On Tuesday, Republican Arizona Senator Jeff Flake stood on the floor of the Senate and excoriated his colleagues for abandoning their principles, transforming the GOP into a “fearful” and “backward-looking” party, and, above all, for failing to speak up about the daily moral outrages wrought by President Donald Trump. It was a fiery speech, but it was also mournful—Flake was announcing his retirement. As his Senate career began to draw to a close, he seemed regretful that he had participated in a poisonous trade-off, in which Republicans supported a person manifestly unqualified for the presidency in exchange for a big tax cut, loosened regulations, and a Supreme Court justice or two. It was a sad version of Reagan’s quip, “I didn’t leave the Democrats, they left me.” Unlike Reagan, Flake appeared to be choking back tears.
Flake’s speech was widely praised as a potentially seminal moment in the history of Trump’s presidency, particularly because it followed fellow Republican Senator Bob Corker’s claim earlier in the day that Trump was “debasing” the nation. That came days after George W. Bush delivered a speech that heavily criticized Trump in all but name, and as John McCain rehabilitated his maverick persona to become one of Trump’s most formidable opponents. The party, it appeared, was undergoing the split that should have happened a long time ago.
Then something funny happened. Hours after condemning his colleagues for not calling out the president’s abuses, Flake—joined by Corker, McCain, and fellow Trump criticizers Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski—voted with their Republican colleagues to kill a rule that made it easier for consumers to sue banks and credit card companies for abuses.
Flake’s vote spectacularly undermined the potency of his speech. But it wasn’t surprising. In the afternoon, Flake articulated a set of “limited government” principles that largely serve big businesses and the rich, and voted on that same set of principles six hours later. The vote didn’t expose any hypocrisy, but it did reveal the speech for the empty rhetorical gesture it was. Flake is unnerved by the growing power of what is often referred to as the Bannon wing of the Republican Party, an openly bigoted faction that establishment Republicans had long been content to exploit until that faction, like the lunatics in the old adage, began running the place. But however much Flake, Corker, and their Republican colleagues dislike the president, they’ve struggled to articulate what exactly makes them different.
Certainly there are differences in word, but in deed Flake and Corker are both more or less in lockstep with the president. By focusing so heavily on issues of temperament and character, by failing to articulate a meaningful set of principles that go beyond boilerplate pablum about “limited government,” these anti-Trumpers are doomed to fail. After all, if the party were to split, it would result in two terrible parties, one primarily defined by white identity grievance politics, the other by a fealty to the one percent.
Though widely treated as an indictment of the president, Flake’s speech is best understood as an indictment of his party. It was a call to his colleagues to do something in the face of Trump’s degradation of the Republican Party and, by extension, the country as a whole.
“It is clear at this moment that a traditional conservative who believes in limited government and free markets, who is devoted to free trade, and who is pro-immigration, has a narrower and narrower path to nomination in the Republican Party—the party that for so long has defined itself by belief in those things,” Flake said. “There is an undeniable potency to a populist appeal—but mischaracterizing or misunderstanding our problems and giving in to the impulse to scapegoat and belittle threatens to turn us into a fearful, backward-looking people. In the case of the Republican Party, those things also threaten to turn us into a fearful, backward-looking minority party.”
Flake characterizes this as an existential conflict. On the one side, there are Reagan Republicans like himself, who operate on a clear set of principles: They are for limited government, free markets, and open borders. On the other side, there is the Trump/Bannon wing: authoritarian, isolationist, reckless in both domestic and foreign policy, and bigoted.
But there is little to suggest that existential conflict is playing out on Capitol Hill at the moment, as Flake’s voting record testifies (he’s supported the president’s policy agenda 90 percent of the time). It’s true that Republicans, despite controlling both the legislature and the presidency, have struggled to accomplish much of substance, but this has less to do with an ongoing Republican civil war than the fact that their policy agenda is extremely unpopular. Under President Trump, the Republican Party has been mostly united on issues Flake cares about (e.g., cutting taxes, taking health care away from people) and on those that the Bannonites care about (e.g. endorsing the Senate candidacy of Roy Moore, an Islamophobic zealot even more obviously unfit to serve than Trump). What is causing the rupture is Trump himself, and the unsustainable pressure he puts on tensions that have long existed within the GOP.
Flake is uncomfortable with the Trump’s race-baiting and his repeated attacks on, well, everyone. Like Corker, he believes that Trump is unfit to serve. He is concerned about Trump’s potential to abuse the power of the executive branch, and, perhaps, to involve the United States in a conflict that could kill millions. And to his credit, Flake spoke out against Moore. But with Corker, Flake could recruit another anti-Trumper—John McCain or Susan Collins come to mind—to take actions that would meaningfully constrain Trump. They could push for hearings on Trump’s self-dealing and/or other potential violations of the Constitution, or force Trump to release his tax returns by withholding their votes on key issues.
He could also reflect on the ways that his faction of the GOP has lost its way and become detached from the concerns of ordinary Americans. Flake’s speech was powerful because it took on the form of prophecy. He was warning his colleagues that the Republican Party was being taken over by nutcases. But like Bush and McCain before him, he has struggled to expand his critique beyond Trump and the Bannonite wing, and toward more meaningful political territory.
Now it may be too late. While supposedly conscientious Republicans dithered or abetted Trump’s rise, he solidified his grip on the Republican Party. Depending on where you stand, Flake and Corker have taken brave stances against their party’s leaders, or have been purged. And with Steve Bannon promising to run roughshod over anti-Trump Republicans in 2018 it’s tempting to say that takeover is nearing completion. The tragedy of Jeff Flake isn’t that there’s no place for him in the Republican Party, but that Jeff Flake’s GOP has nothing to offer.