There is a cynical view among some that few truly noteworthy events occur in the U.S. Capitol building. These observers see the speeches as hollow, the decisions pro forma, the politicians as wooden campaign machines, powered by money.
But, occasionally, someone will defy these expectations and do something genuinely historic and remarkable. This morning many people are describing Sen. Jeff Flake’s speech in these terms.
Flake’s moment in the spotlight arrived on day 277 of a Trump presidency that has not been going well. The Justice Department is investigating the president for obstruction of justice. There is a growing pile of evidence Trump’s campaign colluded with Russian intelligence agencies. Even modest legislative victories have evaded his grasp. Attempts to use his executive power have failed clumsily or been blocked by the courts. In spite of Trump’s daily boasts to the contrary, no modern president has achieved so little in their first few months in office.
And the tone of the new presidency has been even worse. Every day he is caught lying on matters both profound and petty. He picks fights with the widows of fallen soldiers. He inexplicably demeans America’s previously loyal allies and praises its worst rivals. More than a quarter of his days are spent at golf courses. He uses his office to promote his family business. All of this has led to a popularity rating lower than any previous president at this point in their term.
Nonetheless Republican politicians have remained almost perfectly loyal. Even former rivals for the GOP nomination, men who Trump continues to regularly humiliate, voice nothing but support. No one expected Republicans to act as an opposition party, but we didn’t anticipate they would entirely abandon their convictions either.
Politicians who were disgusted by Bill Clinton’s affairs are silent about Trump’s boasts of sexual assault. Congressmen fixated on Benghazi remain untroubled by Niger. Senators who made a career investigating Hillary’s email security see no problem with Trump’s staff making the same errors. As Trump defaces every Republican ideal and policy, it seems that there is no one in his party willing to say: “Enough.”
Almost no one. Sen. John McCain, long belittled by Trump, has frequently (albeit diplomatically) expressed his displeasure with the president and voted against some of his bills. More recently, Sen. Bob Corker accused the president of being “harmful to our nation” and of spreading false information. But even then, he refused to call the president what he is: a liar.
And now there is Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona. Flake is a conservative, even by Republican standards. And he is also one of the most principled members of his caucus, often arguing for the party to return to traditional conservative ideals that have been sacrificed to political expediency.
Coincidentally, I am in the midst of reading Flake’s book, Conscience of a Conservative. It is a passionate attack on the destructiveness of partisan politics. He believes mindless tribalism is badly undermining the Republican agenda and hurting the country. So, I was not surprised Flake delivered a speech on the floor of the Senate yesterday attacking the president for his “reckless, outrageous, and undignified behaviour,” or that he also criticized his caucus colleagues for being complicit in the “alarming and dangerous state of affairs” he believes are threatening America.
Flake’s speech electrified many who are calling it a historic act of principled rebellion, one that may inspire his Republican colleagues to finally stand up to Trump. They see hope. But, if they look closer, they would only despair.
The senator did not just discover Trump was betraying Republican values. There was no “final straw” that pushed Flake over the edge. No—he finally spoke up only after deciding not to run for re-election. Similarly, Corker is not running again. And, unfortunately, McCain is dying. All three men only found their voice once they had nothing left to lose politically.
When there was a chance it could damage Flake’s personal political capital, he remained silent. Which means we cannot expect any of his Republican colleagues who are running for re-election to suddenly speak out, even though they likely see Trump the same way Flake does, a man who is turning Americans into “a fearful, backward-looking people,” a man without principles, without shame, ignorant of the ideals and institutions that have made American great.
Flake’s speech proved what many feared: that the Republican legislators, who have chosen to abandon their constitutional responsibility to check the power of the president, do so knowing exactly who Trump is. They know he is betraying American values, he is damaging the nation, he is unfit for office. But they will never speak out while there remains even a small chance to gain some personal political advantage from his presidency. And if this does not make you despair, perhaps nothing will.
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