In a blistering speech on the Senate floor Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona attacked the leadership, character and decency of the president with whom he shares a political party.
“Reckless, outrageous, and undignified behavior has become excused and countenanced as ‘telling it like it is,’ when it is actually just reckless, outrageous, and undignified,” Flake told his colleagues. “We were not made great as a country by indulging or even exalting our worst impulses, turning against ourselves, glorying in the things which divide us, and calling fake things true and true things fake.”
“The notion that one should stay silent as the norms and values that keep America strong are undermined and as the alliances and agreements that ensure the stability of the entire world are routinely threatened by the level of thought that goes into 140 characters - the notion that one should say and do nothing in the face of such mercurial behavior is ahistoric and, I believe, profoundly misguided.”
“I have children and grandchildren to answer to, and so, Mr. President, I will not be complicit,” Flake said. He then announced that he would not be seeking re-election. As he told his hometown newspaper, ‘The path that I would have to travel to get the Republican nomination is a path I’m not willing to take, and that I can’t in good conscience take.”
And of course, Flake is not alone. His fellow Republican senator from Arizona, John McCain, has been equally critical of Trump, as has Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee. Last week, former President George W. Bush added his own voice, condemning a politics of “conspiracy theories and outright fabrication” that “provides permission for cruelty and bigotry.”
Think about what we’re witnessing, because it is historic: Among them, Bush, Romney and McCain represent every previous Republican presidential nominee dating back to 2000, and you can add to their number former President George H.W. Bush, who has made clear that he voted for Hillary Clinton over Trump. As a reward for their candor, these elder statesmen of the Grand Old Party are being attacked by current leaders of their party as sellouts and traitors, as being “Republican In Name Only.”
Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has also been highly critical of Trump. Like Flake, he too has chosen not to seek re-election. However, most of those in current Republican leadership either do not share the profound misgivings voiced by their party’s senior statesmen, which indicts their judgment, or they have been cowed into acquiescence and dare not speak up, which speaks to their patriotism and courage at a time when both are needed.
In most cases, I suspect the latter.
Shortly after Bush’s speech last week, former White House advisor Steve Bannon spoke to the California Republican Party, where he pitched his ongoing “revolt against the Republican establishment” and his attempt to remake the party in Trump’s image. He also attacked, by name, both McCain and Bush.
“President Bush, to me, embarrassed himself,” Bannon said dismissively. “Speechwriter wrote a highfalutin speech. It’s clear he didn’t understand anything that he was talking about.”
Those remarks, delivered to an all-Republican crowd, were greeted with standing ovations. It was yet another startling indication of how dramatically the party is radicalizing itself, right before our very eyes.
NOTE: This column contains some material previously published here. It is posted as the electronic version of a column being published in the AJC on Wednesday.