The reverberations of Sen. Jeff Flake's speech on the Senate floor continued to be felt through the media on Wednesday as pundits and analysts spent much of the day writing the epitaph for Trumpism, killed in its infancy by a resurgent GOP establishment. Alex Isenstadt at Politico reported that Washington Republicans were nervous but also believed that ultimately the establishment would prevail. They told him that since Flake was polling very badly, they were now positioned "to field a more popular mainstream candidate who has a better chance of winning."
But that would indicate that Jeff Flake is not a mainstream candidate -- and that's the crux of the problem. Jeff Flake is a rock-ribbed conservative, a Goldwater Republican who believes fervently in low taxes, low regulation, family values and gun rights. He has a lifetime 95 percent rating from FreedomWorks, 93 percent from the American Conservative Union and 97 percent from Americans for Prosperity. Even his supposed apostasy on immigration was a position held by a large number of Republicans as recently as 2013, when the "Gang of 8" almost passed a comprehensive immigration reform package, until future Attorney General Jeff Sessions, then a senator from Alabama, sabotaged the effort. Indeed, the only way in which Jeff Flake isn't a mainstream Republican is in his vocal antagonism toward Donald Trump.
As far as Trump is concerned, that doesn't just make Flake a fringe member of the Republican Party, that makes him a Democrat.
“Long before he ever knew me, during the campaign, even before the campaign — I mean, he came out with this horrible book, and I said, ‘Who is this guy?’” Mr. Trump told reporters on Wednesday afternoon. “In fact, I remembered the first time I saw him on television I had not really been — nobody knew me in terms of politics. But the first time I saw him on television, I said, ‘I assume he’s a Democrat. Is he a Democrat?’” Mr. Trump said. “They said he’s a Republican. I said, ‘That’s impossible.’”
That's as clear an indication of Flake's status as an enemy of the GOP as you can get. It's the Trump Party now. And here's what its leader had to say on Wednesday:
We have, actually, great unity in the Republican Party. We have great unity. If you look at what happened yesterday in the meeting we had virtually every senator including John McCain, we had a great conversation yesterday, John McCain and myself, about the military. I called it a love fest, it was almost a love fest. It was a love fest. Standing ovation.There is great unity. If you look at the Democrats with Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, now that's a mess. There's great unity in the Republican Party.
He's right. According to both Trump and The New York Times, there were several standing ovations. Just hours later, all the Republicans voted as a bloc (except for South Carolina's Lindsey Graham and Louisiana's John Kennedy) to gut an important consumer protection and give a very generous gift to banks and other financial institutions. Word was that Trump's Treasury Department had leaned heavily on the Senate to pass it. Apparently, that's what Trump and his unified party call "populism." It's interesting how much it resembles the same old plutocracy they've been working for all along.
Meanwhile, the allegedly fractious Democrats -- including the Senate's two independents, Sanders and Angus King of Maine -- also voted together against that anti-consumer arbitration act. Their action might actually fit the definition of populism. Imagine that.
So both parties are unified. The question is, what unifies them? The answer, for the moment, is the same thing: Donald Trump.
We don't know yet how united the Democrats will be behind a comprehensive populist agenda once election season kicks in, but so far they are in lockstep against Trump and his "movement" with nary a deviation. There was a time when you could always count on some Democratic "moderate" like Joe Lieberman of Connecticut or Ben Nelson of Nebraska to preen for the cameras at times like this. Both are now retired, and even the red-state Democrats up for re-election in 2018, who are clearly in a vulnerable position, have held the line.
As for the GOP, Steve Bannon recently told The New York Times that the traditional small-government approach "doesn’t move with urgency. It’s very nice. But it’s a theoretical exercise. It can’t win national elections.” What does win elections, in Bannon's view, is what he calls "economic nationalism" but what, in practice, is simply loyalty to Donald Trump. After all, they are cutting the heart out of the national budget, rolling back regulations, slashing taxes for millionaires, building up the military and threatening war -- which pretty well describes the traditional, "mainstream" GOP governing agenda.
What separates heretics like Flake, McCain and Bob Corker from the rest is simply the fact that they have spoken out against Trump's erratic, obnoxious, unprofessional and frankly dangerous behavior. This is unacceptable in the "Trump movement."
Some never-Trumpers like former GOP strategist Steve Schmidt continue to hold out hope that Trumpism has limited appeal within the party. On MSNBC Wednesday, Schmidt made the point that Trump's coalition has been shrinking since the beginning of the year and that as political parties get smaller, they always get louder and more extreme. He used the rump California GOP, whose members apparently responded to Steve Bannon's comments about John McCain in a recent speech by shouting "Hang him!" as an example of a party that's completely lost relevance.
Trump's coalition may be shrinking, but he still has the support of tens of millions of Republicans who have proven that they don't really care about policy. They just want to "win," by which they mean punish or destroy their perceived liberal enemies. Trump is their man, and the GOP establishment for the most part is happy to go along. Those taxes won't cut themselves.
Of course, there's also a decent chance that this alleged takeover of the party is another fraudulent Donald Trump enterprise that will end up destroying the lives and futures of many of these Republicans who are so eager to show their fealty. It's kind of his specialty.
We could easily suffer a catastrophe or be handed some big news from the office of special counsel Robert Mueller over the next few months. But the best way to sort this all out is at the ballot box. The only way to know whether Trump's election was a historical fluke, or whether a plurality of Americans really want to continue down this dark and dangerous path, is for the voters to make their wishes known.
If the nearly 60 percent of Americans who disapprove of President Trump and his "movement" don't come out to vote after all this, then we probably deserve what we get.