When Arizona Republican Jeff Flake took to the U.S. Senate floor last week to denounce the "reckless, outrageous and undignified" conduct of a man he refused to name, it marked the last stand of the Never Trump movement that once hoped to save the GOP from you know who.
"We must stop pretending that the degradation of our politics and the conduct of some in our executive branch are normal," Mr. Flake said in a 17-minute cri de coeur. "They are not normal."
This extraordinary turn by Mr. Flake, one of the rare elected Republicans to continue to speak out against Donald Trump's vicious and erratic behaviour since the new U.S. President was sworn in, will likely be remembered not as a rallying cry against the nationalist and populist politics of the Trump era but rather as a eulogy acknowledging the Republican Party's surrender to it.
"It is clear at this moment that a traditional conservative who believes in limited government and free markets, who is devoted to free trade and who is pro-immigration has a narrower and narrower path to nomination in the Republican Party – the party that for so long has defined itself by belief in those things," Mr. Flake said. Instead, he added, the GOP has "given up on those core principles in favour of the more viscerally satisfying anger and resentment."
With that, Mr. Flake – at only 54, and with what once looked like a promising political career ahead of him as a modern Republican from a Sun Belt state – announced that he would not seek re-election in 2018. Already facing a primary challenge from a pro-Trump candidate, Mr. Flake had come to the inevitable conclusion that he could not win. But at least he had the guts to bow out gracefully rather than bite his tongue as most Republican incumbents have chosen to do.
Not that it will do them any good. Since he was fired from his formal White House job in August, Trump alter-ego Steve Bannon has grown only more determined to reshape the Republican Party in his former boss's image. Now back running Breitbart News, that right-wing purveyor of vindictiveness, Mr. Bannon vows to launch primary challenges against all of the Republican senators up for re-election in 2018 except Ted Cruz of Texas. To pass Mr. Bannon's muster, prospective GOP candidates must at least talk the Trump talk on trade and immigration.
"We're planning on building a broad anti-establishment coalition to replace the Republican Party of old with fresh new blood and fresh new ideas," said Andy Surabian of the Great America Alliance Super PAC that is working with Mr. Bannon to unseat Republican incumbents.
Some Republicans formerly critical of Mr. Trump, such as South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, are suddenly showing fealty to the President. Whether they are showing symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome or are just scared for their political survival, they rationalize their willingness to humour the President by arguing the party needs to stick together to pass tax reform. But when the prospect of giving a massive tax cut to the rich is all that binds the Republican Party in the Trump era, you might as well just close up shop.
Some Republicans are also holding their fire in the secret hope that special counsel Robert Mueller, who is looking into Russia's efforts to influence the 2016 election, will come up with enough dirt to impeach the President. But impeachment would only further enrage Mr. Trump's angry base.
It's a sad day when the only Republicans willing to take a stand in the face of the clear and present danger posed by Mr. Trump's continued presence in the Oval Office are those who had already decided to retire (Tennessee Senator Bob Corker), who faced certain defeat in 2018 (Mr. Flake), have been diagnosed with a terminal illness (Arizona Senator John McCain) or who are no longer in office (former president George W. Bush). The cowardice of those who remain silent out of fear they'll wind up being savaged in one of Mr. Trump's deranged tweets speaks volumes about their true character, or lack thereof.
"It is often said children are watching," Mr. Flake told his Senate colleagues. "Well, they are. And what are we going to do about that? When the next generation asks us, 'Why didn't you do something? Why didn't you speak up?', what are we going to say?"
On that note, Mr. Flake's fellow senators wished him the best in his future endeavours, and swiftly proceeded to their next fundraiser.