Jeff Flake Lays Another Straw on the Camel's Back

The senator's speech won’t be the last straw—but it adds its weight to the growing pile.

Win McNamee / Getty / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

“Why didn’t he do it before?”

“Why doesn’t he stay and fight?”

“Why does he still vote with the president on taxes and judges?”

Those are the questions asked when a Republican official breaks with President Trump. They are fair questions too, as far as they go, and they will only become fairer over time. October 2017 is already late to recognize Donald Trump for what he is and what he is doing, and next year will be later, and the year after that later still. Someday, I’m sure, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan will unburden himself of the agonies he felt during all the time he enabled and empowered this president to do the harm under which Ryan writhed.

Yet from a political rather than a moral point of view, the question, “Where were you when it counted?” is the wrong question. It always counts. It counted then, it counts now, it will count in future.

In an Aaron Sorkin movie, that speech of Jeff Flake’s would bring traffic to a stop. That’s not how such things work in life. Statements like his exert a cumulative influence. They show up in ads, in Facebook videos, in late-night comedy bits. They grind away, creating a public image out of hundreds of millions of individual impressions.

Trump ran in 2016 as a peace candidate, against a Hillary Clinton who would drag the U.S. into another Middle Eastern war. Now a Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman of his own party has warned that it is Trump who will bumble into World War III. Trump presented himself as a blunt, no-nonsense type, maybe not politically correct, but who’ll tell it like it is. He’s now seen as honest and trustworthy by barely one-third of those surveyed. Trump outperformed Romney among blacks and Hispanics. Quinnipiac this summer found that more than 60 percent of Americans agreed that Trump was intentionally enflaming anti-minority feeling in the United States.

A famous line of Ernest Hemingway’s describes how a rich man goes broke: “Two ways … Gradually and then suddenly.” That’s how defeat comes upon a president as well. The live question for Trumpists in 2018 will be whether they can hold onto both chambers of Congress and thereby continue to stifle investigations into presidential wrongdoing. The geographic map is in the GOP’s favor in 2018, but the demographic map increasingly is not. The voters who hear of and are swayed by comments like Flake’s and Corker’s—more educated, more affluent—are precisely those most likely to show up in an off-year election. Trump and the GOP will not lose all of them. They cannot afford to lose very many of them.

You don’t lose power by losing your base. Herbert Hoover held 39.7 percent of the vote in 1932, a year when Americans were literally going hungry. You lose power by losing the less intensely committed, just enough of them to tip the balance against you. Flake, Corker, and the others are working on those less intensely committed, at the 52 percent of Republicans who as late as August 2016 still wished their party had nominated someone else.

Anti-Trump Republicans remain a minority in their party. Outspoken anti-Trump Republicans constitute an even smaller minority. Minorities cannot elect presidents. But they can thwart them. In 1884, Republicans aghast at the corruption of their party’s presidential nominee, James G. Blaine, were derided as “mugwumps”: snobbish, blundering, goody-goodies. There were never very many of them, and they nearly all lived in New York City, within a few blocks of each other. They sufficed to tip New York State to Grover Cleveland by just 1,047 votes—and with New York’s electoral votes, the presidential election.

Steve Bannon and his ilk have this idea that they can make the Republican Party stronger by driving out of it all those who admire John McCain, Jeff Flake, Mitt Romney, and other traditional Republicans. That trick only works, though, if a party can attract more new voters than it loses. There is no evidence that the Trumpist project is doing anything like that. There are no “Trump Democrats,” only disaffected, disaffiliated, non-college-educated whites weakly committed to the political process and unlikely to show up to vote next November.

The straw that breaks the camel’s back is always preceded by thousands of other straws that did not. Jeff Flake’s speech is not that last straw. Bob Corker’s interview is not the last straw, either. But they are two more straws among the accumulating many under which the camel is already buckling—and there are cartloads more still waiting to be loaded atop the sagging beast.