Political retirement speeches are not usually all that memorable. A celebration of your many accomplishments, a nod to the great institution you serve, a hat tip to all the sacrifices your family made over the years to let you live the life you’ve lived.
Which is what makes Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake’s speech on Tuesday all the more remarkable. Flake’s address was a clarion call to the governing wing of the Republican Party to wake up from the fever of Trumpism. It was a call to action and a warning. A plea and a push.
It was, in short, the most important political speech of 2017 – and one of the most powerful political speeches in the modern era of the Senate. And it’s uniquely possible that it won’t change a thing.
Given its import, it’s worth pulling out a few major excerpts from the speech. (And you should take 10 minutes and read the speech in its entirety too.)
- “We must never regard as ‘normal’ the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals. We must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country – the personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms, and institutions, the flagrant disregard for truth or decency, the reckless provocations, most often for the pettiest and most personal reasons, reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with the fortunes of the people that we have all been elected to serve.”
Trump has turned flouting norms into a sort of political ethos. He takes pride in his willingness to step over lines, to give the middle finger to the squares and status quo seekers who express shock and outrage at what he’s done – and is doing. He takes it as a victory when he does the opposite of what good behavior or polite society dictates. Facts? He’s got his own. Outrage? That’s for someone else.
Flake’s point is that following Trump’s approach to life comes at a cost. That personal grievance and petty spite isn’t a governing philosophy. That stepping over lines just to say you stepped over lines isn’t really a strategy or a solution.
- “It is often said that children are watching. Well, they are. And what are we going to do about that? When the next generation asks us, Why didn’t you do something? Why didn’t you speak up? – what are we going to say?”
The calculation almost every Republican in elected office has made is that tolerating Trump’s unpredictability and “modern day presidential” demeanor is worth it because of the near-term gains they believe they can secure. Flake argues here that those near-term gains – many of which, by the way, have yet to be realized – are not worth the long-term impact of countenancing someone like Trump as the leader of the party and the leader of the country. The impact of the moral deals Republicans are currently cutting with regards to Trump will have generational consequences, according to Flake.
- “With respect and humility, I must say that we have fooled ourselves for long enough that a pivot to governing is right around the corner, a return to civility and stability right behind it. We know better than that. By now, we all know better than that.”
There is no Trump 2.0. No “new leaf.” No pivot. What Trump has been as a candidate and a president (and a person) to date is what he is going to be going forward. For all of his promises that he will – at some point in the indeterminate future – act “so presidential you will be bored,” there’s never any follow through. It’s just Trump acting the same. Always.
- “The notion that one should stay silent as the norms and values that keep America strong are undermined and as the alliances and agreements that ensure the stability of the entire world are routinely threatened by the level of thought that goes into 140 characters – the notion that one should say and do nothing in the face of such mercurial behavior is ahistoric and, I believe, profoundly misguided.”
This is as sweeping and complete a condemnation of Trumpism and the Republican Party’s acceptance of it as you will read in a single sentence. Period. The end.
- “Leadership knows that most often a good place to start in assigning blame is to first look somewhat closer to home. Leadership knows where the buck stops. Humility helps. Character counts. Leadership does not knowingly encourage or feed ugly and debased appetites in us.”
This is, quite literally, the opposite of how Trump conducts his business. He is someone who, by default, looks to blame others when things go wrong. The media is his favorite scapegoat but he’s turned his fire on members of his own Cabinet – Jeff Sessions, Tom Price, Rex Tillerson – as well. The one person he never turns to in the blame game is himself. Trump’s brand of leadership is to present himself as infallible and ever-blameless.
- “Despotism loves a vacuum. And our allies are now looking elsewhere for leadership. Why are they doing this? None of this is normal. And what do we as United States senators have to say about it?”
It’s not just America where Trump’s impact is being felt, Flake argues. Around the world, bad actors are watching Trump – and the relative silence of those within his party – and sensing opportunity. Trump’s “America First” worldview is a break from the country’s post-World War II foreign policy approach – and a dangerous one, according to Flake.
- “We were not made great as a country by indulging or even exalting our worst impulses, turning against ourselves, glorying in the things which divide us, and calling fake things true and true things fake.”
Trumpism is anti-American or, at a minimum, antithetical to America’s founding ideals and principles, argues Flake. And Flake’s line about “calling fake things true and true things fake” is powerful – and accurate. Trump has said more than 1,300 false or misleading things in his first 263 days in office, according to the Washington Post’s Fact Checker.
There’s no question that Flake’s speech will go down as one of the most important ones in modern Senate history. What remains very much in dispute is whether Flake’s address will be seen as a sort of tipping point in his party’s grappling with Trump and Trumpism or whether it be just another lone voice crying out in the wilderness.
“A lot of my colleagues share the concerns I raised on the floor,” Flake said on “New Day” Wednesday morning. “I think more of them will speak out in the future.”
Wishful thinking or emerging reality?