“We must never adjust to the present coarseness of our national dialogue,” Senator Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) implored his Senate colleagues weeks ago in a rare burst of eloquence on the national stage. “We must never regard as normal the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals. We must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country. The personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms and institution, the flagrant disregard for truth and decency.”
It was a good speech. Some suggested it was a great ― even historic ― speech. Others, most notably Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, demurred. She declared it to be petty grandstanding that was “not befitting of the Senate floor.” And Sanders knows befitting when she sees it. It was only hours earlier that her boss had attacked “liddle” Bob Corker in yet another of his tweetstorms, this time declaring that the retiring Tennessee senator “couldn’t get elected dog catcher.” Flake might as well have been speaking directly to Sanders when he said, “we must stop pretending that the degradation of our politics and the conduct of some in our executive branch are normal.”
But just to be clear, Jeff Flake’s speech was a clear winner for Donald Trump. We have reached the capitulation phase, and every Republican in Congress now understands that criticizing the president is a privilege best left to those who have decided not to run for reelection ― or, in the case of George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, those who are no longer in the game. Bob Corker may have been a shoo-in for reelection before he voiced his concerns about Donald Trump’s performance as president, but the moment he opened his mouth his approval ratings among Tennessee Republicans dropped from the sixty precent-plus range to half that level. Literally overnight.
This Trump effect now extends well beyond politics into popular culture. A case in point is the brand value of the NFL. Until last month, the NFL enjoyed broad public approval among Democrats and Republicans alike, in the range of 60-70 percent favorability. As illustrated in the graph presented here of Morning Consult tracking data, Republican views of the NFL plummeted in the wake of Donald Trump’s derogatory remarks about protesting players during an Alabama speech in late September. The impact mirrored almost exactly what Bob Corker experienced, as the view of the NFL among Republicans plummeted from over sixty percent positive to the thirty percent range.
Donald Trump is oddly suited to have emerged as a political and cultural avatar for the modern Republican Party. The party of moral character and personal responsibility has become the party of grievance; the party of Christian virtue has a bragging sexual predator and nihilist at the helm; and the party that decried political correctness has become a bastion of obedient sycophants. And these are the observations of Republican dissenters. Without doubt, Trump’s angry, life-is-unfair rhetoric has resonated with a large swath of the white working class voters. For the rest of the party ― from evangelical Christians to the Chamber of Commerce to libertarian Republicans ― support that once appeared, at best, transactional is veering toward devotional.
Over the past two weeks, through their eloquent words, Senators Bob Corker and Jeff Flake confirmed that the long-predicted pivot has indeed taken place. But instead of the promised Trump pivot away from his bullying, bombastic nature toward a more presidential demeanor, it is the Republican Party en masse that has pivoted. Interviewed after Flake’s speech, House Freedom Caucus Representative Mark Meadows (R-NC) pronounced Jeff Flake to be on the wrong side of history. Trumpism, Meadows confirmed, is what the Republican electorate want, it is what they voted for.
Meadows and his Freedom Caucus are a case in point. While Bob Corker has stated that he would not support tax cuts that “added one dollar to the deficit,” the Tea Party, anti-deficit members of the Freedom Caucus―who only a few months ago blocked any healthcare legislation that did not meet their exacting, deficit-reduction conditions―has already given up the ghost with respect to tax reform. Faced with Trump’s call for massive tax cuts, Meadows has read the tea leaves and has no intention of standing on principle. Eschewing even the normal political cover of fatuous claims that tax cuts will pay for themselves, Meadows pronounced that whatever the Trump administration might have in mind, the Freedom Caucus is on board.
Steve Bannon, the éminence grise who is scaring the courage from the veins of Congressional Republicans in his remarkable pas de deux with Donald Trump, commented the other day, “We live in a dangerous world. It’s time we started treating our fellow countrymen like adults, and having adult conversation with them.” Bannon may be correct that we live in a dangerous world, but it is his former boss that has reduced political discourse to 140 characters. We are farther from adult conversation in our politics than we have been at any time in memory. There are no facts, there are no discussions, there is no conversation; there are only sides.
That is what Donald Trump understands. The GOP ― the Republican Party that Jeff Flake spoke of ― was the party of adults. It spoke to the limitations of government, to the importance of the role of the United States in the world and to personal responsibility. That GOP is long gone. The Republican base has lost interest in all of that moralizing, as conservative commentator Charlie Sykes concluded last week, saying the “deep moral and intellectual corruption of the Republican Party and the Republican electorate is on full display here. The acceptance of the president’s pettiness, his refusal to apologize, his attacks on the truth, all of these have been rationalized and enabled and empowered by Republican elected officials who are, in fact, reflecting what has happened to the conservative base and conservative electorate.”
The era of personal rectitude is over, the age of whining is upon us.
As he stood before his Senate colleagues weeks ago, Jeff Flake may have given a great speech, but to his colleagues he was the embodiment of everything they most fear. He is a principled conservative who differed less with Trump on issues of policy than on issues of character, and as a price for standing up for those principles, he has been driven from office. Flake may have thought his speech was a call to his fellow Republicans to come to the defense of democratic principles that are under assault, but his non-verbal message could not have been more clear: if you want to keep your job, with all its perks, this is not a time to stand on principle; this is a time to toe the line, bend the knee and kiss the ring.
Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of “FedExit: Why Federalism is Not Just For Racists Anymore.”
Artwork by Jay Duret. Check out his political cartooning at www.jayduret.com. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.