Flake's speech didn't free the GOP from Trump, but a reckoning is coming

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When Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake stood up on the Senate floor to announce his retirement in a blaze of emperor-has-no-clothes truth-telling about Donald Trump's caustic presidency, Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse applauded. Sen. John McCain praised his Arizona colleague as a man of integrity. Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, fresh off another insult war with the president, embraced him.

And then 48 other Republican senators went on with their days.

Special Army Counsel Joseph Welch (left) lashes out at Sen. Joseph McCarthy (right) as a 'reckless and cruel' man after McCarthy threw a charge of communist association at a member of Welch's law firm during testimony at the Army-McCarthy hearings in this June 9, 1954.

Mr. Flake clearly was hoping for a "have you no decency" moment in the Republican Party's internecine conflict with its own leader, a la Joseph Welch's famed deflation of Joseph McCarthy's own un-American hijacking of the Senate 63 years ago — he made the explicit comparison in a Washington Post op-ed — but it was not to be. Both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan dismissed all the criticism of Mr. Trump and the president's own return salvos on Twitter as noise that would not distract them from cutting taxes. And it probably won't. Mr. Corker may be right that the president should just stay out of the debate and let Congress handle things — his habit of tweeting out promises for what the tax bill will or won't do that may or may not have any connection with reality is certainly unhelpful. But it's not as if any of the GOP Trump critics in the Senate have shown any signs that they would oppose whatever bill comes to a vote.

Their beef with Mr. Trump — and that of other notable recent critics like George W. Bush — is about style more than substance. That's not to belittle their complaints; the coarseness and recklessness Mr. Trump has injected into what was already a pretty rough political system diminishes the public's respect for our government and its institutions, sets a poor moral example and eviscerates our global leadership. But even if the Corkers and Flakes of the world could force Mr. Trump from the presidency, they would not extirpate Trumpism from the body politic. After all, Mr. Trump is not some intellectual of philosophical leader of his adopted party; he is, rather, the willing avatar of a populist rejection of establishment politics on both the right and the left.


The crassness of the Trump presidency may be unexpected, but the rise of Trumpism should not have been. It is the logical conclusion of a cynical bargain Republicans have pursued over the years to stoke cultural resentments as a means of rallying voters who do not benefit from the party's real priorities of cutting taxes for the wealthy and removing constraints on corporations. Even as he openly feuds with fellow Republicans, Mr. Trump remains mainly willing to stick with that deal; in fact, with his ability to steer the nation into obsession over things like NFL players kneeling at football games, he may be the best ever at that game. The next batch of Trumpists sent to Washington — perhaps under the auspices of Stephen Bannon's war on the establishment GOP — may not be so willing to play.

The Democratic Party is gleeful at the Republican crackup, but it represents the flip side of the same problem. The "demography is destiny" theory that the changing racial and ethnic makeup of the country will automatically produce a durable majority for the party belies the significant differences within it between establishment figures like Hillary Clinton and insurgent voices like Sen. Bernie Sanders. Many voters who identify culturally with the Democrats are feeling no better served by the party's policies than Trump voters did by the traditional GOP.

In this image from video from Senate Television, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., speaks on the Senate floor Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017, at the Capitol in Washington. Flake announced he will not run for re-election in 2018. (Senate TV via AP)

Perhaps the Republicans will manage to hold things together long enough to get their tax cuts, but a reckoning is coming. Democrats may pick up large numbers of seats in the House and Senate in the midterm elections; that won't resolve the party's divides either. But in the past, times of extreme stress and dysfunction in our politics have led to realignments, with new ideas, new leaders and new coalitions. No matter how powerful and truthful it might be, a speech like Senator Flake's is not going to lift the clouds over Washington like Welch's retort did in 1954. But it could be one of the first steps on the difficult path to a new, more functional political reality.

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