A sitting U.S. senator plans to give a speech this week comparing the president of his own party to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. That in itself is remarkable.
“It is a testament to the condition of our democracy that our own president uses words infamously spoken by Joseph Stalin to describe his enemies,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) plans to say in a speech about President Trump classifying the news media as “the enemy of the people.”
But Flake's warnings about Trump are even more significant than comparing the president to a Soviet dictator. When Flake criticizes the president, he is criticizing his entire party for standing by such a leader.
“This alone should be a source of great shame for us in this body, especially for those of us in the president’s party. For they are shameful, repulsive statements,” Flake plans to say in the speech. The Washington Post's Ed O'Keefe obtained the remarks, which Flake plans to give as the president hands out “fake news” awards this week.
Flake is free to speak his mind because he is retiring this year, rather than risking losing a primary because he has criticized Trump. And his retirement speech read like a dual indictment of Trump and Republican leaders who continue to work with and normalize him.
As I wrote when Flake announced his retirement in October by saying he would “not be complicit” in Trumpism: “The entire premise of it is that Trump is bad for the country and people shouldn't stand by and let him ruin it. So the next logical question is: What does he think of people who aren't speaking out against Trump?”
In other words: To let Trump be Trump for the sake of getting reelected is just as bad for democracy as Trump is, Flake argued, then and now.
Flake has tried different avenues to try to get his party to ditch Trump. He has argued that Trump and Trumpism are making Republicans unelectable. “We are in trouble as a party if we continue to follow both Roy Moore and Donald Trump,” he said in November, doubling down on something similar he said on a hot mic a day earlier.
To Flake, the rise of controversial candidates, the decline of the power of the establishment to stop them and polls showing that swing voters are souring on Trump are all neon-flashing warning signs that the United States is leaving the Republican Party in the era of Trump. So to save the GOP, it should ditch Trump the way Flake has.
Trump has his critics among Senate Republicans, but Flake is the only high-profile one pointing a finger at party leaders and voters for enabling it. Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.) called Trump's White House “an adult day-care center” and said Trump might start World War III, but he never broadened his barbs to his own party.
Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) has urged the GOP to “fight” against Trumpism, frequently reminding his party that “we are not the president's subordinates. We are his equals.” But that's not the same thing as indicting the GOP for putting up with Trump.
Flake, by contrast, is using increasingly clear language to say Republicans are nearly as guilty as he thinks the president is for a demise of democracy and political norms.
“I dare say that anyone who has the privilege and awesome responsibility to serve in this chamber knows that these reflexive slurs of 'fake news' are dubious, at best,” Flake will say in his speech this week.
It doesn't seem as though congressional Republicans are heeding Flake's warnings that Trumpism is bad for Republicanism. Or at least, that embracing it is worse for Republicans than ditching Trump altogether.
Since Flake announced his retirement, Republicans have passed a tax plan and given Trump a sizable chunk of credit, GOP leaders have defended Trump's apparent misunderstandings about a foreign surveillance law and immigration, and several GOP senators have sided with the president over whether he called Haiti and African and Latin American nations “shithole countries.”
And really, what choice do Republicans have? Trump is president. He's the only one who can sign bills into law. To ditch Trump wholesale would be the equivalent of ditching their hope of accomplishing anything else while Republicans control Washington.
To Flake, Republicans are damned if they stick with Trump. GOP leaders feel as though they would be worse off if they ditched Trump. Categorize this as one more example of the no-win situation Trump is putting the Republican Party in.