They’d laughed at Donald Trump. They’d called him a fake conservative. They made fun of his spray tan, his Twitter typos and the hands he’d used to type them.
Yet until Friday night, Trump’s three remaining rivals for the Republican presidential nomination generally agreed that the mogul-turned-populist, whose presidential campaign was filling arenas and driving up voter turnout, was tapping into legitimate anger. That has changed — perhaps for good.
In statements from last night and Saturday morning, Sens. Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Ohio Gov. John Kasich all condemned the front-runner for creating a “toxic” political environment, for stoking “anarchy” that was now unfolding on TV screens. While anti-Trump super PACs were attacking the candidate’s business record, the candidates themselves were saying explicitly that Trump needed to change the way he was running for president before it did permanent damage to the country.
“This is what a culture and a society looks like when everybody says whatever the heck they want, when everyone just goes around saying ‘I’m just going to speak my mind,'” Rubio said at a morning press conference in Largo, Fla. “Well, there are other people that are angry, too. And if they speak out and say whatever they want, it all breaks down. It’s called chaos. It’s called anarchy. And that’s what we’re careening towards.”
Mainstream conservatives, who had been nervously coalescing in an ad hoc #NeverTrump movement, had found themselves in a sort of alliance with liberals. That alliance seemed to strengthen on Saturday, as Trump’s rivals criticized him, and not protesters, for a political rally that devolved into a melee. Just 36 hours after a debate where they’d dodged questions about Trump’s habit of egging on counter-protestors, each of them expressed genuine-sounding disgust.
“I think all of them are as troubled as I am at what they see happening, and they are trying to warn the Republican electorate of the train wreck coming down the track and what it will mean for us as a party and a country,” said Katie Packer, the Republican strategist who founded the anti-Trump Our Principles PAC.
“I’m pleased to see anyone go after Trump and expose his campaign, including Marco Rubio,” said Tony Fratto, a Republican strategist and Bush administration veteran who was running as an unpledged delegate in Saturday’s D.C. primary. “It’s late, but I don’t think it’s too late to stop what would be a disaster for the country.”
If it was late, one reason was the long-running reluctance of Trump’s rivals to criticize his style and his burgeoning movement. From the start of his campaign nine months ago, Trump drew larger and more raucous crowds than any Republican running for president. He swallowed news cycles and enjoyed start-to-finish live TV coverage of his rallies — something denied to his rivals, who were left hoping for soundbites. Last autumn, as they hoped for Trump’s support to fade naturally, his most strategic rivals declined to criticize him.
“We need to take lessons from Donald Trump,” Kasich said at the first Republican debate, sponsored by Fox News in Cleveland. “Donald Trump is hitting a nerve in this country.”
One month later, Cruz shared the stage with Trump at a hastily-organized rally against the nuclear deal with Iran. Pressed again and again by reporters, Cruz said he was grateful for the attention Trump could bring to any cause.
“A lot of the other candidates have gone out of their way to smack him with a 2×4, said some really nasty, vicious things,” Cruz said. “I think that’s foolish. I think that’s a mistake deliberately not done so indeed I’ve gone the other direction — I’ve sung his praises. He’s bold, he’s brash and I think the support he’s gaining right now in the polls is because people are looking for someone willing to stand up to Washington.”
But on Friday night, after a Trump rally was canceled over security concerns, Cruz was the first Trump rival to get in front of cameras and condemn his habit of egging on counter-protesters: “Any candidate is responsible for the culture of a campaign. And when you have a campaign that disrespects the voters, when you have a campaign that affirmatively encourages violence, when you have a campaign that is facing allegations of physical violence against members of the press, you create an environment that only encourages this sort of nasty discord.”
Rubio, who had avoided direct engagement with Trump until the week before Super Tuesday, was slower out of the gate. At first, during a call-in to Fox News, he criticized the “organized” nature of the Chicago protest, and assured listeners that “you don’t have a right to take away the First Amendment right of people to speak freely.”
On Saturday, his tone grew progressively more stark. The news from his morning news conference was that he found it , even if it was Donald Trump. But Rubio was more passionate when he contemplated why Trump had gotten so far.
“I think the media has to bear some responsibility,” he said. “For too long, those comments were ignored. Some people thought they were cute. And he’s gotten an enormous amount of coverage … a Donald Trump supporter sucker-punched a man the other day, and he still has not condemned him.”
Later, in an interview with the New York Times that his campaign quickly circulated to reporters, Rubio asked if Trump was demolishing the norms of democracy.
“The rhetoric reminds me of third-world strongmen,” Rubio said. “You mark my words: There will be prominent people in American politics who will spend years explaining to people how they fell into this.”
At several stops across Ohio, Kasich also criticized the media’s coverage of Trump, and referred with a combination of pride and disdain for how his insults-free campaign had often been ignored — even when he’d made substantive criticisms of Trump.
“In the third debate, if you go back and watch the third debate, I was the first one to start raising issues about his position on immigration,” Kasich told reporters. “I was severely critical of Ben Carson when he talked about abolishing Medicare. And I was the first one, contrary to some media reports, to take on Donald Trump.”
Still, at a town hall in Heath, a questioner asked why Kasich did not support “the first amendment rights of Mr. Trump” when he was shut down by Black Lives Matter & MoveOn. Kasich responded that Trump has created “a toxic atmosphere” and that “he had a right to speak, and people had the right to protest.”
To criticize Trump substantively meant to embrace at least some of the left’s critiques of him. In interviews and statements, the organizers of the Chicago protest and supportive groups like MoveOn.org said explicitly that Trump was spreading racism, and it needed to be stopped. None of Trump’s rivals went that far; Cruz scoffed at a Friday night question about whether Trump’s “policies” were inspiring protesters.
The idea of blaming Trump and Trump alone for the tone of the rallies also challenged the candidates and some conservative talkers. In his battery of Friday night interviews, Trump got some support from Fox News’s Sean Hannity, who rejected the idea that Trump had brought the protests on himself.
“I have been watching and flipping the dial tonight and somehow people have been trying to flip this on you,” a sympathetic Hannity told Trump, “as if you stating your political opinions is responsible for this.”
Even as he heightened his contrasts with Trump, Rubio suggested that some of the blame for his strongman style could be spread to the Democrats.
“Look, Barack Obama has used divisive language as well,” Rubio said on Saturday. “I will admit, he hasn’t called on people in the crowd to beat people up. But he has divided Americans up with class warfare and things of that nature.”
And at a Saturday morning news conference in Missouri, Cruz deflected a question about whether Trump had gone too far to ever earn his support. “I committed at the outset, I will support the Republican nominee, whoever it is,” said Cruz, insisting that he would beat him. He went on to criticize the protesters who had shut down the event.
“It’s sad, number one, that you have protesters that resort to violence, that resort to threats of violence that resort to yelling and screaming and disruption to silence speech that they don’t like,” he said. “And we’ve seen, whether it is the Bernie Sanders campaign or the Black Lives Matter movement, or others, we’ve seen some protesters who take speech into intimidation, into violence, into trying to silence anyone who might disagree with them. That is wrong.”
Sean Sullivan in Largo, Fla.; Jim Tankersley in Heath, Ohio; and Katie Zezima in Ballwin, Mo., contributed to this report.
David Weigel is a national political correspondent covering the 2016 election and ideological movements.