That was Sen. Jeff Flake’s message when he launched a fierce attack this week on President Trump’s debasement of the presidency. He was trying to shake his Republican colleagues out of their “complicity” in Trump’s destructive behavior.
Flake’s blast followed a series of astonishing critiques of Trumpism by the conservative trio of President George W. Bush, Sen. John McCain, and Sen. Bob Corker. This GOP truth squad has warned that our democracy and future security are being endangered by the president..
“I hope we have reached a tipping point,” Flake told CNN, predicting more of his colleagues will now speak out. “The longer we wait, the greater the damage, the harsher the judgment of history,” he wrote in the Washington Post.
The Arizona senator is correct. Unless more of his GOP confreres have the guts to confront Trump, they will share the blame as the president degrades U.S. politics and lurches heedlessly toward war.
No matter your feelings about Bush’s Iraq war, his points about Americans’ declining confidence in democratic institutions and growing disinterest in global leadership are vital.
Recent studies show a startling rise in the number of young people, including Americans, who no longer think it essential to live in a democracy and who even support autocratic alternatives. This at a time when Xi Jinping’s China is asserting its power globally and strengthening its military, and when the Russian government is taking full advantage of internal U.S. disarray (with no pushback from Trump).
That is why, as Bush points out, it is so dangerous that our national politics has sharpened partisanship, emboldened bigotry, and become more vulnerable to “conspiracy theories and outright fabrication.”
This degradation of American discourse convinces global opponents that U.S. society is fraying and leaves America vulnerable to foreign manipulation, says Bush.
Flake goes further. He denounces “the personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms and institutions, the flagrant disregard for truth and decency. When such behavior emanates from the top of our government … it is dangerous to democracy.
“Such behavior does not project strength, because our strength comes from our values.”
In other words, a president who strikes back viciously at any criticism, even attacking Gold Star widows and parents, is not normal. A leader who, instead of addressing the nation’s hurts, “goes to look for someone to blame” is destroying our pluralistic society. A president who uses vulgar language about women, threatens fellow Republicans, and lies constantly degrades discourse.
Such behavior “should never be regarded as normal,” Flake rightly insists.
However, the Trump behavior that the GOP truth quartet finds most dangerous is his impact on U.S. security. “Now the efficacy of American leadership around the globe has come into question,” Flake bluntly states.
Although Trump presents himself as a tough guy, his behavior projects weakness. “World leaders know he lies,” says Corker. They often discount his statements, because he constantly shifts position and regularly responds to flattery.
In the meantime, Trump shows utter disdain for the system of international institutions and rules and the U.S. leadership role that have maintained peace since World War II. He is eager to abandon international accords, like the nuclear deal with Iran, making it less possible to negotiate any new ones. And he “kneecaps” (to use Corker’s phrase) the secretary of state, publicly destroying any hopes of future diplomacy (see North Korea).
“We, the architects of this visionary rules-based world order … are the ones most eager to abandon it,” says Flake. “Despotism loves a vacuum, and our allies are now looking elsewhere for leadership.”
China is moving in on U.S. interests in Asia while Russia makes moves in the Mideast and southern Europe. ISIS may be defeated in Iraq and Syria, but Tehran and Moscow are reaping the benefits.
Most terrifying, Trump refuses to stop tweeting foreign policy directives that confuse allies and that may be misunderstood by adversaries. “The alliances and agreements that ensure the stability of the entire world are routinely threatened by the level of thought that goes into 140 characters,” says Flake.
“He doesn’t realize that we could be heading toward World War III with the kinds of comments he’s making,” adds Corker, citing North Korea. “It very much feels to me like he thinks as president he’s on a reality television show.”
And so the Four Horsemen of the Republican Apocalypse are trying to head Trump off from doing apocalyptic damage to our country. They are also trying to save the Republican Party from the hands of white supremacists and conspiracy theorists and uber-nationalists such as Breitbart’s Steve Bannon.
It may be too late. After all, Flake and Corker decided to retire because they would be opposed in Republican primaries by Bannon and the uber-right. Other GOP legislators are terrified of Trumpian retribution.
Yet Flake is correct that this is a defining moment in American history. And much will depend on whether the appeals of the four GOP truth tellers resonate widely. If not, prepare to see the Four Horsemen’s worst predictions come true.