Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) articulates as well as anyone the cataclysmic mistake the GOP made in getting behind President Trump’s campaign and following him wherever he meanders. During a National Press Club speech on Thursday he declared:

Defending democratic institutions ought not be a controversial idea, and hasn’t been until very recently. But recognizing that our institutions are under threat from within, with clarity, seems to me a basic obligation of the Article I branch of government – the Congress, whose power is, in theory, equal to that of the president’s. Conservatives in the congress used to be very clear about their institutional prerogatives and obligations under the Constitution. I should emphasize: Used to be.  . . .
We will get through this, and when we do, there will be much work to do to repair the damage. There will have to be an accounting for how we got here so that we might never find ourselves here again. There will have to be an American restoration. And for the sake of the common good and for basic human decency – we will have to create a new politics. This will be the obligation of all of us – those of us in elective office, those of us who will soon not be, and those us too smart to ever engage in politics in the first place.

That restoration, Flake said, will require that we never again let “the independence of the judiciary be so threatened and the tenets of justice be so abused.” He noted that our politics has been so debased that we have to reestablish basic norms “such as, the attorney general is not the president’s personal lawyer, and the FBI director does not owe the president personal loyalty, but rather loyalty to the Constitution.”

He laid out what a post-Trump democracy would look like, which sounded like a pretty solid campaign platform:

In the wake of this storm, we will once again make clear to our allies that we are allies, and we will not ever again be afraid to remind friend and foe alike that it is our values that make America America. We will not wink and nod at dictators. Nor will we congratulate them for the good job they are doing in their programs of extrajudicial killings. Nor will we host them in the Oval Office. Nor will we hesitate to punish them for attacking our elections. . . . We will be crystal clear and unambiguous in our defense of this country against the rogue ambitions of the likes of Vladimir Putin. There can be no passivity regarding the demonstrated Russia threat.

He gave an impassioned defense of the First Amendment. (“Referring to the media as ‘the enemy of the people’ is not normal or acceptable. . . . [D]ictators around the world are borrowing the President’s usage of the term ‘fake news’ to silence legitimate criticism and opposition. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, there are a record number of journalists now being jailed worldwide, with 21 of that number being held on ‘false news’ charges, gravely echoing the President’s language.”) And he defended the very notion of truth. (“There is nothing that will be more vital to expunge from the American record than this frenzied attack on the truth. There are few jobs that will be more difficult than putting that particular horse back in the barn.”)

He certainly was unsparing in his ridicule of his own party. “[T]here are those in my party who continue to marvel at the strategic underpinnings of the daily chaos set loose from the White House. You just have to shake your head,” he said. “We should know by now that there is no strategic brilliance to marvel at here. No, by now we know that this is chaos for its own sake, projected onto the world. But the norming of this behavior by my party proceeds apace.”

His indictment was so powerful that one cannot escape the conclusion that the GOP would need to be thoroughly scrubbed of any residue of the Trump era before entrusting it with power again. The leaders who did the “norming” betrayed our democratic principles and enabled a deeply unfit president. None deserves a second chance.

He declined to say whether he’d run in 2020 or beyond, saying only that it “is not in my plans but I have not ruled anything out.” He nevertheless sounded like a man who thinks his party has lost the credibility to govern. (“If my party is going to try and pass off the degradation of the United States and her values from the White House as normal, if we’re going to cloister ourselves in the alternative truth of an erratic leader, if we are going to refuse to live in the world that everyone else lives in and reckon with the daily reality that they face — including their very real and understandable anxiety that they feel — then my party might not deserve to lead.”)

The question remains: Where do Flake and like-minded Republicans go — to a new party? To permanent political exile? Much depends on whether the Democrats make a foolish choice in 2020, opening up space for a third party. In any event, Flake implicitly (and I think, unintentionally) makes a powerful argument that the first step is the complete demolition of a reckless, soulless party.