how thoroughly Trump has debased the Republican policy debate.

This was a perilous development for Rubio. His political strategy precludes outspoken opposition to Trumpism on matters of principle and substance, which forced him to split the difference—not by going to bat for the sanctity of worship (which would have been tantamount to a rebuke), but by adopting a policy far more draconian than even Trump’s.

“It’s not about closing down mosques,” Rubio told Fox News’s Megyn Kelly last week. “It’s about closing down anyplace—whether it’s a cafe, a diner, an internet site—anyplace where radicals are being inspired. … Whatever facility is being used—it’s not just a mosque—any facility that’s being used to radicalize and inspire attacks against the United States, should be a place that we look at.”

The purpose of this tack was to deemphasize the explicitly religious nature of Trumpian Islamophobia. But rather than shift frames from policing religion to policing crime—by perhaps arguing that no mosque (or church or synagogue or cafe or website) provides legal refuge to terrorists—Rubio instead simply promised to shutter more and different mainstays of Muslim communities than Trump did.

It’s probably not the case that Marco Rubio is secretly more chauvinistic and reactionary than Trump. He’s triangulating between Bush and Trump to curry favor with conservatives while preserving the leeway he’ll need to migrate back toward Bushism next year. But by conceiving of this triangulation as a purely rhetorical exercise, he has inadvertently committed himself to ideas that softer rhetoric can’t salvage him from.