Senator Marco Rubio.
Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images
In a morally bankrupt but financially prudent capitulation to China’s autocratic government, the National Basketball Association on Sunday apologized on behalf of Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, for his since-deleted tweet that included the line “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” Dissidents in Hong Kong have flooded the streets since March to oppose legislation that would’ve threatened their autonomy from mainland China and to call for democratic reforms. China’s central government has dubbed the unrest “the most severe situation [in Hong Kong] since its handover” from British to Chinese control in 1997.
China for months has sought to cast the demonstrators as violent separatists, despite most showing no interest in independence and the most severe forms of violence being deployed by the police, not the protesters. But this has challenged the NBA’s stance on political speech: The league has cultivated its brand as uniquely amenable to employees and players who vocalize their politics, but it sees in China one of its most lucrative international markets and wishes to avoid angering its government. This tension was reflected in the differing statements the league issued from its American and Chinese social-media accounts. The English-language version read in part, “We recognize that the views expressed by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable.” The Mandarin version read, “We are extremely disappointed in the inappropriate comment by the general manager of the Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey.”
(League spokesman Mike Bass clarified that “there should be no discrepancy” between the two and that the “statement in English is the league’s official statement”; it remains unclear if the Mandarin version was altered to clarify this.)
The political backlash to the NBA’s response was strident and bipartisan but found perhaps its loudest megaphone in Senator Marco Rubio. In a series of tweets on Monday, the Republican indulged one of his most cherished pursuits: conveying his outrage at people who behave sycophantically toward autocrats, as long as those autocrats aren’t his president and those people aren’t Marco Rubio. He conveyed “disgust” with the NBA’s deference but focused specifically on what he saw as its hypocrisy — a willingness, on the part of the league and its players, to articulate outrage toward injustice in America but not abroad. This is a remarkable accusation, given that Rubio has done little to leverage his own power as a U.S. senator to undermine the autocrat who leads his party, but loudly decries autocratic behavior from foreign leaders — the result, it seems, of a calculation strikingly similar to that being made by the NBA.
Rubio’s relationship with the president is one of the most unique in modern politics, in that Rubio is among a handful of Republican officials who ran against Trump for the GOP nomination in 2016. He’s also one of a handful who occasionally contradict the president in public: Most notably, he responded to Trump’s tweets demanding that four nonwhite congresswomen go back to where they came from by saying, quite courageously, “The president shouldn’t have written that.” (All four are U.S. citizens, and three were born in the U.S.) But aside from such displays, Rubio’s nerve has generally failed him, as when he voted with Trump’s position in the Senate 90 percent of the time since January 2017, or when he sat beaming in the audience as the racist who used to call him “Little Marco” kicked off his 2020 reelection bid in June. Most recently, the Florida senator — who has showered the internet with tweetstorms supporting pro-democracy protests in Venezuela, Russia, and Hong Kong — tacitly affirmed Trump’s right to ask China to investigate his political opponents by claiming the president wasn’t being serious. (China and Ukraine, Trump’s other sought-after partner in his anti–Joe Biden crusade, don’t seem to think so.)
Sycophancy has fast become Rubio’s defining trait when it comes to dealing with the president, whose threat to the democratic norms the senator purports to hold dear couldn’t be clearer. Just this summer, Trump defended before the Supreme Court an effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, an effort that failed only because his administration couldn’t lie convincingly enough about why he wanted it: to enhance the political power of white people at the expense of Latinos, as explained in the GOP strategy documents that guided the administration. Rubio isn’t alone. Other Trump loyalists masquerading as mavericks have decried the NBA’s obeisance to anti-speech strong-arming while continuing to back Trump, a leader who regularly lies about the nonexistent scourge of illegal voting to undermine Democratic victories and has called for NFL players to be fired if they don’t stand for the national anthem. These include Ben Sasse, Tom Cotton, and Ted Cruz, with a media assist from Laura Ingraham. But Rubio’s insistence on casting himself as a champion of global democracy movements makes his inclusion especially telling about his party’s loyalties.
Those loyalties are to maintaining power, first and foremost. And the principle behind their pursuit of power is the pursuit of money, as evidenced by the GOP’s dogged attempts at radical deregulation, their corporate handouts, and the gutting of social-welfare programs. These are necessarily anti-democratic activities as they encourage the hoarding of wealth and the insulation from taxation and public responsibility of billionaires. They amass support from voters by inflaming bigotry and disempowering the opposition’s constituencies at the ballot box. None of this is a mystery to Rubio, who could easily undermine the Republican agenda in his public statements or, more important, with his voting record. That he hasn’t is attributable to the calculation he has made about the importance of money and power and the costs of defying both as a GOP senator serving under a bigoted autocrat who nevertheless has stayed faithful to a fairly standard Republican economic and cultural agenda. Rubio has concluded that the costs are too high. It’s not a dissimilar conclusion from the one the NBA has drawn about its dealings with China. Financially prudent moves are often morally bankrupt. Far from taking umbrage at the NBA’s prostration, Rubio should feel right at home.