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Is Rubio’s Message Turning Nativist? – OpEd

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By Mitchell Blatt*

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. quoted yours truly in his column on January 10. His argument was that while Marco Rubio started the campaign off with an optimistic, forward-looking tone, he has shifted towards a gloomier message recently.

The conservative writer Mitchell Blatt sensed this when he called Rubio “the Republican Barack Obama.” He meant it as a compliment. “A Republican Obama,” Blatt wrote last fall, “is just what the Grand Old Party needs to face a changing electorate.”

But since the beginning of the year, a new Rubio has appeared, a man given to funereal orations about the passing of the old America.

“Something’s happening,” Rubio declared, and the something, voters have been telling him, isn’t good: “This doesn’t look like my country anymore. I don’t recognize America. What’s happening to my country? I feel left behind. I feel out of place.”


Dionne didn’t use the word “nativist.” NBC host Joe Scarborough did when referring to an ad that had very much the same message as that of the speech Dionne quoted. “This election is about … all of us who feel out of place in our own country,” Rubio said in the ad:

I can see Scarborough’s point–this kind of language is grating and out of step with Rubio’s young, pro-immigrant message–but the WaPo headline writer is more on the mark in calling it a “gloomy detour.”

Either way, Rubio’s language in those particular addresses is less distinctive and more in line with Republican/Tea Party cliches.

“What’s happening to my country?” is a World Net Daily headline. “Time to forget the United States as we know it”–part of a Glenn Beck rant. And who can forget “Take back America!”, the long-standing chant of Tea Partiers ever since Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008.

The liberal response would be, “From whom?”, with the implied answer being that they thought conservatives wanted to take it back from the increasing numbers of Americans of non-white races. Rational conservatives would argue (in so many words) they wanted to take it back from liberals. But events over the years and especially last year with Trump have shown that a good number of people indeed were and are scared or uncomfortable about America’s increasing diversity. Read my article on how racism is driving much of the anti-immigrant sentiment here.

At best, such language is stupid, overused, and rendered without meaning after being reheated so many times. “Take back America” is the title of a Rick Santorum theme song, a Heritage presidential summit, and countless Tea Party events and memes.

Thankfully Rubio didn’t opt for those exact words, but “I don’t recognize America,” and “What’s happening to my country? I feel left behind,” express the same meaning.

With Iowa coming up and Rubio still lagging in third with 11% of the vote, he felt he needed to do something to appeal to the kinds of conservatives who like to hear such combative, angry language. But he must not turn off his base or the independents who an optimistic Rubio could attract in the general.

I am not sure how well he can appeal to Trump or Cruz voters just with that language–the only common thing about them besides anti-immigration views is harsh language, and they are much harsher than Rubio on that front. However, neither does he risk much losing his current base, which, for the most part, is already used to hearing such language from Republican politicians. There is an outside chance some might switch to Bush or Kasich in the near term, but they would flock back to Rubio in a three person race.

As for the general election, Rubio has a lot of time to modify his language as necessary if he pulls ahead in the primaries and wins the nomination. It is hard to believe many independents who pay less attention to politics would hold against him what he said in January.

I am kind of disappointed in his use of such boilerplate, arguably racially-tinged phraseology. But he still infuses his speeches with positive, poetic language. He started out his speech in Dallas on January 6 (after being interrupted by an anti-Semitic heckler) by saying, “This is the greatest country in the history of the world. … People can say outrageous things and not go to jail because we are a free people. … Free enterprise [is] an extraordinary economic system where you can go as far as your talent and your work will take you.”

It is after the brilliantly red, white, and blue opening that he says he is traveling the country, meeting with people who are frustrated. “They say things to me like, ‘I don’t recognize my own country anymore.’”

So even when he uses “take my country back” kind of language, he is smart enough (in the speech version) to attribute it to apocryphal people he meets on the trail. He’s not making the charge so much as he is responding to the people’s concerns. And then he goes on and blames it on Obama and says he’ll fix it all. Iowa votes on February 1, then New Hampshire on February 9, and South Carolina on February 20, so we will see if he gets the chance.

About the author:
*Mitchell Blatt
moved to China in 2012, and since then he has traveled and written about politics and culture throughout Asia. A writer and journalist, based in China, he is the lead author of Panda Guides Hong Kong guidebook and a contributor to outlets including The Federalist, China.org.cn, The Daily Caller, and Vagabond Journey. Fluent in Chinese, he has lived and traveled in Asia for three years, blogging about his travels at ChinaTravelWriter.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @MitchBlatt.

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This article was published at Bombs and Dollars

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Bombs and Dollars stands to bridge the gap between academia and policy, commentary and opinions, reporting and blogging and reflects the maturity of the personal experience of its Editors, who are now early-mid career correspondents, authors and academics.

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