Trump’s Critics Can Sense the GOP Slipping Away From Them

It’s Trump’s triumph that has provoked harsh critiques from Jeff Flake, Bob Corker, John McCain, and George W. Bush.

Rick Wilking / Reuters

On Tuesday, Jeff Flake announced his retirement from the Senate, pairing it with a blistering attack on President Trump. That inspired Steve Kornacki to recall the moment in summer 2016 when Trump and Flake had their first run-in. In the midst of a tense meeting with Republican senators, here’s what happened, per The Washington Post:

“You’ve been very critical of me,” Trump said after Flake introduced himself.

“Yes, I’m the other senator from Arizona—the one who didn’t get captured—and I want to talk to you about statements like that,” Flake responded, referring to Trump’s dismissal of Senator John McCain’s time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

Trump responded that he has yet to attack Flake hard but threatened to begin doing so. He also predicted Flake would lose reelection; Flake informed him he was not on the ballot this year.

At the time, this seemed like classic Trump—and it was, just not in the way anyone realized. Back then, Trump seemed like a clown who had improbably beaten the GOP field in the primary but was in the process of squandering his prospects in the general election. His jibe at Flake, made in ignorance of whether the Arizona senator was up for reelection, was a comical display of his unseriousness.

Viewed from the present day, it’s a little different. Trump continues to run an administration that lurches from catastrophe to catastrophe, and he continues to be allergic to any sort of detail or learning. But if Trump was wrong on the timing, he was right on the broad strokes: Flake is leaving the Senate because he has realized that he cannot win a GOP primary. Trump realized that long ago, long before most Republicans.

It’s easy to laugh at tweets like this from Trump on Thursday morning, just as it was easy to laugh at his having no idea when Jeff Flake was up for reelection:

After all, how can the president say this? The last fortnight has seen not only Flake’s jarring speech, but also Senator Bob Corker, an erstwhile ally, affirming past critiques and saying that Trump is “an utterly untruthful president”; it has seen Senator John McCain deliver a detailed attack on Trump’s foreign policy, then call him a draft dodger, then inexplicably deny it; it has seen former Senator Tom Coburn say he has a “personality disorder”; and it has seen George W. Bush, of all people, denounce Trump as a divider.

And yet none of that really seems to matter. These figures are all avatars of a different Republican Party—or rather, of several different Republican parties, all of which are more closely related to each than to Trump’s. (This does not absolve these leaders of the choices those parties made that helped create the current moment.) They are the past. It is no coincidence that the people making these critiques are ones who will never face Republican voters again. You may take that as a sign of political cowardice, or you may take it as simple acknowledgement of reality. But don’t take it from me—take it from Jeff Flake:

It is clear at this moment that a traditional conservative who believes in limited government and free markets, who is devoted to free trade, who is pro-immigration, has a narrower and narrower path to nomination in the Republican Party—the party that has so long has defined itself by its belief in those things.

Many of these figures seem to still be operating under, or to have recently recognized the faults of, the assumption that Trump is an ephemeral aberration. As Tom Edsall writes, the Republican Party is now the party of Trump. One reason for that is that Republicans tend to more closely identify with the party than Democrats do with theirs, but another is that Trump sensed where GOP primary voters were—angry about immigration, sour on free trade, open to racist rhetoric both subtle and blunt, hostile toward Wall Street—while his rivals were pushing immigration reform, free markets, and inclusion. (Trump wasn’t actually hostile toward Wall Street, but he pretended he was.)

Overall, Trump has historically low approval ratings. But among Republicans and voters who lean Republican, 58 percent said they considered themselves more supporters of Trump than of the party, versus 38 who said the opposite. Insofar as there is a division between the two institutions, Trump is winning, and the natural result is that he will subsume the GOP.

Unity hasn’t been able to procure Trump any major legislation, and his policy apparatus is a mess. Electorally, Trump’s takeover of the party and its realignment around the primary base has its risks. As I noted last month, even as Trump’s core supporters remain extraordinarily devoted to him, fewer Republicans identify as having voted for the president in November. But that’s down the road. Besides, most people doubted that Trump could win a general election the first time he tried it—and they laughed when he said Jeff Flake wouldn’t be reelected, too.