On Tuesday, Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ), a longtime critic of President Trump, announced he would not run for re-election in Arizona. That was no surprise, considering that his in-state approval numbers were down to 18%.
But Flake then delivered a fiery sermon decrying Trump personally as well as the direction of the Republican Party more generally, citing as the rationale for his retirement “regret, because of the state of our disunion, regret because of the disrepair and destructiveness of our politics, regret because of the indecency of our discourse, regret because of the coarseness of our leadership, regret for the compromise of our moral authority, and by our — all of our — complicit in this alarming and dangerous state of affairs.” Flake called Trump’s behavior “dangerous to a democracy,” and lamented “a segment of my party [that] believes that anything short of complete and unquestioning loyalty to a president who belongs to my party is unacceptable and suspect.”
Flake’s retirement has allowed three groups of people to run with a pre-crafted narrative: the narrative of a Trump takeover of the Republican Party, and the forced exile of all dissidents at the hands of the Trumpian conquerors. Group #1: the Trumpian wing of the party, led by Breitbart, claiming credit for ousting Flake for his supposed heresies against Trump. Group #2: the media, eager to play up conflict within the party and castigate all Republicans as Trump sycophants and the future of the party as a nationalist populist demagogue-driven disaster. Group #3: Flake and his supporters, who wish to recast their unpopularity as a result of high-minded principle rather than bad politicking.
Here is the reality: Jeff Flake was one of the most unpopular senators in the country nearly from the point of his election in 2012. In April 2013, The Atlantic ran a piece titled, “How Jeff Flake Became the Most Unpopular Senator in America.” At that point, Trump wasn’t a gleam in Steve Bannon’s eye, and Bannon wasn’t a gleam in the media’s eye. Flake began his career in the Senate as a popular hard-line Republican; he quickly shifted to the middle, embracing Gang of Eight immigration reform (many immigration reform Senators have fallen askance of the base), siding against the Obamacare defunding effort, voting repeatedly for debt ceiling increases, pushing gun control, working with President Obama to open trade with Cuba. As Erick Erickson points out:
So Flake was in trouble before Trump came along. Flake then opposed Trump throughout the election cycle, which didn’t help him — Flake skipped the Republican National Convention, and earned Trump’s public ire:
In July 2016, Trump openly warned Flake he’d lose his re-election bid.
Now, many of Flake’s critiques of President Trump were correct — and remain correct. But Flake began preparing for his Senate leavetaking months ago when he wrote a book openly attacking Trump. It isn’t that Flake doesn’t oppose Trump — of course he does; that opposition is sincere. But to blame his ouster on Trump’s power ignores Flake’s vulnerability prior to Trump — and Flake purposefully exacerbated that vulnerability by loudly touting his opposition to Trump and the Republican base on a much-ballyhooed book tour.
So here’s the most plausible reading of Flake’s decision to leave the Senate and blast everybody on the way out: he was unpopular, he was going to leave anyway, and he saw an opportunity to parlay his sincere anti-Trumpism into a lucrative new role as the Chief of the Anti-Trump Republican Resistance — or at least a slot on MSNBC. Breitbart and President Trump both have an interest in playing up Flake’s same angle: that they are responsible for his ouster, and that they have erased him from history. And the media have an interest in suggesting the same thing: that Flake is a hero ousted from a broken party, with Trump and Breitbart as the joint villains.
That’s not really true. But as always, narrative trumps reality.