Moral grandstanding against President Trump has become a cottage industry among the Republican establishment in Washington. Prominent members of the Party from Mitt Romney to former President Bush have made full speeches against Trumpism. Senator Jeff Flake is merely the most recent iteration of this phenomenon, and there will surely be more to come. If you didn’t get a chance to listen to Flake’s speech, it went something like this:
“I’d like to announce that I am not seeking re-election. Am I leaving because my pro-immigration stance is out of touch with Arizonans? No, I’m leaving because I think that continuing to work in Washington makes me complicit in Trumpism. That is why I am going to continue working in Washington until 2019 when my term ends. Sound contradictory? Well, it’s not. It’s normal. And Trump is totally not normal, you guys. Because the Founders.”
Okay, that’s not exactly how he said it, but that’s the gist of the speech in caricature. Jeff Flake’s central point was a plea to all Americans that no one allow themselves to think that Trump’s behavior constitutes a “new normal”. In his own words, he said, “if we simply become inured to this condition, thinking that this is just politics as usual, then heaven help us.” Many in the Democrat Party and the Mainstream Media have applauded this sentiment for politically expedient reasons.
But as candidate Trump was fond of saying during the campaign: “wrong”.
Jeff Flake’s speech demonstrated that he is out of touch with American People – his own constituents especially. He described himself as a champion of the “old normal”. And while a number Americans share the Senator’s concerns about certain aspects of Trump’s behavior, the American People have no bias in favor of normalcy the way Senators and other conservative establishment types do. Trump’s election is ample evidence of that fact. The results of the 2016 election almost entirely depended upon the fact that Trump was the opposite of “politics-as-usual”, while Hillary embodied normal, run-of-the-mill political corruption.
According to Senator Flake, the “old normal” is embodied in Federalist 51, where Madison argues that the separation of powers will balance faction against faction. But the rough-and-tumble factionalism of late 18th-century American politics is not really what the Senator desires. What Flake is really longing for is the “atmosphere of shared facts” created by the media environment of the 1950’s and 60’s, when the Big Three corporations controlled America’s airwaves. Few Americans idealize the Cronkite era in this way these days, but many in the Washington establishment and elite media circles still do.
“Normal” has rarely been a winning political slogan in America, which is why none of America’s most popular or successful Presidents advocated normalcy. Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt were far from normal, and they cared little for what were considered to be the political decencies of their time. Yet they were overwhelmingly popular.
Andrew Jackson was the common-man’s first president. He was of such unruly and abnormal behavior that, even though he won the popular vote in a close election, the conservatives in the House of Representatives awarded the highest office to the more stately and dignified John Quincy Adams. When Jackson won the next election, there was such an unruly party at the White House that people had to be lured out with tubs of alcohol. His temper was such that he fired his entire cabinet in a fit of anger when their wives wouldn’t invite Peggy Eaton to their parties.
Abraham Lincoln began his political career as an anonymous satirist (the 19th-century equivalent of an internet troll) who poked fun at career Democrat politicians. Writing under the pseudonym “Rebecca”, Lincoln so aggravated a decent gentlemen named James Shields, that Shields had him doxxed, and sent him a strongly-worded letter demanding retraction. Lincoln snarked back that Shields’ request was too “ungentlemanly”, which escalated the situation into a full-fledged duel.
Franklin Roosevelt flagrantly disregarded the political norms of his era. He actively bullied the Supreme Court, threatening to pack it with partisans unless they capitulated to his demands. He famously broke the standing rule against running for a third term that had been in place since the country began. And, in his political rhetoric, FDR had no problem impugning the motives of his political rivals.
These three popular Presidents were elected, not in spite of the fact that they were abnormal, but because of it. And each were instrumental in creating a lasting unity around a new vision for the nation.
What Trump’s new vision will be is still an open question. He seems to share Jackson’s populist connection to Americans braving dangers on the nation’s border – and also shares his hot temper. Like Lincoln, Trump is willing to change course when in office, regardless of political rhetoric he used to get elected. And, most of all, Trump resembles FDR, in everything from his jobs focus and America-first nationalism all the way down to his willingness to recognize greatness in Southern generals. No one knows what Trump’s new vision for America will turn out to be. But one thing is certain: it won’t be George Bush Jr.’s neoconservativism.
In the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, George W. Bush garnered the support of 90% of Americans as he explained to the world how the spread of American democracy would transform the Middle East and eliminate the threat of Islamic terror. Bush reiterated many of his ideas in a speech last week, where he lamented that Trump’s America seems to be leaving his Wilsonian idealism and Democratic Peace Theory behind. If you’ll indulge me in another caricature, his speech sounded something like this:
“Despite the fact that I spent 8 years accumulating evidence to the contrary, I still believe that all people around the world are basically the same as freedom-loving Americans, and are ready for democracy to be imposed on them. Being committed to America’s ideals means being committed to this mistaken idea of mine, as well. And, no, the rise of ISIS does not make me question my belief that promoting democracy abroad makes us safer. Conservatives, it’s time to get back on the train that led us straight into the Iraq War!”
President Bush does deserve some credit, though. Unlike other speeches critical of President Trump emanating from the Republican establishment, Bush’s speech actually proposed a vision for America. The vision is not, ultimately, one that will ever inspire Americans again. But at least it is something. He tried. He offered the best he had. The speeches of Senators Corker and Flake, as well as former candidates McCain and Romney, advocated little more than normalcy, with “normal” defined as “anything but Trump”. Such vacuous speeches are mere exercises in virtue-signaling, and the Republican electorate instinctively recognizes them as such. They earn 15 minutes of fame from a Trump-hostile media, but then are swept into the ash heap of history.
Republican leaders who truly want to affect the course of American history should be honestly asking themselves why the American electorate chose to abandon “normal”, last election cycle. They need to take Americans’ immigration concerns seriously, rather than dismissing them as “spurious nationalism” or an abandonment of American ideals. It’s time for America’s majority party to begin the serious work of constructing a new vision for America. This vision must be compatible with the concerns of Americans from the rust-bucket as well as southern Arizona. And if this means that the Flakes of the party need to get out of the way, so be it.