On the 24th of October, 2017, Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake laid down an historic metaphoric line in the sand of Capitol Hill: “there are times,” he told his fellow Senators, “when we must risk our careers in favor of our principles. Now is such a time.”
Some will say, his opposition to the Republican President Donald J. Trump had already doomed his Senate career. Like another GOP Trump-dissenter, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, Flake was going to face a far-right, Trumpista opponent in the 2018 Primary, and even more than half-a-year in advance, was being tabbed as that rarest of all things in American politics – an incumbent underdog for re-election.
In his speech, Flake, like Corker before him, refused to name the devil he was denouncing, but no one could miss who had created the conditions that defined his personal metaphoric red line: “the state of our disunion, … the disrepair and destructiveness of our politics, … the indecency of our discourse, … the coarseness of our leadership, … the compromise of our moral authority, and by “our,” I mean all of our complicity in this alarming and dangerous state of affairs.”
Jeff Flake was literally calling out to their faces his colleagues in the Senate that loves to call itself “the world’s greatest deliberative body.” But, of course, he was also calling out his fellow citizens: “It is time for our complicity and accommodation of the unacceptable to end.”
Flake also etched a metaphoric line on the American political calendar. As each new but predictable Presidential affront forces other Republican political professionals to separate themselves from Trump, each will face this question: “What took you so long? Flake put you on notice so many days, weeks, even months ago.
“When the next generation asks us, why didn’t you do something?” Flake asked his fellow Senators, “Why didn’t you speak up? What are we going to say? Mr. President, I rise today to say, enough.”
So far, 2 dozen Republican Congressmen have said “enough” about their own political careers, but none of them said Trump was the reason. Overall, the post-Flake silence about the President has been deafening.
Even after Trump’s one-time campaign manager Paul Manafort, and his aide Rick Gates, whose career with Trump more than doubled Manafort’s term, were indicted by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller for allegedly laundering Russian money and hiding their lobbying work for Vladimir Putin’s designated Ukrainian kleptocrat President Viktor Yanukovych, Republican leaders like House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to comment. The guilty plea by one of the original members of Trump’s foreign policy board, George Papadopoulos, also drew no comment, even though Papadopoulos admitted he’d lied to the FBI about his efforts to connect the Trump campaign to Kremlin apparatchiks promising “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.
So, what will be “enough” to make GOP politicians quit Trump? And what about American voters, where will they draw the line?
And if and when they do, what will America look like?
Norm Ornstein is the co-author of a new book, One Nation After Trump, done with Thomas Mann and E J Dionne. He is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal, and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.
Ornstein served as co-director of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI’s Election Watch series. He also serves as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many other books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future; The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann; and, most recently the New York Times bestseller, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann.