The Slatest

Bob Corker and Jeff Flake Would Rather Perform Their Trump Hatred Than Act on It

Sen. Bob Corker is not quite Howard Beale. 

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In the 1976 drama Network, veteran newscaster Howard Beale surveys a nation menaced by shadowy Russkies and hung out to dry by craven politicians. “You’ve got to get mad,” he harangues in the televised broadcast that resuscitates his fading career. “You’ve got to say: I’m a human being, goddammit, my life has value. … I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

For a Republican politician in 2017, a “mad as hell” moment looks like giving an interview to the New York Times in which you suggest Donald Trump “concerns me.” So confessed Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker in early October, adding, “He would have to concern anyone who cares about our nation.” This did not, one would assume, lead to a nationwide spree of people getting up out of their chairs, opening their windows, sticking their heads out, and yelling, “He would have to concern anyone who cares about our nation!”

OK, that is not exactly a fair critique. While Corker wasn’t ranting and raving, the senator—who announced in September that he will not seek re-election in 2018—said in that same NYT interview that Trump could be putting us “on the path to World War III.” This came shortly after Corker tweeted, in response to a particularly vicious executive tweetstorm, “It’s a shame the White House has become an adult day care center. Someone obviously missed their shift this morning.” These were just the opening numbers in a weeks-long sequence of controlled burns. In an Oct. 24 interview, Corker told CNN that Trump “has great difficulty with the truth,” “has proven himself unable to rise to the occasion,” and that he, Corker, “would not do that [support Trump] again.”

Trump, for his part, has absorbed Corker’s transformation from corked-up acolyte to uncorked naysayer with great displeasure. Tuesday saw the latest eruption of animosity between the two men on Twitter, as the president posited that Corker “couldn’t get elected dog catcher” in his home state and “is now fighting Tax Cuts.”

Corker’s reply:

In an age lousy with Republican capitulation, we turn our forlorn faces to you, Bob Corker: too liddle, too late, and yet better than nothing at all. Whether your venting will accomplish anything in Washington is debatable. Yet by finally dropping the façade of worried patience and against-all-odds faith in the president’s transubstantiation into a person fit to run a lemonade stand, you have given us a vision of real human emotion—something more true and refreshing than the vapidity we’ve seen from Paul “I Think the President Is Giving Us the Leadership We Need to Get the Country Back on the Right Track” Ryan and frowny, shruggy Ben Sasse.

The conservative tantrum has been a long time coming. Since candidate Trump first hit the campaign trail, Corker has traversed a winding path from true if cautious believer to a (comparatively) no-holds-barred volcano of admonition and dismay. He stood behind the reality television mogul in 2016; simmered through the missteps of February and March; tested the limits of judicious criticism in May; let his emotions escape him in August (“The President has not yet been able to demonstrate the stability nor some of the competence that he needs to demonstrate in order to be successful,” he said in a video); tried to mend bridges in September (“Our relationship is very, very strong,” he promised at a press conference); and went full Cassandra in October, warning that we all might soon perish on account of Trump’s brinksmanship with North Korea. Welcome to the nuclear holocaust, Bob.

He has company. Arizona lawmaker Jeff Flake presented himself as another “mad as hell” Republican on Tuesday, challenging Trump’s “reckless, outrageous, and undignified behavior” from the Senate floor. “As the norms and values that keep America strong are undermined,” Flake said, “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 we should say or do nothing in the face of such mercurial behavior is ahistoric and, I believe, profoundly misguided.”

Stirring words, and yet these heroes are firing their slugs at precisely the moment they’ve declared their imminent retirements, absolving themselves of the need to answer to alienated voters. That neither Flake nor Corker plans to hang around makes it easy for them to weave pretty phrases about democracy and principles. The Howard Beales of the GOP are more inclined to perform their antipathy than to act on it. The resulting theater delivers a shot of catharsis and a glimmer of inspiration, but not much more than that.

John McCain, too, recently mocked those who not-particularly-hypothetically avoided army service via invocations of bone spurs. That last example of senatorial shade feels unlike the others. Alone among conservative tantrum-throwers, McCain isn’t quitting the legislature, and his health care vote gives him a tangible record of sticking it to Trump. A bunch of Republican leaders might be “mad as hell” at the president, but only one—as clichéd as it may be to celebrate his bravery and maverickness—is doing anything about it.