In recent days, and with varying degrees of euphemism, President Trump has been publicly denounced by John McCain, George W. Bush, Bob Corker, and Jeff Flake. These men share different convictions, but have converged on a common critique of the president: He is a bigot, a liar, a bully, and personally unstable. They all share a far more salient quality: none of them plans to run for office soon, or ever.
They are trying to navigate a political world in which direct criticism of Trump within the Republican Party is no longer possible. It is better that they are speaking out against Trump than if they didn’t. But the fact that they can do so only from retirement indicates how thoroughly Trump has captured the party, and how little resistance the Constitutional separation of powers has put up against his takeover.
In his dramatic resignation speech on the Senate floor, Flake holds up as the solution the separation of powers created in 1789:
I stand to say that we would better serve the country and better fulfill our obligations under the constitution by adhering to our Article 1 “old normal” — Mr. Madison’s doctrine of the separation of powers. This genius innovation which affirms Madison’s status as a true visionary and for which Madison argued in Federalist 51 — held that the equal branches of our government would balance and counteract each other when necessary. “Ambition counteracts ambition,” he wrote
Whatever its other successes, this aspect of the Constitution’s design is proving a failure. Ambition is not counteracting ambition. Members of the Legislative branch are able to oppose Trump only if they surrender their ambition. The Constitution did not anticipate the role that would be played by political parties, which has created a reality in which the Legislative and Executive branches are either set in implacable opposition to each other (if under split control or in which the former is a tool of the latter (if under unified control).
This stark reality was illustrated most recently today by John Cornyn, the Senate Majority Whip. Reporters asked Cornyn where he stands on an incipient bipartisan agreement to shore up the Obamacare exchanges. “I’m with the president,” Cornyn said. Asked where Trump was on it — the president has vacillated repeatedly — Cornyn threw up his hands.
The gesture may have been ironic, but it was no joke. Cornyn does not have an independent position on this policy question. He views his role as adopting whatever stance the president takes. His frustration is that he does not yet know what that stance is. Cornyn does not consider it part of his job to form an independent judgment on the policy. He sees his job as merely supporting Trump’s preferences. And the fact that Trump is too feeble-minded to form a stable preference — and that he is repeatedly swayed to the side of whoever speaks to him last — does not dissuade Cornyn to break free of his subservient role.
On the converse, the failure of republican government is also a triumph of sorts of democracy. Flake and Corker do not occupy an ideological faction, but they share in common an identification with their party’s elitist wing. Corker is a thoughtful foreign-policy specialist with a passion for fiscal responsibility. Flake is a fanatic small-government libertarian. A decade ago, he told Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Republican Party has always had three tenets — economic freedom, limited government, and individual responsibility,” apparently not realizing that these are all the same thing.
None of these passions are shared in a widespread way by Republican voters. The conservative identity of the modern party is a function of elites harnessing ethno-nationalist resentment, and using it to advance a policy agenda favored by conservative elites. At times they have succeeded (a series of tax cuts) and at times they have failed (attempting to privatize Social Security and reform immigration). But they largely declined to question the underlying cast of their party and their method of using one kind of political appeal to harvest votes, and using the power acquired thereby on another kind of policy altogether. Trump stole their base from them fair and square by appealing directly to what they wanted.
Republicans who are not retiring have — almost without exception — made their peace with the bully-in-chief. Some of them are actually angry at the dissenters. “Many GOP senators friendly to Corker are furious at his latest comments, making tax reform harder,” a “GOP, estab-friendly insider” tells Josh Kraushaar. The rest are simply going along. They’re blocking Democratic bills to force the release of Trump’s tax returns. They’re endorsing a corrupt bigot in Alabama who openly flouts the rule of law.
Flake expresses confidence that the hold of Trumpism over his party will not last. “This spell will pass,” he promises. In the meantime, it is taking deeper hold.