Magazine article The New Yorker

The Silent Majority

Magazine article The New Yorker

The Silent Majority

Article excerpt

The Silent Majority

When Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, explained why he had chosen to denounce President Donald Trump from the Senate floor last Tuesday afternoon as being "dangerous to a democracy," he cited the moment, in 1954, when Joseph Welch, a lawyer representing the Army in the Army-McCarthy hearings, confronted Senator Joseph McCarthy, Republican of Wisconsin. In an op-ed for the Washington Post, titled "Enough," Flake recalled how Welch's plain language--"Have you no sense of decency, sir?"--seemed to break the spell of McCarthyism. He had hoped to do something similar.

There are parallels in the two events, in that both McCarthy and Trump seem to have bewitched members of their party with a promise of power, coupled with a fear of being the next target, whether of a hearing or of a tweet. (And the man seated next to McCarthy during the hearings, Roy Cohn, became Trump's mentor.) But what was particularly powerful about the Welch moment was that he was rejecting an offer of complicity from McCarthy. The Senator had just announced, on national television, that a lawyer in Welch's firm had once belonged to a left-leaning legal organization, and added that he assumed that Welch hadn't known. Welch had known, and he said so without hesitation. By contrast, when Flake finished speaking, it was clear that, despite the force of his rhetoric, the spell had not been broken. The G.O.P. still has not come close to addressing its complicity problem.

The Republicans can't now say that the terms of their bargain with Trump haven't been fully presented to them. Flake, his voice shaking, used the word "complicity" or "complicit" several times, noting that he was filled with "regret for the compromise of our moral authority, and by 'our' I mean all of our complicity in this alarming and dangerous state of affairs." He said that "silence can equal complicity." Finally, he asked, "And what do we, as United States senators, have to say about it?"

It was a largely moot question in his case, given that he had just announced that he would not seek reelection. He has been a consistent critic of Trump, and this has made him one of the President's constant targets. Flake would have faced a primary challenger next year who has the backing of Trump's former aide Steve Bannon, and who was far ahead of him in the polls. He tried to present dropping out as an advantage, saying that, for the fourteen months remaining in his term, he would be freer to speak, without "the political consideration that consumed far too much bandwidth and would cause me to compromise far too many principles."

Flake's fellow-Arizonan, John McCain, another Trump critic who will not run again, warmly praised his bravery. Yet, in the days that followed, the leaders of the Party went on with their business, as if being charged with selling out the Republic for their own personal political gain were nothing out of the ordinary. No one got notably angry, or acted as though his or her honor had been offended. Immediately after the speech, Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, said that Flake was a "very fine man" whom he valued as a "team player," and then moved on to procedural measures aimed at passing tax cuts, as part of a large-scale tax-reform bill working its way through Congress.

Admittedly, it had already been a long day for McConnell. It began when Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, who is also not seeking reelection, appeared on multiple morning broadcasts to say that the President is "utterly untruthful," and repeated his concern that Trump, if not checked, could set off a Third World War. …

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