Jeff Flake—the new Senator from Arizona as of 2013, and a powerful figure in the Senate—suddenly announced that he will not seek re-election yesterday. While standing on the floor of the Senate, Flake spoke out against the lawless white nationalist hellscape that is the modern Republican Party. I encourage everyone to read the full speech, as his meaningful words are desperately needed in our time of existential crisis.
However, Flake’s actions did not meet the standards set by his words, as he has voted in line with Trump 91.7% of the time. Just last night, Mike Pence broke the tie to strike down a rule that would have allowed us to bring class action lawsuits against the banks. Flake was one of the votes who helped get the White House to the finish line. This is the story of every “independent” Republican congressman under Trump. They speak out publicly against him, but when they return to the halls of Congress, they revert back to being Trump’s lapdogs (per FiveThirtyEight, John McCain has voted with Trump 83% of the time, Ben Sasse 91.8%, and Rand Paul 85.4%). No matter the offense, Trump must be tolerated in the name the Holy Tax Cut. You can speak out about him, but you’re not allowed to stop him.
Additionally, this wasn’t entirely Flake’s decision to make, as the polls were not on his side. RealClearPolitics has him down 26 points to his Trump-backed primary challenger as of August. Jeff Flake said that he is not seeking reelection because “I have decided that I will be better able to represent the people of Arizona and to better serve my country and my conscience by freeing myself from the political considerations that consume far too much bandwidth and would cause me to compromise far too many principles.”
Translation: I can’t make up the 20-plus point gap without adopting Trumpian positions and tactics, so I may as well retire instead of joining or losing to these schmucks.
The Republican Party was overflowing with Trumpism long before Donald Trump overtook it, which makes stunts like Bob Corker suddenly realizing that his previous support for Trump was a mistake look so hollow when compared to a similar episode from 2006, where Corker was condemning an RNC ad that somehow still continued to run. The ad featured a scantily clad white woman winking at his black opponent, Harold E. Ford Jr, while telling him to “call me.” Ford was vying to become the first African American senator since Reconstruction to represent a state in the former Confederacy.
The GOP compromised its principles the moment they decided to use “law and order” to exploit racial divisions within our society—especially in the south, where a gigantic political reformation occurred seemingly overnight in the 1960s. If you need any proof that the famous Nixonian trope which helped him win an election was based in racial grievance, it was coopted by Trump. According to Gallup, Richard Nixon received 32% of votes from nonwhite Americans in his failed 1960 presidential bid. When he won in 1968, he only got 12% of the votes from this group. What happened in between was basically the Big Bang for the modern GOP.
A big reason behind this dramatic change? The Southern Strategy. Lee Atwater—perhaps the most notorious southern Republican consultant of the late 20th century— explained to Alexander Lamis, a political scientist at Case Western University what the Southern Strategy was really all about:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
The entire point of the Republican Party is to gin up racial animosity to vote for politicians who will enact hyper-corporatist policies that would never be able to win an election on their own merits. That’s it. The rest is just details. Richard Nixon debuted the Southern Strategy in the 1960s, coopted the segregationists who swung four states to George Wallace in 1968 into the GOP, and that has been the foundation of the party ever since.
Fast-forward a half-century, and a majority of white Americans feel that they’re discriminated against because of their race. A new study by Pew reveals that the GOP is largely made up of four parties, with “core conservatives” and “country first conservatives” serving as the basis of Trump’s support. Per Pew:
Core Conservatives, who are in many ways the most traditional group of Republicans, have an outsized influence on the GOP coalition; while they make up just 13% of the public — and about a third (31%) of all Republicans and Republican-leaning independents — they constitute a much larger share (43%) of politically engaged Republicans.
Ninety-three percent of “the most traditional group of Republicans” approve of Trump. Eighty percent believe that “blacks who can’t get ahead are responsible for their own condition.” The Republican Party’s brand is racial division, and the problem that “moderate” Republicans like Flake have is that the dog whistles bestowed to them by Nixon’s descendants have been replaced by Trump’s bullhorn. These quiet signals are supposed to signal racial enmity without overtly saying so, but they have been replaced by a confused stream of consciousness resembling Atwater’s revealing rant. There’s nowhere for the “small government conservatives” to hide while they pretend that cutting essential services for dark-skinned folks while slashing taxes for rich white people has no racial bias.
That’s not to say that principled, small government conservatives don’t exist—just not in the upper echelon of the Republican Party. The patron saint of modern “small government conservatism”—Ronald Reagan—increased the national debt by 11.3% in his first term, and another 9.3% in his second. This idea that the Republicans believe wholeheartedly in small government has absolutely no basis in legislative reality, and Atwater’s admission proves the true utility of those “small government” tropes carefully crafted by Republican consultants. The GOP loves big government, just their version of it. The Bush years are proof. They had total control and bought the entire store.
This is not the first time I have brought up this point, nor will it be the last. My first column ever for Paste was titled “Sleep in the Bed You Made: Donald Trump is the Logical Result of the GOP’s 40-Year Racial Strategy.” It was maddening watching Flake’s eloquent comments about Trump—as if disregard for the law and increased racial animosity somehow came out of nowhere along with our commander-in-tweet. Not to mention, the “heavens to betsy, we used to get things done in this chamber!” act that inevitably gets peddled around. This shouldn’t come as a shock either. Were they around for the Obama years? Ted Cruz shut down the entire government! Ted Cruz!
One look at this chart demonstrates how the number of bills passed in Congress has been on a steady decline since the 1950s. This isn’t solely the fault of the GOP, but the Republican-controlled 112th Congress (2011-2012) was the least productive in history, as the GOP passed 561 bills to Obama’s desk—nearly half that of the Republican-controlled Senate in the early 1980s under Reagan, and about 20% off the pace they set under Clinton when they controlled both houses into the Bush years.
Congressmen like Jeff Flake have either been in denial or lying to themselves about the rot hidden in plain sight within the Republican Party. As damaging as the Louise Mensch conspiracy theory-types have been to the left, there is no liberal billion-dollar industry filled with InfoWars-type platforms. Only Republicans’ grievance is powerful and plentiful enough to make subhuman hucksters like Rush Limbaugh half a billion dollars. Yes, Rush Limbaugh—a blob of expired mayonnaise who may be more painkiller than human—has made (at least) $500 million off of pissed off conservatives in his sad, pathetic life.
Half a century ago, the Republican Party spun a racist tale that enamored a sizable chunk of white America, and that continues to this day. Donald Trump is simply proof of that strategy’s success. Anyone who says that they’re surprised by this development is either a liar or hasn’t been paying attention. The modern Republican Party has always been the Party of Trump, it just took time for their King to assume the mantle.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.