Marco Rubio begins at the end of history.
“Decades of Decadence,” the senator’s latest book, opens with an epigraph from Edward Gibbon. “Their personal valor remained, but they no longer possessed that public courage which is nourished by the love of independence, the sense of national honor, the presence of danger, and the habit of command,” wrote Gibbon in the first volume of his famed “History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.”
Then: Fukuyama. Rubio’s introduction recalls the “The End Of History” hitting shelves right before he headed off to college in 1989. “Within a few years, the sense that history was over came to change the way US policymakers thought about our place in the world,” he argues. “Rather than working to assure that the United States would maintain its internal strength and its position as the world’s dominant superpower, our leaders enacted policies that put this country on a road of slow, inevitable decline.”
Rubio takes readers on a tour of this decline, making thoughtful stops at some familiar locations. NAFTA and WTO are given due attention. Rubio reflects on the Great Recession, the Ferguson riots, and Obergefell. There’s talk of BlackRock and Apple, and citations of Michael Lind, Irving Kristol, and Wesley Yang. (The senator explores Yang’s concept of “successor ideology.”)
All that is to say, “Decades of Decadence” knits together familiar arguments from the last half-decade of realignment politics, rightfully evaluating our culture, economics, and foreign policy to build a comprehensive analysis of decline. The book could serve as a basic primer on the emergent conservative argument about American malaise. What Donald Trump dubbed “American Carnage” is brought to life by the other Florida Man he took on in a presidential primary.
As Rubio concludes, he lands on “three main tasks” for policymakers looking to reverse these trends: “Putting Wall Street in its place,” “bring[ing] critical industry back,” and “rebuild[ing] America’s workforce.” If there’s a flaw in the book at all, it’s this list’s implication — intentional or otherwise — that the vast cultural problems Rubio spills so much ink addressing will be corrected downstream of economic healing.
Where some may see tension between the Rubio of 2010 and the Rubio of 2023, the senator confronts head-on the idea that Reagan conservatism — revamped early in his career as Tea Party conservatism — is dead. If anything, Rubio argues, Reaganism is willfully misunderstood by the GOP’s business-friendly permanent political class.
The book’s most interesting moments are actually observations pulled from 13 years in the upper chamber. Reflecting on the Reagan revolutionaries who later camped out in D.C., Rubio writes with unexpected aggression. “I am struck now by just how well entrenched those former radicals had become in Washington by the time I arrived,” he says. “Every policy meeting, every think tank, every lobbyist and interest group—all of them seemed to be a decade behind, part of what some referred to as Conservative, Inc.”
“Ronald Reagan had long since left office,” the senator adds, “but his legacy was being tarnished by those who claimed to be upholding it.”
At presidential campaign stops in 2016, Rubio says his staff “often had to drag me off the rope line.”
“On our way to the airport, they would remind me of who cared about what in the room I was about to walk into,” he remembers. “There is a hedge fund manager who has supported Democrats in the past, for instance, and he really wishes I wouldn’t talk about abortion as much. There’s a bank executive who’s really worried about Trump’s rhetoric on immigration and wishes I hadn’t pulled the rug out from under the Gang of Eight bill a couple years earlier.”
“One thing I rarely heard,” says Rubio, “was that this Fortune 500 company CEO is really interested in moving supply chains back to America. Or that Wall Street guy is very concerned about China’s exploitation of our capital markets.”
In an extended retrospective on the Gang of Eight fiasco, Rubio concludes, “I’ve learned the hard way that the national Democrat Party simply has no interest in being an honest partner in negotiating immigration laws that make sense and can be—and will be—enforced.”
As for the fate of civilization, Rubio argues the invasion of Ukraine could mark “the opening chapter in the return of history.”
There’s a heavy post-Tea Party, post-Trump cynicism to the senator’s writing. Those who’ve followed his eager leadership on the New Right’s policy front will hardly be surprised by “Decades of Decadence.” But at its most compelling, the book is personal and sharply disappointed in American elites. While few lawmakers are as candid and thoughtful, the cheery Rubio of 2010 is now something of a grizzled veteran, stern and grave and ever a reflection of the country he serves.