Blood, inheritance, and privilege: Marco Rubio’s problem and ours

It happened at last: Marco Rubio announced his candidacy for an office he won’t get. With his stillborn language and wooden performances, the plankton with a hairpiece pontificates like a member of the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce. A skilled orator can overcome boilerplate. Rubio shows his anger like, to quote Michael Dorsey in Tootsie, a second-rate actor. There’s no suggestion of nuance, of forces held in reserve. In him we see the nadir of the trope that Ronald Reagan introduced into American political life: a conveyance of optimism as a moral imperative — an optimism shrill and rictus-grinned into converting its audience and probably itself. I know his type well. As I’ve noted the last couple of days, Cubans are unique among immigrants in that politics forms as inextricable a part of their blood cells as plasma, and as a result they take seriously the stories their families tell about themselves. He has never wanted to be other than the child of exiles who left before the grotesqueries and blood spilled of Castro’s coup d’etat, taking their Cold War ethos into an eighth decade.

In the eyes of the conservatives who once saw him as the Hispanic Moses, according to Daniel Larison, “he showed his true colors in supporting the bill, and in the eyes of ‘reform’ supporters he caved immediately when he encountered the slightest resistance.” And Cubans should be offended that the American political commentariat is besotted with the idea of One Hispanic to Rule Them All — that to nominate Rubio means the GOP vaporizes its frightening problem attracting Hispanics. My parents and hundreds of thousands of their brethren have spent fifty-three years explaining what distinguishes Cubans from Nicaraguans, Venezuelans, Brazilians, and Chileans. They stuck “Yo no soy ‘Hispano’ — soy CUBANO'” bumper stickers on their cars. Beneath this estimable resistance to homogenization was privilege: no other immigrant group in the twentieth century benefited from American largesse like Cubans did and do. Privilege works in subtle ways, removed from a person’s control; it undergirds our responses to the world as much as our parents’ values; privilege is often part of what our parents bequeath us. Incarnated by Rubio, privilege curdles into snobbery. Of course Rubio can solve the GOP’s Hispanic Problem, I’ve heard people and talk show hosts suggest. He’s Cuban. His parents are products of the American Century. During the Cold War this meant the United States empowered a people whom the vagaries of foreign policy had treated as serfs for half a century. Despite the scrimping and the the choices made by his bartender dad and maid mom — have a drink with me and I’ll tell you what my parents endured in the sixties — the federal government at the apex of its power, reach, and regard wanted them to succeed.

For decades Cubans, under several presidents, debated Washington’s caprices. Growing up under these circumstances in West Miami, Marco Rubio knew what his parents suffered and how the United States palliated the suffering. On the evidence his knowledge has given him no insight or compassion into the children of illegal immigrants, gays, the poor. Worse, no insight into gay immigrants: in a forgotten bit of prestidigitation, he threatened to sabotage his own 2013 immigration bill by refusing to accept a clause that would have allowed citizens to sponsor foreign same-sex spouses for permanent residency in the United States (I suspect Rubio did it on purpose, aware his bill was doomed and wanting to save face with his right flank, although no one at the time said so; please correct me if I’m wrong).

Beware the self-made man, I’ve said repeatedly, for he has no pity for anyone else. But he’s not a self-made man. He’s a child who has accepted a point of view without questioning it. To use as a campaign slogan “new American century” is no accident. The American century was the twentieth. Marco Rubio and his GOP masters are still living in it. At least Bill Kristol, Robert Kagan, and Paul Wolfowitz were at the levels of power during America’s Cretaceous Era. Rubio, the child of emigrants scrimping and saving for his education, must covet the power that brought his parents to heel in a foreign country. And isn’t this fate another iteration of the so-called American Dream — the citizen hopes to usurp those who humiliated him?

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