As you will have heard, Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake announced today that he won’t seek re-election. From his speech to the Senate, in which he eviscerated President Trump:
It is time for our complicity and our accommodation of the unacceptable to end. In this century, a new phrase has entered the language to describe the accommodation of a new and undesirable order, that phrase being the new normal.
That we must never adjust to the present coarseness of our national dialogue with the tone set up at the top. We must never regard as normal the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals. We must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country. The personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms and institution, the flagrant disregard for truth and decency.
The reckless provocations, most often for the pettiest and most personal reasons, reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with the fortunes of the people that we have been elected to serve. None of these appalling features of our current politics should ever be regarded as normal. We must never allow ourselves to lapse into thinking that that is just the way things are now.
It is clear at this moment that a traditional conservative, who believes in limited government and free markets, who is devoted to free trade, who is pro-immigration, has a narrower and narrower path to nomination in the Republican Party, the party that has so long defined itself by its belief in those things.
It is also clear to me for the moment that we have given in or given up on the core principles in favor of a more viscerally satisfying anger and resentment. To be clear, the anger and resentment that the people feel at the royal mess that we’ve created are justified. But anger and resentment are not a governing philosophy.
There is an undeniable potency to a populist appeal by mischaracterizing or misunderstanding our problems and giving in to the impulse to scapegoat and belittle — 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.
We were not made great as a country by indulging in or even exalting our worst impulses, turning against ourselves, glorifying in the things that divide us, and calling fake things true and true things fake. And we did not become the beacon of freedom in the darkest corners of the world by flouting our institutions and failing to understand just how hard-won and vulnerable they are.
This spell will eventually break. That is my belief. We will return to ourselves once more, and I say the sooner the better.
He said that he will not say and do the things he would have to do to win a second term as a Republican in this environment. Good for him. It’s hard for me to imagine why anybody would want to wade into the Washington swamp now, especially as a Republican, given the repulsive behavior of the president who leads the party. Plus, this:
…the entire World WAS laughing and taking advantage of us. People like liddle’ Bob Corker have set the U.S. way back. Now we move forward!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 24, 2017
Same untruths from an utterly untruthful president. #AlertTheDaycareStaff
— Senator Bob Corker (@SenBobCorker) October 24, 2017
Disgusting, all of it. If this keeps up — and really, what would stop it? — men and women of character and capability will run as far as they can from the GOP.
Here’s the thing, though: Jeff Flake’s conservatism deserves to lose. He’s right about Trump’s character, but as I wrote in response to his book a short while back, all he offers is warmed-over Reaganism. If establishment Republicans like Flake had been paying attention, they would have changed with the times, and headed off somebody like Trump. I don’t mean that they should have surrendered their principles, necessarily, but adjusted them to fit the circumstances. Burke himself said that a state without the means of change is without the means of its own conservation. It’s true of a political party, certainly. Political parties are not churches, after all. The problem with the Republican Party and movement conservatism is that it regarded Reaganism as a kind of religion.
Jeff Flake strikes me as an honorable man. But good riddance to his kind of Republican.
That is not an endorsement of Trump by any means. Trump is a cancer consuming the body politic. But I’m with Damon Linker in being fed up with the same old establishment Republican boilerplate. This is precisely correct:
The center-right knows what it believes in, at least at the level of ideals, and it wants and expects the voters to approve of it. But the voters have made clear that they do not. The sensible response to this problem is not to keep stubbornly reaffirming those same rejected beliefs in the misplaced hope that the voters will suddenly come to their senses. It’s to rethink those beliefs, transforming them into something that might have greater popular appeal — or else to retire from the arena, making room for new ideas and new champions.
Bush and McCain delivered a couple of nice speeches last week. But now it’s time for them to go.
Donald Trump is not the answer. But you know what else isn’t the answer? The same old GOP script. I find myself tonight thinking about the reader who posted a comment last night saying that he’s having to work 12-hour days, and on weekends too, just to make ends meet. I happen to know the guy. He’s a middle-aged political and religious conservative, a churchgoing family man. And he’s being ground down by what he rightly calls “the destruction of the middle class.” I don’t know if he voted for Trump or not, but the Republican Party offers him nothing, and he knows that. Doesn’t mean he’s voting Democratic — that party is also a hot mess — but I can well imagine that the respectable rhetoric of a Sen. Flake falls on deaf ears in his house.
Along those lines, Matthew Walther writes about his hometown in rural Michigan:
What I don’t know is a single person who assigns any significance to the issues debated with mock-gravity by our permanent governing class. It’s not just a problem for progressives. Most people out here are equally alienated from the priorities of social conservatives in Washington, D.C., attending their millionth colloquium on problems in “the culture” while paying down their $2.5 million mortgage and figuring out which elite graduate schools their children can get into. It’s not that my fellow Michiganders are enthusiastic about abortion or same-sex marriage or “boys using the girls’ bathroom,” as some of them might put it. It’s just that these things mostly don’t affect them, and they find it easy to ignore them or laugh them away.
Most of these things will ultimately affect them, but I see Walther’s point. Still, it is infuriating that so many Trump supporters don’t seem to much care that he gets very little done, other than cause one pointless drama after another.
As usual, MBD said more in one tweet than I said in acres of rambling:
Trump is a reckoning with inadequacy of Bush era GOP. But the GOP is successfully using Trump’s idiocy to avoid that reckoning.
— Michael B Dougherty🍃 (@michaelbd) October 25, 2017
You gotta wonder if Ben Sasse thinks he would do better for American going back to running a college. Or driving Uber.
UPDATE: Ross Douthat won’t let Flake et al. off easy. Excerpt:
To the extent that there’s a plausible theory behind all of these halfhearted efforts, it’s that resisting Trump too vigorously only strengthens his hold on the party’s base, by vindicating his claim to have all the establishment arrayed against him.
But the problem with this logic is that it offers a permanent excuse for doing nothing, no matter how bad Trump’s reign becomes. (“I’d criticize him for accidentally nuking Manila, but you know, then Fox News would just make it all about me …”) In the end, if you want Republican voters to reject Trumpism, you need to give them clear electoral opportunities to do so — even if you expect defeat, even if it’s all but certain. And an anti-Trump movement that gives high-minded speeches but never mounts candidates confirms Trump’s claim to face establishment opposition while also confirming his judgment of the establishment’s guts and stamina — proving that they’re all low-energy, all “liddle” men, all unwilling to fight him man to man.
If Corker really means what he keeps saying about the danger posed by Trump’s effective incapacity, he should call openly for impeachment or for 25th Amendment proceedings — and other anti-Trump Republicans should join him. If Flake really means what he said in his impassioned speech, and he doesn’t want to waste time and energy on a foredoomed Senate primary campaign, then he should choose a different hopeless-seeming cause and primary Trump in 2020. George W. Bush should endorse him. So should McCain, and Corker, and Romney, and Kasich, and Sasse, and the rest of the anti-Trump list. They should expect to lose, and badly, but they should make Trump actually defeat them, instead of just clearing the field for his second nomination.
And not only for the sake of their honor. The president’s G.O.P. critics should engage in electoral battle because the act of campaigning, the work of actually trying to persuade voters, is the only way anti-Trump Republicans will come to grips with the legitimate reasons that their ideas had become so unpopular that voters opted for demagoguery instead.
A speechifying anti-Trumpism, distant from the fray, will always be self-regarding and self-deceiving — unwilling to see how the Iraq War discredited both the Bushist and McCainian styles of right-wing internationalism, incapable of addressing the economic disappointments that turned voters against Flake’s Goldwaterite libertarianism and Romney’s “trust me, I’m a businessman” promises. Only in actual political competition can the Republican elite reckon with why it lost its party, and how it might win again without succumbing to Trumpian indecency.
UPDATE.2: Reader Saltlick writes:
Rod — “Still, it is infuriating that so many Trump supporters don’t seem to much care that he gets very little done, other than cause one pointless drama after another.”
Let me start with the Boilerplate Denial: I did not vote for Trump and think he’s a clinical psychopath.
First, I think you are wrong about him not getting anything done. Much of it has been with Executive Orders, yes, but that only highlights the deceitfulness and incompetence of the Republican Congress. A few items of note:
— His DOJ has announced a breathtaking 180 from the days of Obama with respect to how it understands the Constitution’s guarantee of relgious liberty. Here’s the letter: https://www.redstate.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/religious-liberty1.pdf
— His Department of Justice has rescinded the Obama-fed notion that homosexuality and gender orientation are protected classes under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
— He is rescinding Obama’s order that the Affordable Care Act mandates employer-provided health benefits include contraception.
— According to its director, ICE has increased workplace enforcement of immigration laws four to five times.
— His EPA has ended the “sue and settle” scam which allowed environmental leftists to use litigation to create legislation.
— The U.S. has withdrawn from UNESCO, possibly the world’s most corrupt organization, just as it did in Reagan’s administration (Bush rejoined in 2002)
— His admibnistration is vigorously going after Sanctuary cities and the M-13 gang.
— ISIS is on it’s last legs.
And there’s a lot more if you research it.
Secondly — what alternative to Trump can you point to which will push conservative policies? Congress won’t do it; they are part of the problem. The Establishment GOP is more culturally aligned with Democrats and the media than with Trump’s base. So who?
Thirdly — You have written wonderfully and prophetically here about the decline of Christianity in America. Doesn’t that point to the fact that Trump may very well be the last president who is willing to protect religious freedom as we have known it in our lives? You know that is true, Rod. It’s doubtful a true conservative on our issues will ever again be elected president — cultural and religious shifts, changing demographics all weigh against it.
After Trump, the deluge. He may at least give us time to prepare.
These are fair points. The other day, a Republican who did not vote for Trump, and who is in a position to know, told me that the Trump administration is doing a lot of substantive good in the Education department and HHS, at the policy level. Nobody is covering this stuff, but it’s happening, and conservatives ought to be happy about it.