In case you had any doubt that President Trump is transforming the GOP, chasing out moderates and independent-minded conservatives, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) should have cleared that up with a blockbuster announcement that, like Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), he will not be running for reelection.

The bombshell, which Flake, R-Ariz., intended to detail Tuesday afternoon on the Senate floor, will further roil Republican hopes of keeping the party’s 52-seat Senate majority in the midterm elections of Trump’s first term, when the president’s party historically loses seats in Congress.
It also likely will upend the race for Flake’s seat.
Flake, one of the Senate’s more prominent critics of President Donald Trump, has been struggling in the polls.
He told The Arizona Republic ahead of his announcement that he has become convinced “there may not be a place for a Republican like me in the current Republican climate or the current Republican Party.”

In a jab at those colleagues who have reinvented themselves for the sake of the Trump base, he had some pointed words: “Here’s the bottom line: 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. It would require me to believe in positions I don’t hold on such issues as trade and immigration and it would require me to condone behavior that I cannot condone.” In other words, it would force him to be a hypocrite like Vice President Pence, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Virginia GOP gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie, all of whom refuse to take on Trump in any meaningful way and seek to cater to his nationalistic, nativist base.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) warns populism is not a governing philosophy. (Dalton Bennett, Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post)

Flake’s departure allows the likes of Stephen K. Bannon to play kingmaker, choosing the Roy Moore of Arizona, if you will. The race was already touch and go with Flake in the race; now it seems like a bright pickup opportunity for Democrats.

The message to the GOP and the rest of the country is sobering. If you are going to speak out, as Flake did in a blistering book criticizing Trump, and remain loyal to principles like free trade, immigration and fiscal sobriety, there is no place for you in Trump’s GOP. Moreover, remaining in Trump’s GOP means tolerating, if not enabling, Trump’s noxious mix of dishonesty, bullying, protectionism and racism. It is not a party that tolerates questioning of Trump — or, apparently, our generals. It is not a party that defends the First Amendment or the independence of the courts.

What remains to be seen is whether Flake’s departure sets off a wave of retirements in both the House and Senate. If others follow him and moderates such as Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), the GOP Senate and House majorities will be imperiled; the rump that remains will be crazier and less competent than the GOP Congress presently is.

Perhaps Flake, freed from the obligation to seek reelection, will go “rogue,” as it were, with Corker to blast the president’s rhetoric and block irresponsible legislation. Unfortunately, for careerists in the party, the result may be greater subservience to Trump, less inclination to exercise oversight and more enabling of his xenophobia. That sort of Republican Party will have no appeal for many Americans who considered themselves to be Republicans in good standing.

Who knows — Corker-Flake in 2020? Stranger things have happened.