“I adore political parties. They are the only place left to us where people don’t talk about politics.” So quips Lord Goring in Oscar Wilde’s play “An Ideal Husband,” and recently Washington has borne him out. Much of the energetic politicking over the last decade has taken place outside the Republican and Democratic parties, in divergent movements and alliances. The tea party comes to mind, of course, along with its progeny the House Freedom Caucus. There were the bipartisan gangs, most notably the immigration-overhauling Gang of Eight. John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Joe Lieberman were once known as the Three Amigos, united in their brio for wrecking the Middle East. And today, the duo of Rand Paul, Republican, and Chris Murphy, Democrat, are responsible for almost all the Senate’s brain activity on foreign policy.
So when a trio of Republican senators sounded off in opposition to Donald Trump earlier this week, it was tempting to apply the old model and group them together. (The Trash-Trump Triumverate, maybe? Or just the Gang of Three?) But look closer and you realize Senators John McCain, Bob Corker, and Jeff Flake don’t have much in common beyond their antipathy towards the president. They are all Republicans, yes, and would all claim they’re merely vocalizing what many of their colleagues grumble about in the cloakroom. But theirs was hardly a concerted effort—Flake and McCain have been trashing Trump since the primary campaign, albeit separately, while Corker was outright praising the real estate tycoon a year back. Indeed their most glaring similarity seems to be that they all went about this solo, with each having decided independently that he had little left to lose by speaking out, whether because of a pugnacious primary challenger or a cancer diagnosis.
Each of the three roughly represents a different wing of the modern GOP: McCain the neocon hawks, Corker the well-heeled establishmentarians, and Flake the Tea Party. That leads to plenty of consensus—all three support broad tax reform, for example—but also some disagreement, as on foreign policy where Flake pushed to end the Cuba embargo while McCain backed keeping it in place. Such is the Republican Party these days, still crissed and crossed by divisions after years in the ideological fitting rooms. But whereas most of those fractures were over issues and schools of thought, the latest is over a personality: Donald Trump—not his policies, which have so far have been a grab bag, but his temperament and management style and qualification for the nuclear codes. Because such matters aren’t necessarily libertarian or neoconservative, they’ve pitted allies against each other while also bringing together those from the right’s different intellectual camps. Hence John Bolton backing Trump while the Weekly Standard opposes; hence, too, the senatorial trio.
Trump’s personality as political issue was especially evident during Flake’s stemwinder on the Senate floor, the most sustained anti-Trump salvo this week. While the Arizona senator mouthed the usual palaver about America’s diminished standing in the world, the bulk of his speech was spent bashing Trump’s leadership and rhetoric, not ideology. “We must never adjust to the present coarseness of our national dialogue with the tone set at the top,” Flake declared. “We must never regard as normal the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals. We must never accept the daily sundering of our country.” Corker’s recent disagreement with Trump was similarly personal, with the Tennesseean insisting that the White House is being run like an “adult daycare center.” McCain’s focus, too, was on Trump’s character: this week he obliquely attacked the president’s Vietnam draft deferments.
The biggest issue in the right’s culture war has thus become Donald Trump qua Donald Trump. This is not how it’s supposed to be. Presidents typically unite parties. In theory, presidential personalities are such luminescent things as to blot out ideological divisions and pull in potential dissenters. Trump, by contrast, hasn’t erased those battle lines so much as turned them sideways, uniting unalike Republicans both behind and against him, subordinating substantive intra-right debates to basic questions of presidential adequacy. Some like Tom Cotton unflinchingly back Trump while others like Flake are opposed; some grit their teeth and court the president to advance their agendas while others stay quiet to avoid the wrath of primary voters. But every Republican is trapped in his own atomized farce, part Henry Adams and part Evelyn Waugh, in which the most pressing issue of his public service has become a capricious former casino magnate with a vermillion tan. Seven years ago, the Tea Party was banging on about fiscal policy and the Seventeenth Amendment. How far we’ve come.
Out of the three anti-Trump senators, Flake comes off as the most sympathetic. Despite an occasional sanctimonious note, he’s no hypocritical johnny-come-lately, as is Corker. And unlike McCain he’s at least attempted a coming-to-terms with the forces driving Trump, reversing his support for the Iraq war and conceding in his recent speech that “the anger and resentment that the people feel at the royal mess that we’ve created are justified.” That latter acknowledgement—that Washingtonian failures are in part responsible for our present predicament—sticks in the mind because it’s so rare: certainly McCain has never found time to dwell on it and neither has most of the mainline GOP. There’s been no party-wide airings of grievances over the foreign-policy fiascos of the Bush administration, no official beer summits at Capitol Lounge to discuss alternatives to “compassionate” conservatism. Instead, it’s been onwards with the usual center-right ideology, more war and spending and federalization, with populism seen as something to be survived rather than learned from. This effectively ceded all the reformist energy to the activist base, which eventually decided on anger over substance, revolution over evolution—a mistake, surely, but one only possible because of the elites.
And that’s ultimately the problem with Flake’s efforts. He assumes the solution to Trumpism is a mere cooling down of temperaments, when in fact those scalding presidential insults are only a symptom of a far larger and more substantive malady. It isn’t all about personality. Electing Trump wasn’t merely catharsis; it was a very real counterattack against a political consensus perceived to be too myopic, too self-enriching, too addicted to discredited ideas, too fixated on the big and international at the expense of the small and local. Being in the anti-Trump camp, then, isn’t enough. Lord Goring’s critique must be heeded. Those who oppose the president need to start politicking again, persuading red-staters and devising fresh solutions for the Rust Belt, rather than going out in a flurry of moral indignation. Or they can choose to play the personality game—but Trump will win that one every time.
Matt Purple is the managing editor of The American Conservative.