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Marco Rubio ran a campaign of fear

Presidential Candidate Marco Rubio Campaigns In Florida Gerardo Mora/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Marco Rubio lost his home state of Florida last night, and withdrew from presidential campaign. In his final speech, he warned Americans away from a politics of fear — decrying, in only thinly veiled language, the Trump campaign.

"I ask the American people: Do not give in to the fear," he said. "We are a hopeful people, and we have every right to be hopeful."

While some candidates appealed to people's worst instincts, Rubio said, he appealed to their best. "The easiest thing to have done in this campaign is to jump on all those anxieties I just talked about, to make people angrier, make people more frustrated," Rubio says. "But I chose a different route, and I'm proud of that."

But there is an undeniable irony to this: Rubio himself ran a campaign suffused with fear.

He portrayed an America that has never been in greater danger, led by a nefarious president who intentionally undermines his own country. He refused to rule out bringing back torture, and suggested Trump's scheme for monitoring American Muslims at mosques didn't go far enough.

Rubio may decry Donald Trump's appeals to fear now. But he made those same appeals himself.

"Nothing matters if we aren't safe"

In May, just a month after launching his campaign, Rubio gave an interview in which he argued that Americans' economic concerns pale in comparison to the threats emanating from abroad.

"None of that matters if we aren't safe," Rubio said. His campaign adapted the line into a slogan and fundraising page with its own meme:

(Marco Rubio for President)

"The economy will always be a major domestic issue," the website explains, "but it won’t matter if we can’t keep the people and processes that run it safe from foreign threats."

Obama, Rubio's campaign made clear, is not keeping America safe.

"The world has never been more dangerous than it is today," the site states (which also happens to be demonstrably incorrect).

In September, as Congress was considering a final vote on the Iran deal, Rubio gave a speech heavily implying that the agreement would risk a nuclear war.

"I know what is going to happen with regards to this, if it goes through," Rubio said. "They will build a nuclear weapon."

Never in the history of the world has such a regime ever possessed weapons so capable of destruction. Iran is led by a Supreme Leader who is a radical Shia cleric with an apocalyptic vision of the future.

He is not a traditional geopolitical actor who makes decisions on the basis of borders or simply history or because of ambitions. He has a religious apocalyptic vision of the future, one that calls for triggering a conflict between the non-Muslim world and the Muslim world, one that he feels especially obligated to trigger. And he's going to possess nuclear weapons?

This is the world that we are on the verge of leaving our children to inherit, and perhaps we ourselves will have to share in.

Rubio's assertion of terrifying threats extended to China as well.

"China is doing everything it can to make the 21st century a Chinese Century," Rubio said in a campaign speech. "If you want to know what a Chinese Century would look like for the world, look no further than how the government treats its own people."

But no enemy featured in Rubio's warnings like the Islamic State.

In November, after ISIS attacks in Paris, Rubio portrayed the group as an existential threat to American society.

"They literally want to overthrow our society and replace it with their radical Sunni Islamic view of the future," he said. "This is a clash of civilizations. And either they win or we win."

The scope of this struggle, in Rubio's telling, justified extraordinary measures at home. After Donald Trump promised to close down American mosques that he believed were recruiting terrorists, Rubio suggested that this didn't go far enough.

"It’s not about closing down mosques. It’s about closing down any place — whether it’s a cafe, a diner, an internet site — any place where radicals are being inspired," he said in a Fox News interview. "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 real concern, Rubio warned, is that we can't figure out which mosques to shut down. That's because Obama has hamstrung our intelligence-gathering communities by limiting NSA surveillance:

The bigger problem we have is our inability to find out where these places are, because we’ve crippled our intelligence programs, both through unauthorized disclosures by a traitor, in Edward Snowden, or by some of the things this president has put in place with the support even of some from my own party to diminish our intelligence capabilities.

Rubio's warning extended to immigration as well. He suggested that ISIS was planning to sneak through our immigration system, putting vast portions of the American population at imminent risk of a major ISIS attack.

"Hundreds of thousands of Americans could be in danger over the next 10 years," he said. "This is a sophisticated group that is figuring out how to use the immigration system to get fighters in here."

Rubio, quite overtly, was telling Americans that they are vulnerable to and could be imminently destroyed by a vast array of terrifying threats. He was telling voters, over and over, that the emotion they should feel is not hope or optimism but fear.

"Barack Obama knows exactly what he's doing"

This was perhaps Rubio's most famous campaign line, largely because it featured in a debate gaffe whereby he repeated it several times in response to criticism that he can seem robotic. But the line seems perhaps more significant for the message it sent: that Obama is intentionally undermining America.

This was explicitly part of Rubio's campaign message, which said that only he could be trusted to end Obama's campaign of deliberate anti-Americanism.

In January, he said Obama had "deliberately weakened America," because the president believed that America had done more harm than good in the world. He also warned of Barack Obama's secret desire to steal Americans' guns and leave them vulnerable to ISIS.

"I am convinced that if this president could confiscate every gun in America, he would," Rubio said. "The last line standing between [ISIS] and our families might be us and a gun. When I'm president of the United States, we are defending the Second Amendment, not undermining it like Barack Obama."

When Fox Business's Neil Cavuto pointed out that this might be a bit extreme, Rubio reacted angrily. "Do you remember when he was running for president and said, 'These Americans with traditional values are bitter people, and they cling to their guns and their religion?'" he asked rhetorically. "That tells you right away where he was heading on all of this."

Rubio went even further at the next debate in the famously repeated line.

"Let's dispel once and for all with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing. He knows exactly what he's doing," Rubio said. "Barack Obama is undertaking an effort to change this country, to make America more like the rest of the world."

This line became famous, of course, because of the repetition — the so-called "glitch" that may very well have tanked Rubio's campaign in New Hampshire.

But it's worth paying attention to the actual argument. Rubio is alleging that Barack Obama is an anti-American internationalist, one who is deliberately weakening the things that make the United States unique and great.

Rubio expanded on these themes in subsequent interviews, arguing that Obama was undermining the very constitutional fabric of American government.

"Barack Obama is changing America," Rubio told Fox's Brian Kilmeade. "All the changes that Barack Obama has made to our country [are] going to continue or be made permanent or instead, we’ll reembrace the constitution and limited government."

This message, Rubio said, "is one of the cornerstones of our campaign."

Rubio's campaign surrogates went even harder. When CNN asked Rubio press secretary Alex Conant whether Obama was "intentionally trying to destroy the country," his answer was simple: "Absolutely."

"All evidence confirms that," Conant asserted. "Marco is running for president because he believes America is a special place and he wants to keep it a special place."

This is how Rubio's seemingly sunny campaign slogan — "A New American Century" — ended up implying something darker. Elect Marco Rubio, the argument goes, or America as we have known it will cease to exist. Either a new American century or no American century.

This is why Republican denunciations of Trump feel so awkward

Trump Rubio (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

Rubio's campaign, suffused in fear as it was, adopted a message that has been with elements of the party for some time. Since Obama's victory in 2008, some Republican politicians and conservative media have cast him as simultaneously weak and dangerous, bent on undermining the country's basic freedoms at home.

Thus Obamacare was the end of liberty in America; Obama nefariously employed the IRS to silence conservatives; and he covered up the truth about Benghazi to hide his own weakness in the face of terror. Even Newt Gingrich endorsed the idea that the president was a "Kenyan anti-colonialist" who despised the United States and everything it stood for.

Which is what makes all the Republican denunciations of Trump feel so hollow.

While Rubio condemned Trump, he deployed his own rhetoric suffused with paranoid fear. But it was language that had been normalized by Republican media and elites for years as a useful tool for justifying their unyielding opposition to Obama's agenda.

"The politics of resentment against other people will not just leave us a fractured party; they are going to leave us a fractured nation," Rubio warned in his withdrawal speech.

He's right.

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