By ABE ASHER
On Tuesday afternoon, Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona took to the Senate floor to deliver to what he must have felt was the important speech of his political life.
“Mr. President,” he said, “I rise today to say: enough.” Flake went on to, in uncertain terms, speak of the moral imperative of Republican lawmakers to oppose a president in Donald Trump who is undermining the best interests of the country at home and abroad.
And then he announced his retirement.
“It is clear at this moment that a traditional conservative,” Flake said, “who believes in limited government and free markets, who is devoted to free trade, who is pro-immigration, has a narrower and narrower path to nomination in the Republican Party, the party that has so long defined itself by its belief in those things.”
True enough. As he made his announcement on Tuesday, Flake was looking at polls that showed him trailing right-wing primary challenger Kelli Ward by nearly thirty points.
Flake has been in Congress since 2001. Ward, a physician by training, has appeared on Alex Jones’ radio show, held a public meeting on the chemtrails conspiracy theory, and reacted to John McCain’s cancer diagnosis by suggesting that McCain leave the Senate immediately and she be named his replacement.
Flake’s surrender mirrored that of Tennessee senator Bob Corker four weeks prior. Corker, also up in 2018, announced his retirement and then blistered Trump as a liar and said he’d be remembered for “the debasement of our nation.”
Those two episodes made one thing very clear: there are Republicans who feel compelled to stand against Trump. But they know that doing so means the end of their careers in G.O.P. politics.
Of course, most of the party’s elected officials have not spoken out against Trump. The Mitch McConnells and Paul Ryans of the world have gritted their teeth and plowed ahead — recognizing this potentially singular opportunity to enact their legislative agenda.
What is that agenda, you ask? Making wealthy people wealthier. At this point, any other interpretation of what the Congressional G.O.P. is doing is implausible.
Besides the minor things, like failing to renew the Children’s Health Insurance Program, Republicans this year have tried to do two big things: repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, and overhaul the tax system.
In the first case, the G.O.P. tried — three separate times — to replace the A.C.A. with a plan that would have cost millions of people their insurance in order to reduce coverage costs for high-income individuals and major corporations.
Those proposals, which all eventually failed, aimed to transfer a massive amount of wealth from working class people to wealthy people. They were only disguised as health care plans.
The tax reform proposal, which just passed the House, has a similar makeup. It would would add $20 trillion to the national debt in order to, among other things, abolish the estate tax and slash the corporate income tax.
Why would the G.O.P. want such a plan? It’s not fiscally conservative by any stretch of the imagination. It only makes sense if you understand that the Republican Party exists today to do two things: serve rich people, and serve Trump.
John Cornyn, McConnell’s second-in-command, just about summed it up, when — asked for his position on a bipartisan deal to extend the A.C.A.’s cost-sharing reduction payments for two years — he said, “I’m with the president,” and then, when asked where exactly the president was, threw his hands up in the air.
Cornyn hit the headlines this week when he became the highest-ranking Republican legislator to endorse Roy Moore — a virulent racist who said that Keith Ellison should not be allowed to serve in Congress because he’s Muslim — for Senate in Alabama.
Moore is an extremist. He believes that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, and has twice been removed from the state Supreme Court — first for installing outside the courthouse and refusing to remove a monument to the ten commandments, then for directing Alabama judges to continue to enforce the state’s ban on same-sex marriage despite the Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing it nationally.
The irony in the endorsement? Cornyn himself was a state Supreme Court justice in Texas.
This is not normal. Moore is receiving a level of support from the Republican establishment that Pat Buchanan, for instance, could only have dreamed of. But once the party rallied around Trump, it crossed a threshold. Nothing is out of bounds anymore.
The G.O.P. should have seen this coming. It sold its soul a long time ago. Conservatism not being a broadly popular political ideology, the Republicans turned to other means — namely race and other cultural issues — to achieve power.
But the transformation of the party in the last several years has been remarkable nonetheless.
Healthcare is a prime example. When Hillary Clinton proposed her healthcare plan back in 1993, a Republican alternative — drawn up by an Ohio representative named John Kasich — would have seen every person in the United States covered by 2005. That plan was the basis for what Mitt Romney did when he was governor of Massachusetts, and it was the basis for the A.C.A.
Since then, the center of gravity hasn’t so much shifted as its been obliterated completely.
In the last year, we’ve seen past three Republican presidential nominees condemn the current Republican president. We’ve seen the party’s intellectual base, the likes of Bill Kristol and David Frum, desert it. Kasich himself is now more or less functioning as an independent.
It is indeed a strange world when the likes of Flake and Corker, and Charlie Dent in the House, are seen as the mavericks. Two years ago, they were just mainstream Republicans.
Those three were fine with the party existing primarily to serve its major donors. But Trump, was, eventually, their breaking point.
The coming battle in the Republican party isn’t going to be about policy and style, like the battle in the Democratic party will be. It will be about the power of white nationalism versus the party’s existing machinery, for whom Trump is a vehicle, and Steve Bannon is an obstacle. None of it is good for the country.
It’s hard to have a healthy democracy in a two-party system when one of the parties is in this kind of shape. That’s where we are. And as long as the Republican party continues down the road it’s on, that’s where we’ll continue to be.