On August 1, Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona published Conscience of a Conservative, a compact but fiery denunciation of the Republican Party’s turn towards demagoguery, nativism, and Donald Trump. Decrying the “Faustian bargain” the party made in accepting Trump in return for conservative judges and the occasional policy victory, Flake slammed his colleagues for supporting a petty and unstable tyrant bent on undermining American democracy. “We pretended that the emperor wasn’t naked,” he wrote. “Even worse: We checked our critical faculties at the door and pretended that the emperor was making sense.”
Three days earlier, Flake had voted with 48 of his Republican colleagues in an unsuccessful attempt to repeal Obamacare in the dead of night. Four months later, he would join 50 of his Senate colleagues—including John McCain, Susan Collins, and Lisa Murkowski, who all undermined the July effort to repeal Obamacare—to pass a highly regressive and unpopular tax reform package that will inordinately benefit corporations and the wealthy. Over the course of the year, these Republicans have condemned Trump on the Sunday shows and on social media. And now they have banded together to give Trump a major victory: not only a historic restructuring of the tax system, but also a partial repeal of Obamacare.
For anti-Trump Republicans—or, more accurately, anti-Trump curious Republicans, as Nate Silver put it—the year has been marked by a bewildering dance with the president. Coverage of these senators has followed suit, tending to focus on their most recent headline-grabbing stunt, whether it be an act of complicity or of defiance. But what this obscures is just how ineffectual these senators have been over the past eleven months, even though a slim two-vote majority in the upper chamber gives them a great deal of power. These Republicans have alternated between bolstering Trump and chastising him, but have never acted with any larger strategy or taken any meaningful action to constrain a president they distrust. In the end, Trump got a lot of what he wanted anyway, without giving anything in return.
It can’t be said that Trump matured in office, becoming the statesman that old-guard Republicans claim they want. He did not change his demands. The reason they have caved to Trump is because, for all their objections to Trump’s tweeting and the innumerable ways he has damaged democratic traditions in this country, concerns about the deficit or the integrity of the Oval Office or the rule of law or the rights of minorities simply don’t have much traction in the modern Republican Party. As many have noted, it has only one, unifying agenda: tax cuts and deregulation. As a result, the efforts to reform Trump’s Republican Party from within have all collapsed, out of deference to these narrow policy goals.
Anti-Trump curious Republicans have gone after Trump in various ways, and for different reasons. Collins, who didn’t support his 2016 campaign, has criticized his understanding of the legislative process and expressed anxiety about where Trump is taking the country. When Flake announced he would not run for reelection in 2018, he dedicated his speech to denouncing the president’s demagoguery and calling on his colleagues to do the same. “There are times when we must risk our careers in favor of our principles,” he said. “Now is such a time.” Nebraska’s Ben Sasse has singled out Trump’s unhinged behavior and attacks on the press. McCain’s decision to kill Obamacare repeal was widely interpreted as a shot at Trump, who once attacked McCain for having been captured during the Vietnam War. When Bob Corker started a war of words with the president in October, he claimed that most of his colleagues agreed that Trump was unfit for office. (None of Corker’s fellow Republicans publicly concurred.)
Lindsey Graham, meanwhile, has taken a different tack. After calling Trump a “jackass” who was unfit for office during the campaign, he has since become one of Trump’s warmest allies. The two have golfed together, and Graham, who has voted yes on all the major legislation that has gone through the Senate this year, has begun backing up the president in public, particularly on foreign policy. (He also praised Trump’s golf game and “spectacular” golf course.) Graham’s flip was memorably caught by CNN’s Jake Tapper, who juxtaposed Graham calling Trump a “kook” in 2016 with Graham in 2017 lashing out at the press for attempting to paint Trump as a “kook.”
Graham may be angling to become secretary of state—Rex Tillerson has long been rumored to be on his way out—but his approach nevertheless represents an alternate theory of how to influence Trump. Graham appears to think that winning the president’s confidence, as opposed to calling him out in public, is the most effective way to reach him. (Trump famously tends to heed the advice of the last person who had his ear.) But what’s remarkable is that this approach is just as ineffectual as the criticism. There is no sign that Trump is any less reckless or vengeful than he was before Graham decided to befriend him.
This points to a larger problem among the Republican opposition to Trump: There’s no larger strategy. Flake wrote a whole book about Trump, but it was a solo effort that ended up being a futile attempt to convince his colleagues to reject the president’s divisive politics. A lot of Republicans claimed they wanted a better, more humane party, but instead of banding together those Republicans either quit or quietly submitted to Trump.
Anti-Trump curious Republicans have nowhere to go. There is seemingly no constituency for a long-term, strategic Republican revolt against Trump, who is still popular among GOP voters. Criticizing the president, as these Republicans have done again and again in 2017, has garnered significant media coverage. But it was all just words, really.