When Sen. Jeff Flake took the Senate floor this week to deliver a stirring call to arms, it was easy to cling to the hope that the dam was finally breaking. Flake was the fourth successive high-profile Republican to publicly break with Trump in the last couple weeks, following on the heels of George W. Bush and fellow Sens. John McCain and Bob Corker.
"To announce that there must be no criticism of the President [...] is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public," Flake said, quoting Teddy Roosevelt from the Senate floor Tuesday. "I will not be complicit or silent."
But during the very same battle cry to his colleagues, Flake announced he would not seek reelection in 2018, as if to say, in order to stand up to Trump, he had to stand down.
Like everything in these head-spinning days, Flake's outspoken exit from the Senate can be seen optimistically as the beginning of a more vocal anti-Trump Republican movement, or pessimistically as a surrender to Trump's GOP takeover. On one hand, at least people from Trump's own party are finally acknowledging what a crackpot he is—that's a start. On the other, GOP senators not retiring are kissing up to Trump with ever greater fervor.
This week, the GOP's No. 2 in the Senate, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a former state judge and attorney general, became the highest ranking Republican to lend his full backing the lawless Roy Moore of Alabama, the twice-removed state Supreme Court judge now running for Senate. It was an absolute 180 from his assertion before Moore won the primary last month that "getting thrown off the Supreme Court of your state twice" is not "a credential that commends you for membership in the United States Senate." On second thought, in the party of Trump, it is a credential for Senate membership.
Meanwhile, erstwhile Trump taunter Sen. Lindsey Graham is now on speed dial at the Oval Office. Apparently, he's given Trump his new cell number without reservation.
And when it comes to GOP Senators running for reelection next year, forget about it. Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker blamed Flake for his own predicament after writing a "provocative" anti-Trump book. He also said had no idea how Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee was being "helpful" on foreign policy concerns after Corker warned that Trump was “devolving” and could land us in World War III. Wicker didn't just throw his Senate colleagues under the bus, he drove it over them then backed up to make sure he had done the job.
But the Trump takeover isn't just happening on the federal level. The GOP Speaker of the Texas House, Joe Straus, followed Flake straight out of politics this week with his own announcement that he wouldn't seek reelection. With the strong support of the Texas business community, Straus actually blocked an anti-transgender bathroom bill from getting a vote even as fire-breathers like Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott championed the bill.
At the same time, GOP hopefuls at the state level are going full Trump.
Already, in the high-profile campaigns of 2017 — governor races in Virginia and New Jersey and a special Senate race in Alabama — Republican candidates are mirroring Mr. Trump’s racially tinged campaign tactics.
In fact, the Virginia governor’s race between Democrat Ralph Northam, a pediatric neurologist and current Lieutenant Governor, and former Bush-era RNC chair Ed Gillespie is shaping up to be a test case for whether blatantly stoking racist and nativist sentiment will boost GOP chances at the ballot box. Gillespie, a one-time GOP "centrist," has so refashioned himself in Trump's image that he's adopted both a deep nostalgia for the Antebellum South and the posture of a shameless anti-Latino race baiter. Not only has he championed the white supremacist cause of saving Confederate statues, his ad campaigns are laden with menacing images depicting Latino gangs.
In one ad, text reading "Kill, Rape, Control" flashes over pictures of heavily tattooed Latino gang members as the narrator says, "MS-13 is a menace, yet Ralph Northam voted in favor of sanctuary cities that let dangerous illegal immigrants back on the street, increasing the threat of MS-13."
Forget the fact that Virginia doesn't even have sanctuary cities and that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans, playing on voters' unfounded racist fears is exactly the point.
Gillespie's campaign has been so noxious, the Washington Post Editorial Board called it "poisonous to Virginia and the nation." Naturally, Trump is thrilled, charging that Northam is "fighting for the violent MS-13 killer gangs & sanctuary cities" and cheerleading Gillespie to “save our great statues/heritage!"
Whether this is working for or against Gillespie depends on which campaign you talk to, but the polling average has typically favored Northam by several points for the last few months with an apparent tightening in recent days.
No matter who gets elected, campaign operatives across the country will focus heavily on several factors: whether Gillespie's numbers among non-college whites spiked significantly, whether he underperformed among college-educated whites, and how many people of color turned out to vote. As The Atlantic's Ron Brownstein writes:
Even if Gillespie’s embrace of a Trump-style message energizes the president’s base, it will benefit him little if it generates a backlash among white-collar whites.
Democrats rarely carry most college-educated whites in Virginia, but as long as they stay close among them, it’s difficult for Republicans to win, given the state’s substantial minority population. [...] If Northam runs about even or better among them, it would not only virtually ensure his victory, but also strongly signal that many of these voters are recoiling from a Trump-like approach to race.
On the other hand:
If minorities in Virginia fail to vote in higher numbers than usual, even after Gillespie’s racial provocations, more Republicans will undoubtedly feel emboldened to follow him down that road.
In many ways, the results of the Virginia race in two weeks will have concrete ripple effects throughout the country as it will surely provide lessons for campaign operatives on both sides of aisle.
But in a symbolic sense, Ed Gillespie serves as the anti-Jeff Flake in this allegory, opting to sell his soul to Trump in service of winning an election. And we have yet to see whether such a morally bankrupt bet leads only to the debasement of the Republican party or whether the GOP manages to drag the entire country down with it.