Donald Trump is the politician who most accurately reflects the rage and anger, the zeitgeist, of our time. You don't have to like him, want him to win or even expect him to be the Republican nominee to see that he's perfected the roughhouse tone of the way we communicate politics. His raw speech, unfiltered, runs swiftly from gut to mouth; his comments are without craft. His is the talk we hear and see on cable TV, talk radio and the Internet.
The public isn't looking for an articulate, Kennedy-esque candidate who elegantly balances a phrase, a Ronald Reagan who soars metaphorically or even a somber intellectual who balances complex ideas like Richard Nixon. Voters want to hear unvarnished anger, rough and ready, rhetoric that comes with the bark still on and the gloves off.
Even if the Donald thinks long and hard before he speaks, he doesn't sound that way. We hear uncooked sentences with Everyman's thoughts that candidates in the past avoided, when political speech was filtered through convention and custom. Trump is new to both politics and party.
Marco Rubio, by contrast, is traditional. He speaks with passion, with the emotional memory of the immigrant experience he learned from his Cuban parents. He's articulate and grammatically fluent. He does his homework. But he finds it hard to be heard over the din of the Donald. Rubio recalls his parents' search for a better life through hard work to educate their son. Trump revels in the financial success of his father, of inherited wealth and a business he built bigger than it was when he got it. Marco Rubio is the American Dream. Donald Trump is the American Rant.
Ted Cruz is a different kind of rhetorician altogether. He has studied earlier playbooks carefully, and divides the world into two groups: not the haves and the have-nots, but whom he can sell to and whom he can ignore. Despite attending Princeton and Harvard, he expresses no pride in his "elite" education. His knock on New York values is a dismissal of the cultural aspirations of his professors and classmates. He campaigns with calculation for small-town Iowa values, ignoring the bigger picture. He doesn't care that Richard Nixon won New York state by almost 18 percent in 1972 or that Ronald Reagan won New York twice. Ted Cruz is a divider who thinks the numbers, not his autobiography, are on his side.
This infuriates the purveyors of New York values. "It now turns out that, after pretending to have financed his Senate campaign all by their lonesome, Texas style, Cruz and his wife actually got a loan from Goldman Sachs, where they had a brokerage account, to do it," writes Adam Gopnik, a New York chauvinist, in The New Yorker. He's seething at Cruz's disparagement of his values and delighting at the exposure of Cruz's hypocrisy.
He has a point. New York money values are appreciated and exploited by Cruz when they work for him. He may be what Spiro Agnew called "a nattering nabob of negativism," but Adam Gopnik sees it as psychological "longing" fused with "opportunism." He pictures the Texas senator living happily in New York as a corporate lawyer, perhaps at home in Trump Tower if he doesn't make it to the White House. His wife could easily move from the branch office of Goldman Sachs in Houston to the main show in the Big Apple.
No matter how you look at the Trump-Cruz clash of American civilities, Donald Trump triumphs in his defense of New Yorkers (at least in Manhattan). The Cruz shortcut to prejudice was a miscalculation nationally, exposed by the Donald's reminder of the courage of the firefighters running into the twin towers on 9/11. Republicans and Democrats alike remember when we were "all New Yorkers" with a common enemy.
Marco Rubio, however, consistently surpasses both Trump and Cruz in connecting emotion with facts. He's the man who best shows off his smarts, mixing humility with confidence. A television interviewer suggested that he could be a unifying force in his party because lots of voters seem to be nervous about both Ted Cruz and Donald Trump: "Why not just make the argument and say, don't vote for anybody else because we will split the vote, back me as an alternative to Ted Cruz and Donald Trump?"
Rubio says he's been trying to do just that. "Hillary Clinton does not want to run against me," he's said, and it's obvious that Clinton and her supporters agree, as they continue a relentless campaign against him. But despite his old-time oratorical skills and powerful appeal, his numbers haven't ripened. He may turn out to be the eloquent man who can't be heard above the din so skillfully exploited by the angry men.