Let’s be clear: There is a difference between disruption and destruction.
When any institution becomes static, myopic or just plain out of touch, there is value in disrupting the status quo—pushing against old norms or ideas in order to move that institution in a fresh direction. But, with disruption comes risks; and when Donald Trump was nominated for president, Republicans assumed the risk.
Now, ten months into his term President Trump has embroiled himself, his administration and the Republican Party in a declared war with Republican leaders. There are no words. Not only is this bad politics, it’s destructive of the already delicate relationships on Capitol Hill—relationships needed if this administration hopes to get anything passed.
Consider his latest criticisms of U.S. Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). They agree with and have voted for the president’s policies and yet, they find themselves almost daily on the short end of one of the president’s tweets. In fact, according to Five Thirty Eight, Sen. Flake has voted for the president’s agenda 90 percent of the time and Sen. Corker 86 percent of the time. Which means this rift between Trump and these senators (as well as with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and others) is less about policy and more about something else, something a bit more personal: the abdication of conservative principles and ideals in the age of Trump.
Many Republicans in the Senate and the House consider themselves to be the heirs of Ronald Reagan, charged to carry the political and ideological torch passed to them and to the Party by the late president. This was effectively captured by Sen. Flake—who since his days in the House has become known as a blunt, principled truth-teller—in his recent book “Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle.”
The Senator did not mix words as he sought to clearly delineate what was at stake. In the book—whose title is taken from the late U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater’s treatise of the same name— Flake calls the president’s many Twitter posts “all noise and no signal.” He adds: “Volatile unpredictability is not a virtue. We have quite enough volatile actors to deal with internationally.”
Interestingly, in 1960, Goldwater lamented that conservatives seemed “unable to demonstrate the practical relevance” of their philosophy — free markets, limited government, a strong national defense. That lament remains true for Senators like Jeff Flake as it has become painfully apparent that President Trump has no appreciation for those principles or core conservative philosophies. In fact, what has caught the ire of President Trump is Flake’s charge that the conservative principles he and his colleagues have championed are now being undermined by the nation’s 45th president. Sen. Flake rightly asks what Goldwater would have thought of a GOP president who threatens to dismantle free trade agreements, wars with some of his own intelligence and Cabinet agencies and cozies up to autocrats? Republicans should ask themselves the same thing.
Ironically, when Sen. Flake was first elected to Congress, he was called by some a “disruptor” for adhering to traditional conservative principles. Now he’s branded an “outsider” by the president who claimed to be an outsider to win his election.
For some time now it has become increasingly clear that Republicans stand on the precipice of conservatism, ready to throw each other off because we feel as if we’ve lost our grip on what conservatism means; indeed, what it even means to be a republican. The Republican president has not helped to quell those concerns.
This struggle is long in the making and as Sen. Flake could tell you is not really about policy or passing bills, it is ultimately about the definition of who we are—as a party and as a country. No doubt, there is a clear and present danger exacerbated by the taunts of Steve Bannon and the tweets of President Trump that the rift which has formed within the Party of Reagan will ultimately lead to its destruction. And maybe for some, that’s the point.
Ronald Reagan defined America as a “shining city on a hill”. As a young man, I saw my party as a bridge to that city. That’s why conservatives like Jeff Flake know that now is the time to boldly carry that torch and hand it to a new generation so that city may continue to shine.
Yes, there is, indeed, a stark difference between disruption and destruction.