Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake has been the talk of the town here in Washington after his Tuesday speech denouncing Donald Trump. This praise is largely misplaced, however, because Flake's extended rant against the president was not appreciably different from anything he’s said in the past.
“When the next generation asks us, ‘Why didn’t you do something? Why didn’t you speak up?’ — what are we going to say?” Flake said. His subsequent actions and words answered that rhetorical question clearly: He intends to do basically nothing but complain.
Toward the end of his long speech on Tuesday, even Flake himself acknowledged this, albeit accidentally. “We must be unafraid to stand up and speak out as if our country depends on it, because it does,” he said. Flake issued no call to action or promise of increased oversight in his philippic, nor has he done so in any of the television interviews he’s given since.
Some Trump critics have faulted Flake for not committing to removing the president from office via impeachment. Since not even congressional Democratic leaders have proposed that, beyond a few whispers and mutters, the criticism is misplaced.
In terms of voting, Flake has rarely dissented from the White House line. According to FiveThirtyEight, he’s voted with Trump 90 percent of the time, as of this writing. Flake’s Senate colleagues, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Bob Corker of Tennessee, have both been strident Trump critics, but have similarly chosen to stick with the president when it really matters. By FiveThirtyEight’s count, Sasse has toed the Trumpian line on over 90 percent of his votes while Corker has done the same more than 86 percent of the time.
There are plenty of other things that Flake and other Republicans who claim to oppose the president could do, however, as Jerry Taylor, the president of the post-libertarian Niskanen Center told Salon.
“If Donald Trump is the danger to the republic that they say he is, and I fully agree with that assessment, then these members need to act like it,” Taylor says. He provided me with a list of things that Republicans who say they want to check Trump’s power could do, including:
- Making Trump’s tax returns public
- Requiring Trump and all future presidents to put their assets in a blind trust
- Demanding that Senate Republicans give more resources to the Intelligence Committee’s investigation of the Trump-Russia connection during the last election
- Establishing a bipartisan, blue-ribbon commission to offer recommendations for electoral cybersecurity and protection against foreign disinformation campaigns
- Reclaiming war powers that have been delegated in the past to the president
- Enforcing the sanctions imposed by Congress on the Russian and allied business entities, which are now going unenforced
- Refusing to vote for any legislation that has not gone through the normal process of committee hearings, markups and so on
There’s plenty of time for Flake or other Trump-critical politicians to get behind any of the above measures or propose their own, but it’s unlikely that they will take such actions. In truth, the Republican frustration with Trump is more personal than political. While Trump raised a number of GOP hackles during his campaign by contravening historic party positions on an array of issues, since assuming the presidency he has essentially allowed old-school Reaganite conservative members of Congress to dictate his policy agenda. Trump’s former calls to preserve government guarantees of Social Security and Medicare, his promises of trade wars, his vows to label China a “currency manipulator” and his repeated denunciations of “globalist” financiers have essentially amounted to nothing.
Instead of promoting a tax cut plan that would be more advantageous to middle- and lower-income Americans, Trump has instead promoted a framework that actually increases taxes on many people in those groups, particularly those who live in states or cities with higher regional taxes. The promises of Trump and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin not to give wealthy people a tax cut have also gone out the window.
“When you’re cutting taxes across the board, it’s very hard not to give tax cuts to the wealthy with tax cuts to the middle class. The math, given how much you are collecting, is just hard to do,” Mnuchin told Politico earlier this month. After violating his earlier vow, Mnuchin is still claiming the administration will eliminate a tax loophole on carried interest, even though it’s nowhere to be found in the White House’s tax wishlist.
Trump has similarly betrayed his promises on health care. Instead of providing “insurance for everybody” as he had repeatedly pledged, the president instead signed on with Senate and House health care bills that drastically reduced Medicaid spending and gave private insurers more freedom to raise rates on customers with chronic health conditions.
Flake has supported all these policies. Like Trump, he is a strong critic of former president Barack Obama’s deal to lift sanctions on Iran in exchange for the Iranian government's promise not to pursue a nuclear weapons program. Flake is also on the record as favoring Trump’s airstrikes on Syria earlier this year. He and his fellow Arizonan John McCain have been trying to push for much more extensive military intervention there since 2015.
While Trump frequently attacks and tries to bully Republican members of Congress, in general he has allowed them to do whatever they want. In fact, many GOP senators and congresspeople have repeatedly complained that the White House doesn’t give them enough guidance in forming policy.
Despite the high-minded rhetoric of Flake, Sasse and Corker, the Republican elite's frustration with Trump is less a function of his policies and more about how he conducts himself in the style of a ranting talk radio host. Trump’s frequent usage of infantile nicknames like “Liddle Marco,” his constant attacks on GOP congressional leaders, and his frequent appeals to racist sentiment are seen as offenses to political decorum, and are not how Republican politicians are expected to behave.
Such anti-intellectual cultural populism has always been necessary to the GOP’s electoral success, however, even if Flake and his ilk refuse to admit it. As Business Insider’s Josh Barro, another post-conservative, wrote on Wednesday, Flake’s speech was fundamentally a whiny complaint from someone whose political bargain with the devil has finally come due:
Flake is helpless because there's no real constituency in America for what he favors: low taxes and spending, openness to immigration and trade, international collaboration where America honors its commitments, and polite public behavior. . . .
It was essentially an accident that Flake and elected officials like him were able to harness the Republican electoral coalition for so long to back an agenda that excluded policies those voters cared about (like immigration restriction) and included ones they opposed (like cutting Medicare). Now that's over, and he has nowhere to go.
If anti-Trump Republicans truly want to push back against Trump’s worst impulses, they must first push back against their own. The only way they can do so is to return to the moderate conservatism of former President Dwight Eisenhower, which was displaced by the anti-government conservatism of William F. Buckley and Barry Goldwater in the 1960s and '70s. But doing that will take real courage. Stating publicly that Trump is an authoritarian oaf is nothing more than repeating what GOP billionaires like David and Charles Koch have already said. Telling the Kochs and their allies that their agenda and their political strategies were exactly what created Trump will take a lot more bravery.
As of now, Jeff Flake has shown nowhere near the level of bravery that would take. America and Republican voters have had enough of anti-government conservatism. Unless Republicans can steer this energy in a more positive direction, the racist and religious bigotry promoted by the “alt-right” and Christian nationalism will triumph by default. The "mainstream" conservative movement embodied by people like Flake and Corker is now history. The only question is what the conservative future will look like.