In his instantly famous Tuesday Senate floor speech — one his hometown newspaper called a “bombshell” — Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) decried the “destructiveness” of President Trump’s politics while warning of the perils of succumbing to electoral considerations; of politicians’ “fear of the consequences” of speaking out; and of bending to “the rules of what is politically safe.” Flake, who has voted with the president more than 90 percent of the time, wondered aloud what he, and we, would tell the next generation when they ask, “Why didn’t you do something?” He rallied Americans not to let Trump’s habitual offenses become the new normal, never to “meekly accept the daily sundering of our country.”
Then he surrendered.
Yes, Flake was one of the few Republican senators who declined to endorse Trump’s candidacy. And yes, his words were powerful and needed to be spoken by a member of the president’s own party. That’s why some were quick to suggest, quite optimistically, that the speech could represent “a notable marker in the decline of the GOP” that will “end up in the history books.” But in declaring, “I will not be complicit or silent,” on the way to announcing that he will not seek reelection, Flake confused abdication with absolution. Cincinnatus returning to the farm, Flake is not. In the end, he’s a profile in cowardice.
Accurate though Flake’s political diagnosis might be, it can hardly be taken seriously as a form of public service when paired with his abandonment of the very power to do something about it. That merely makes him part of a growing problem: politicians who want us to believe that they are powerless, being pulled by forces beyond their control. Sadly, it’s one thing Flake and Trump actually have in common.
Also on Tuesday, Flake’s fellow Senate retiree, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) re-upped his ongoing and escalating Twitter feud with Trump: a convenient detour from the support he lent Trump in his run for the White House. Just a couple of hours before Flake’s speech, their colleague, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) — who has carried Trump’s water a whopping 96 percent of the time — brought a bag of freshly popped popcorn to Senate Republicans’ lunch with the president at the Capitol, a stunt minimizing both the stakes of this drama and his role in it.
These legislators, entrusted with a constitutional responsibility to hold the executive accountable and a moral responsibility to uphold the values of our nation, are the last ones who should be treating the Trump presidency as spectacle. Senators, more than most other Americans — if they do their jobs — are in a position to prevent Trump’s “destructiveness” “indecency” and “coarseness” from becoming the new normal that Flake fears.
On the Senate floor, Flake said, “Sustained incumbency is certainly not the point of seeking office and there are times when we must risk our careers in favor of our principles.” Of the woeful new normal, he added, “If we simply become inured to this condition, thinking that this is just politics as usual, then heaven help us.” But his logic misses an important step: the risk lies in taking that case to the people and earning the consent of the governed. The risk lies in staying, fighting and taking on the bully in the Oval Office. “If you’re disappointed by your elected officials,” President Barack Obama counseled anxious Americans in his farewell address, “grab a clipboard, get some signatures and run for office yourself.”
The saddest parts of Flake’s speech were his buck-passing prediction, uttered in the passive voice, that “this spell will eventually break” and his worry, as if stripped of free will, that running in 2018 would “cause me to compromise far too many principles.” There is neither risk nor honor in quitting, even as an elaborate form of protest. There is only selfishness marketed as selflessness.
While Trump is doing his worst to undermine our nation’s values, one thing he can’t change is democracy’s essential element: It is nothing if not participatory. That is the part we control — advocates who agitate and demonstrate, voters who fight for the franchise and elect their leaders, and representatives who faithfully discharge their duties, even in … especially in … the face of adversity. If public servants keep away from politics and our politics keep people away from the polls, don’t look to the heavens for help. It’s only a republic, Benjamin Franklin warned, if we can keep it.