Standing ovations are rare at the “Politics and Eggs” breakfasts—two longtime attendees told me they’d never seen one, while a spokesperson for the New Hampshire Institute of Politics called them “unusual, though not unprecedented.” But AZ Senator Jeff Flake got one Friday morning, and he did it by trashing Donald Trump.
The event, hosted by the NH IOP and the New England Council, is a “must-stop” on the presidential campaign trail. The audience is bipartisan and business oriented, with some political academics thrown in for good measure. And while they sat quietly throughout the speech, at the end they rewarded Flake’s anti-Trump’s rhetoric with a rousing cheer.
Sen. Flake has a soft voice and “ah, shucks” demeanor, but his attacks on Trump were head on and hard to miss.
“We have…succumbed to what can only be described as a propaganda-fueled dystopian view of conservatism,” Flake said. He repeatedly dismissed Trump as not a “true leader,” and described the Trump presidency as “chaos for its own sake, projected out into the world.”
Flake claimed that he’s the real conservative (“Standing before you is that rarest of species—the American conservative. Americanus Never Trumpus. Subgenus: RINO.”), while Trump represents “the collapse of our values.”
“Say hypothetically in 2018, we have a libertine budget-busting president who exudes chaos and dotes on authoritarians,” Flake pondered aloud from onstage. “One who replaced the State Department with Twitter, and who lives in a golden palace when not in the White House—and he’s the conservative!”
Flake doesn’t like it. He demeans Republican voters who made it possible as “nativist,” emotional, and angry. What Flake didn’t do is explain how we got here.
Flake is right that the government values of the current GOP are far from those espoused for years by politicians like him. In 2016 there were at least 10 other candidates singing from Flake’s hymnal. And what happened?
They all lost. And they lost to a political amateur— a reality-TV star from New York City. Even now, Trump has the support of 74 percent of NH Republicans, according to a February poll from the NHIOP. The crowd of business leaders and academics can cheer Flake’s feelings about the current state of the GOP, but they still represent a smaller slice of the electorate than he does—even in New Hampshire.
Flake made no bones about the fact that he and his allies have lost the battle for the GOP, but he didn’t even make an attempt to explain why.
Perhaps it’s because conservatives like Flake spent years dismissing voters concerned about issues like illegal immigration, or the impacts of free trade on specific industries and regions. Perhaps it’s because Flake and friends spent too much time in rooms full of business leaders and Chamber of Commerce types and missed the message typical voters were trying to send.
Flake repeatedly went out of his way to talk up his support for amnesty. He bragged about his relationships with liberal Democrats like Sen. Chuck Schumer. Other than a passing reference to Mike Pence (who he served with in the House of Representatives), the only living Republican he praised was fellow amnesty advocate John McCain.
It wasn’t that long ago that Donald Trump was on the campaign trail insulting McCain over his war record—a classless act that would have ended most political careers. Instead, Trump went on to win the GOP nomination and the White House. Insulting McCain and disappointing Flake just don’t matter to the Republican electorate at the moment. More bemoaning of the “nativist” populism of the GOP base isn’t going to change that.
Several times during his speech Flake’s description of the GOP electorate echoed Hillary Clinton’s recent comments about Trump’s “backward” campaign and the racist, sexist values of his voters. When I asked Sen. Flake if he agreed with Hillary’s assessment of Trump’s America, he evaded the question by claiming he hadn’t heard what she said.
The standing ovation from the New Hampshire establishment Friday says a lot about the ongoing civil war in the GOP. But it doesn’t change Jeff Flake’s prospects as a potential GOP challenger to Donald Trump.
Flake calls himself a “long shot.” He’s being too optimistic.