Retiring Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake managed to make the news last weekend when he was caught on a hot mic saying Republicans would be toast if they became the party of Donald Trump and Roy Moore.
As Business Insider’s Josh Barro accurately noted, it was like the Hamburglar being caught on a hot mic saying he enjoyed hamburgers.
Flake has been making similar statements ever since the 2016 campaign and he even wrote a whole book denouncing Trump and his movement. The Republican senator has also publicly stated he would prefer a Democrat becoming Alabama’s next senator rather than Moore.
So why was this a big news story?
Because it contributes to a popular media narrative that the GOP is riven by a brutal civil war.
According to the narrative, anti-Trump conservatives are leading a brave resistance to the Trumpist majority and this is why the party can’t unite to pass anything.
The media portrays the Never Trumpers in glowing terms (courageous, principled, wise), while Trumpists are depicted as retrograde bigots who will eventually be trampled by history.
Reporters see the war of words between Flake and Trump as the representative battle of this civil war, with each side representing a strong constituency within the Republican Party.
However, this narrative is extremely flawed and is not reflected in the actual struggles of the GOP.
For one, these Never Trumpers that continually receive glowing praise from liberal publications don’t have a real constituency. If their main figures are Flake and failed presidential candidate Evan McMullin, there doesn’t seem a lot of evidence for their brand of politics.
The Arizona senator currently has an 18 percent approval rating among voters in his home state, while McMullin barely netted any votes outside of Utah. These low numbers exist in spite of all the fawning press coverage both men have received.
There is more to Flake, McMullin and the other Never Trumpers than just hating the president — they do stand for a particular political ideology. Essentially, what they support is warmed over Reaganism — low taxes, limited government, unrestricted free trade, foreign interventionism, increased immigration — with the added element of denouncing the majority of GOP voters as racists.
This type of ideology was actually found to be remarkably unappealing among GOP voters, according to a study conducted by election analysts Henry Olsen and Dante Scala. And that study didn’t take into account the ideology’s luminaries continually lecturing about racist Republicans since Trump won the party’s nomination.
It’s hard to imagine Republican voters want to vote for people who have nothing but contempt for them.
One of the surest signs of a civil war raging in the GOP would be party primaries pitting Trumpists against Never Trumpers. However, the major primaries in 2017 have only shown candidates adopting Trumpian rhetoric for their own purposes.
In Virginia’s gubernatorial race, the establishment guy Ed Gillespie eked out a narrow victory over the Trumpist insurgent Corey Stewart by adopting his opponent’s strong stances on illegal immigration and Confederate statues. Gillespie continued to run as a Trumpist, albeit a very restrained and unenthusiastic one, in the general election. (RELATED: Ed Gillespie Proves It’s Trump’s Party)
In the Alabama Senate race, all three of the main candidates positioned themselves as Trumpists in one respect or another.
Rep. Mo Brooks positioned himself as the Trumpist on policy. Sitting Senator Luther Strange positioned himself as the Trumpist in boasting the closest connection to the president and receiving his formal endorsement. The party nominee Roy Moore positioned himself as the closest to Trump in style due to his preference for attracting controversy and spewing bombastic statements.
None of the candidates in these elections made an effort to present themselves as the anti-Trump guy. In fact, they were more likely to try to out-Trump one another.
The only upcoming primary that was going to be a fight between a Trumpist and a Never Trumper was the primary for Flake’s Senate seat. However, due to his low poll numbers, Flake decided to not run again — which effectively meant he was capitulating to the Trumpist side.
It’s hard to say it’s a civil war when the other side is retiring from politics and it can only hold an audience with liberal journalists.
The Republican primaries stand in marked contrast from Democratic ones where Berniecrats are taking on the establishment. Both the race for the chair of the Democratic National Committee and the party’s Virginia gubernatorial primary witnessed tough fights between these two warring sides.
Nothing like that has been seen on the Republican side between Trumpists and Never Trumpers.
There is certainly the chance of bitter primaries in the GOP, as the races in Virginia and Alabama both were. But they are unlikely to be over whether it is best to support or oppose Trump.
The real fight is over how to best accommodate Trumpism. The establishment candidates favored by Mitch McConnell believe it is best accomplished through supporting the president, adopting some of his rhetoric and policies, but ultimately focusing on traditional Republican concerns such as tax cuts.
The bombthrower candidates favored by Steve Bannon believe the best way to accommodate Trumpism is to continue its rambunctious, anti-establishment style and campaign on economic nationalism and culture war.
Trump represents this division himself with his legislative agenda resembling that of the establishment’s while his tweets are pure Bannonism.
The GOP and most of the conservative movement have come to grips with Trump and there is much reluctance to adopt Evan McMullin’s caustic hostility towards the president. The only people who will approve of that message are ardent Democrats.
Rather than a civil war, the party is having debate — an intense one, however — on how to best live with Trump and the tumultuous political moment we live in. Republicans know it’s a bad strategy to continually attack the president while advocating for a form of conservatism few Americans actually agree with.
For better or for worse, the GOP is stuck with Trump for the next four years. It’s political suicide to condemn the president and his working class white base.
It makes perfect sense for liberal journalists to promote those “principled” Republicans who are willing to make that condemnation. It makes no sense for any Republican interested in actually winning elections.