“To carry on in the spring of 2017 as if what was happening was anything approaching normalcy required a determined suspension of critical faculties,” he writes, “and tremendous powers of denial.”
Okay, tell us how you really feel, senator.
A few things about Flake and his intentions before we delve into his thesis: Yes, he did just write and publish a book he's promoting. In fact, this is an excerpt from it. But Flake is also one of the more conservative members of the Senate, and he's up for reelection in a state that could squeeze him from both the right (he's got a primary challenger) and the left (if Democrats can find a candidate to make Arizona competitive). He's also been a Trump critic since the campaign. In other words, what he's saying could both hurt and help him politically.
Let's break down his four arguments for why the Republican Party keeps pretending Trump is a normal president and should stop immediately.
1) Barack Obama made us do it
Okay, no, Flake doesn't say this is President Barack Obama's fault. But he does say that after Obama's 2008 wave election, conservatives got reeallllyy motivated to defeat him. (Democrats would get decimated in the 2010 midterm elections after passing Obamacare.) Flake argues conservatives lost a bit of their moral and ethical compass in the process.
“It was we conservatives who were largely silent when the most egregious and sustained attacks on Obama’s legitimacy were leveled by marginal figures who would later be embraced and legitimized by far too many of us. It was we conservatives who rightly and robustly asserted our constitutional prerogatives as a coequal branch of government when a Democrat was in the White House but who, despite solemn vows to do the same in the event of a Trump presidency, have maintained an unnerving silence as instability has ensued.”
2) Congress is the only one that can check Trump
Which is true. So often, when I break down with legal scholars whether something Trump or his team did crosses a legal line, their answer is: Maybe, but it's an open question whether you can prosecute a sitting president.
Flake argues that fact almost makes it harder for Congress to act, especially against a president of their own party.
“Too often, we observe the unfolding drama along with the rest of the country, passively, all but saying, 'Someone should do something!' without seeming to realize that someone is us.”
“If by 2017 the conservative bargain was to go along for the very bumpy ride because with congressional hegemony and the White House we had the numbers to achieve some long-held policy goals — even as we put at risk our institutions and our values — then it was a very real question whether any such policy victories wouldn’t be Pyrrhic ones.”
3) Trump is so surreal, he's hard to digest
Flake: “[T]he strange specter of an American president’s seeming affection for strongmen and authoritarians created such a cognitive dissonance among my generation of conservatives — who had come of age under existential threat from the Soviet Union — that it was almost impossible to believe.”
4) Also, the tweets were easy to ignore
Flake: “As I layered in my defense mechanisms, I even found myself saying things like, 'If I took the time to respond to every presidential tweet, there would be little time for anything else.' Given the volume and velocity of tweets from both the Trump campaign and then the White House, this was certainly true. But it was also a monumental dodge.”
Hey, Sen. Flake, you're not the only one!
So, what to do about it?
Flake routinely catalogs Trump alongside evil and danger — at one point, he compares the Republican Party trying to make peace with this president to a German scholar who sold his soul to the devil.
But Flake's solutions probably won't go as far as the liberal base, whose members routinely wield the “i” word, might like.
Flake says Republicans should be ready to speak out against Trump when he does something that's damaging to the party's growth beyond its base. He argues Republicans should oppose Trump on trade by going back to championing free trade policies. And Republicans “need to stand up for institutions and prerogatives, like the filibuster,” which Trump routinely tweets he wants to get rid of. In other words, Republicans need to keep on being Republicans, despite who's at the head of their party.
This is one GOP senator who seems ready to oppose Trump, at least. Who knows if there will be more. But if there are, we could look back on Flake's anti-Trump argument, laid out just six months into Trump's presidency, as one of the turning points.