Donald Trump had barely left the US Capitol on Tuesday after a meeting with Republicans senators when Jeff Flake took the Senate floor. He delivered a barnstorming speech, excoriating the state of the Republican party under the stewardship of the president.
Just moments before, reports that Flake would not seek re-election had sent shockwaves across Washington.
From the Arizona senator’s vantage point, the writing was on the wall: he had a reliably conservative record but his willingness to speak out about the controversial behavior of a divisive president had rendered him a man without a party. This was Trump’s Republican party, Flake said, and there was no room for him within it.
“It is time for our complicity and our accommodation for the unacceptable to end,” Flake said, in explosive remarks that were instantly labeled as a historic act of defiance. “There are times when we must risk our careers in favor of our principles. Now is such a time.”
The senator delivered a 17-minute speech, framing the moment as an existential crisis for the party, taking direct aim at Trump’s conduct and what his presidency symbolized in a lacerating critique.
It was an extraordinary event that would have otherwise been regarded as a major breach of decorum. But this is Washington in 2017. The norms have already been broken.
A handful of Flake’s colleagues sat stony-faced in the chamber as he implored Republicans not to acquiesce on core principles in the pursuit of appeasing Trump’s angry nationalist base.
“We must stop pretending that the degradation of our politics and the conduct of some in our executive branch are normal,” he said.
Flake went on, thrusting the knife even further into Trump, though avoiding naming him: “Reckless, outrageous, and undignified behavior has become excused and countenanced as ‘telling it like it is’ when it is actually just reckless, outrageous, and undignified.”
Among those who bore witness to Flake’s remarks was John McCain, the senior senator from Arizona who just a week previously blasted “half-baked, spurious nationalism” in a coded attack on so-called “Trumpism”. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, looked on stoically.
As the speech reached its conclusion, one senator applauded: Ben Sasse, a young Republican from Nebraska who, like Flake, declined to endorse Trump in the 2016 election. Many of the Senate’s 52 Republicans were nowhere to be found. They had just left a closed-door lunch with the president, dining over chicken marsala, green beans and Trump’s favorite, meatloaf, before a major push to overhaul the tax code.
Much of the meeting featured Trump – characteristically – singing his own praises, according to some attendees. There was general discussion of taxes, but few specifics from a president who takes little interest in the policy details.
It was nonetheless a cordial meeting, by Trump’s standards, embodied by the takeaway quote of John Kennedy, of Louisiana: “Nobody called anyone an ignorant slut.”
Nonetheless, Flake’s sudden exit was a stark reminder that the rapport between Republicans and the figurehead of their party is anything but congenial.
The November election did not put an end to the Republican Party’s civil war – a chasm between the establishment in Washington and grassroots activists that deepened with the rise of the Tea Party movement of 2009. Trump has only amplified it. Flake, after all, was not alone in his scathing criticism of the president.
All week, a feud between Trump and Bob Corker, the Republican chair of the Senate foreign relations committee, soared to new heights – or depths. It culminated in Corker issuing his own stunning rebuke of Trump.
“When his term is over, the constant non-truth-telling, the name-calling, the debasement of our nation, will be what he will be remembered most for,” Corker told CNN.
Corker announced his own retirement last month, joining the ranks of a small but growing number of Republicans who have come to see Trump’s presidency as a moment of reckoning.
On one side is Trump, the most unpopular president in modern US history, ushered in by a grassroots movement with Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist, at its helm. On the other is the old guard of Republican leaders, struggling to distance themselves from Trump’s toxicity and a party base that he increasingly drives with racially motivated nationalism.
Critics like Flake, Corker and McCain subscribe to the views espoused by Republican presidents back to Ronald Reagan – a belief in limited government, moderate positions on immigration and trade – but Bannonites have waged war on “globalists” and used race and class to drive a wedge between the establishment and a rancorous base unmoored by the economic and cultural dislocation of the last 20 years.
The friction has prompted a battle for the soul of the Republican party. A strategist aligned with Bannon told the Guardian that Trump’s victory unleashed an insurgent movement that wants to overthrow the party establishment in Washington.
“The strategy is to make everyone look over their shoulders,” the Bannon ally said, “so they understand that they are no longer in charge of the Republican party.”
As reports of Flake’s retirement surfaced, another ally of Bannon swiftly celebrated the news by claiming “another scalp”.
The departure of another moderate senator – at least, a moderate within the current Republican party – was the latest victory in Bannon’s mission to reshape the conservative movement.
Although he did not formally join Trump’s campaign until August 2016, three months shy of the election, Bannon spent years cultivating his influence as the executive chairman of Breitbart News. The hard-right website traffics in often vitriolic content about immigrants and Muslims, and once published stories under the tag “black crime”.
The seeds of racial anxiety sown by Breitbart were not simply fodder for rightwing readers, but were intended as markers for Republicans in elected office. The message was clear: if Republicans did not adhere to protectionism they risked being vilified as part of the “establishment”, a tag that by the 2016 primaries became so potent it was regarded by contenders as an insult.
To longtime political observers, this insurgency is the likely culmination of the Tea Party movement that rose up against Barack Obama and swept Republicans to control of the House of Representatives in 2010 and the Senate four years later.
If the bombast of Sarah Palin as McCain’s 2008 running mate foreshadowed the uprising, the die was cast by 2012. Although Mitt Romney survived a bruising primary, the centrist former governor of Massachusetts failed to placate the right wing in the general election.
Romney was also vilified as an out-of-touch plutocrat at a time when the American economy was still recovering from the worst financial collapse since the Great Depression. In some ways, he was the antithesis to what the Tea Party insurgency was seeking.
The GOP’s mainstream nominee also performed abysmally among Hispanic, African American, women and young voters, resulting in a 100-page “autopsy” commissioned by the Republican national committee that recommended dramatic change. Little did party leaders know that Trump would come along and render that autopsy irrelevant.
Trump’s support was fueled, in part, by Breitbart, which during the Obama years shaped the debate on the right over issues ranging from immigration and healthcare to fiscal policy, never giving an inch to compromise.
Bannon’s swift return to the website after leaving the White House in August suggested a “take-no-prisoners” war was only just beginning, and could reach the West Wing if Trump moved away from the “America First” agenda on which he campaigned. But Republican leaders in Congress were, and continue to be, the top targets of Breitbart’s ideological crusade.
The website has been so ruthless in its attacks against House speaker Paul Ryan that it not only promoted his primary challenger in 2016 but also ran a story criticizing him for having a fence around his home in Wisconsin but not being sufficiently supportive of a wall along the US-Mexico border.
Speaking at the Values Voter Summit, an annual gathering of conservative activists held earlier this month, Bannon declared “a season of war”.
“Nobody can run and hide on this one, these folks are coming for you,” he said, to raucous approval.
In a pointed advisory to McConnell, the Senate majority leader, Bannon invoked Shakespeare, stating: “Up on Capitol Hill, it’s like the Ides of March.”
“They’re just looking to find out who is going to be Brutus to your Julius Caesar,” he said. “We’ve cut your oxygen off, Mitch.”
‘You’re going to see more retirements’
For some Republicans facing a tough road to re-election in 2018, the Bannon insurgency has already proved too daunting. A flurry of high-profile retirements have been announced, many hailing from competitive districts eyed by Democrats as potential wins.
If Bannon has his way, the party will not simply transform itself. It will instead create a new establishment, led by what Bannon dubbed as “the populist, nationalist, conservative revolt that’s going on, that drove Donald Trump to victory”.
Flake’s exit appeared to usher in a turning point for Republican leaders in Washington. Senate Leadership Fund, a political action committee aligned with McConnell and tasked with preserving a Republican majority in the upper chamber, revealed plans this week to meet Bannon’s fire with fire.
The Washington Post reported that McConnell’s allies would tie Bannon to white nationalism in a bid to undermine him and his roster of outsider candidates. The group will reportedly commit millions of dollars, while supporting more orthodox Republicans.
It is likely to be a nasty battle, costing tens of millions of dollars. Hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah are ready to assist Bannon, their close ally. Rightwing commentators such as Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh have begun to trumpet Bannon’s anti-establishment message to millions of loyal followers.
In some ways, Flake and Corker signalled an uphill climb. Flake confessed he would have had to run a campaign he would not be proud of in order to fend off a challenge from the right.
The attacks levied at Trump by his Republican opponents in the 2016 campaign went far beyond the norms of primary jostling, with some declaring him “unfit” and going so far as to say he could not be trusted with the nuclear codes. But when voters selected Trump as the Republican nominee, his critics lined up behind him, insisting their allegiance was to the party and anyone would be better than Hillary Clinton.
David Jolly, a former Republican congressman from Florida, said that was short-sighted.
“We’re not going to win a long-term governing majority by endorsing those kind of candidates,” he said.
“We might win a few races here and there in the short term, but we’re not winning the hearts and minds of the American people and independent voters looking at a party they don’t recognize.”
‘Rationalize and capitulate’
For Republicans in Washington, capitulating to Trump has often meant ignoring the unprecedented ways in which he has tested institutions, incited racial resentment and governed in 140 characters or less.
Trump has feuded with military families, flouted US allies, attacked members of his own party and made divisive remarks on race after the death of an anti-racist protester in Charlottesville in August. Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill have taken to meeting such daily controversies with a shrug of the shoulders.
“I’m not going to comment on the tweets of the day,” Paul Ryan says near-weekly while fielding questions from reporters on Capitol Hill.
There is a growing sense in Washington that more and more Republicans are willing to hold their noses in hope of passing tax reform – or more likely, tax cuts.
Despite engaging in his own war of words with Trump this summer, McConnell has similarly sought to project unity this month.
Compounding pressure on GOP leaders is nine months without a major legislative accomplishment. Republicans exhausted three months on healthcare only for their efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act to fall short, thwarted by opposition within their own party.
Operatives say Republicans will be “crucified” by constituents if they are left with nothing to run on in 2018, despite controlling both chambers of Congress and the White House.
Trump critics such as Charlie Sykes, a conservative talk radio host who authored the book How the Right Lost Its Mind, have resigned themselves to believing the party has been “thoroughly Trumpified”.
“The capacity of the Republican party to rationalize and capitulate to Donald Trump is extraordinary,” Sykes said, “and their capacity for surrender has not yet been exhausted. How many times have we said, ‘Surely, this will be enough?’”
Sykes predicted the dysfunction that created Trump would live on well after his exit, bolstered by a “post-truth conservative media”, until and unless Republicans provided a clear, electoral alternative.
“Candidates more in line with mainstream conservative thinking and basic human decency would have to come forward,” he said.
He paused and chuckled, before adding with a sigh: “But I also want a unicorn for Christmas.”