Opinion: Jeff Flake’s harsh words won’t help. Trump is winning the battle for the GOP’s identity

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), left, and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), right, engaged in remarkable exchanges of pointed criticisms with President Trump on Tuesday and Wednesday.
(Zach Gibson / AFP/Getty Images)

The Times’ editorial board has been calling on Republicans to push back against President Trump’s aberrant leadership for some time, so in that respect, Tuesday was a good day.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) issued a scathing critique of our Confounder in Chief on the Senate floor, offering a blistering denunciation of the executive branch and it’s “not normal” behavior. Flake’s comments came not long after Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) renewed his attacks on Trump, telling CNN that the president would be remembered for “the debasing of our nation, the constant non-truth telling, [and] just the name-calling.”

But here’s a reality check: Instead of trying to win a Republican primary next year against a (to put it politely) quirky candidate backed by Trump, Flake is leaving the Senate. Corker has also announced that he’ll be stepping down rather than face a likely primary challenge next year from a Trump-style anti-establishment candidate. From Trump’s point of view, that’s #Winning.

This is the second time this decade that the GOP has been hijacked by elements moved more by grievance than ideology.

Which raises the question, what does it mean to be a Republican these days?

Flake and Corker represent what has been the party’s conservative and moderate wings, respectively. The former’s top priority has been the federal debt and deficit, the latter its leadership in world affairs. Both check all the conventional GOP boxes, favoring less regulation, small government, low taxes and free trade.

With any other president — even a Democrat — these guys would be fully at home in the Senate. The problem is that Trump isn’t just a wildly unconventional president behaving unpredictably, he is the figurehead of a movement. His strange, Stephen Bannon-orchestrated mix of “America First” nativism, bellicosity and economic nationalism has captivated voters in many red states, threatening not only Flake’s and Corker’s reelection bids, but also those of like-minded Republicans.

As Flake put it in his Senate speech, “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 narrow 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.”



This is the second time this decade that the GOP has been hijacked by elements moved more by grievance than ideology. In 2010 it was the loosely organized tea party groups, whose anger at government was rooted in its response to the Great Recession. Now it’s Trumpism, which scapegoats immigrants, multilateral trade deals and the Washington establishment for the stagnating fortunes of many working-class Americans.

If there’s a common element between the tea partiers and the Trumpletariot, it’s a contempt for “elites” who’ve allegedly steered this country into a ditch. Trump not only showed that contempt during the GOP primaries, he’s continued it in the Oval Office. In fact, it’s the public disrespect Trump has shown for the leaders of his party and the conventions of governing that has prompted some of them to respond with stunningly sharp and personal condemnations.

Judging from Morning Consult’s latest poll numbers, Flake’s governing philosophy has lost favor with Arizona Republicans — only 37% approved of his performance and 50% disapproved. That’s startling, considering how closely his views hew to those of such conservative GOP titans as Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.

Gaining power in Washington often brings division to a party, so it’s not a huge surprise that Republicans would be splintering. What’s surprising is that they’re doing so at the hands of someone who has no apparent ideology, and who may not be able to steer the forces he has set in motion.

Witness the Senate primary in Alabama, where Trump backed the incumbent, Luther Strange, appointed in February to the seat vacated by Jeff Sessions, Trump’s pick for attorney general. Strange lost handily in the GOP primary to wacko populist Roy Moore, a former judge best known for defying federal court orders on two separate hot-button social issues. Moore was initially supported by Bannon, whose antipathy for the GOP establishment is palpable; since then, Moore’s anti-establishment campaign has drawn endorsements from four GOP incumbents, including the Senate’s second-ranking Republican.

Flake urged his colleagues Tuesday not to keep silent in the face of Trump’s “casual undermining of democratic ideals.” But the message from many GOP voters appears to be just the opposite.


Twitter: @jcahealey