Jeff Flake to Trump: Treason is not a punchline, Mr. President

Alternate headline: “He’s running.”

I sympathize with everyone who’s fuming over his dopey half-joke yesterday about Democrats acting “treasonous” for not clapping at good news during the State of the Union. (He wasn’t joking when he called them “un-American.”) It’s true that rank-and-file Dems happily lobbed terms like that at Republicans throughout the Obama years, and it’s also true that Obama had some dark moments of demonizing his Republican critics. None of which makes it okay when Trump does it, unless you think politics should aim for behavior that’s no better than your opponent’s was when he was at his worst:

Every president enjoys moral authority among his stalwart supporters to a degree unmatched in American life, which is perverse but not something that started with Trump, lord knows. He should be better than he was yesterday, even if he doesn’t want to be, purely in the interest of not lending that authority (or more of that authority) to the tendency of our era to view one’s political opponents as blood enemies.

But see, I’m torn. Because no matter how hard I try to match Flake’s civic indignation, I can’t take Trump seriously enough at this point to care deeply about his rhetorical excesses, especially when he’s riffing during a stump speech. As Charles Cooke said in a follow-up tweet:

This is who he is. Flake warns us not to treat Trump’s excesses as “normal,” an admonition frequently heard from his critics, but it’s inescapable that some normalcy will creep in as his presidency wears on. It’s just too draining to fume with indignation day in and day out, even where indignation would be in order if a more statesmanlike politician had said the same thing. I have the same problem sometimes while watching CNN, especially on a day when Trump’s done something outre even by his usual standards, like Sh*tholegate. Watching Tapper and Erin Burnett and Anderson Cooper and Don Lemon appear onscreen, their eyes practically welling with tears over what that man did now, is exhausting. This is why I recommended that they throw a truckload of money at Dave Chappelle or some other smart comedian and give him an hour in primetime. There has to be some middle ground in media reaction during the Trump era between Hannity/Pirro “O Captain My Captain” fawning over Trump and CNN-style endless mortification. The guy has a chronic case of diarrhea of the mouth and there’s no cure. How many times does he need to take a dump on the floor before you stop screaming about the mess and start treating it as something that’s foul, surreal, yet manageable?

The read on Flake here from Trump fans is that he’s grandstanding to prepare the ground for primarying Trump in 2020. Could be, although I continue not to see the point of that. He’ll get 15 percent of the vote from NeverTrumpers, lose every primary by 60+ points without Trump ever having to campaign, and that’ll be that. I think Flake’s moved by a combination of genuine civic concern and the suspicion that Trump’s loose-cannon moments might become less benign in time, as he starts to feel more confident about what he can do with his power. Today this speech feels like a minor overreaction, however well intended, but if Trump fires Rosenstein and Mueller tomorrow and/or starts handing out pardons to everyone in the West Wing it’ll look like Flake wisely discerned a serious threat to which even Trump skeptics like me were blind. I think he’s gambling that POTUS won’t be as “manageable” in time as he now appears.

Exit quotation: “Democratic colleagues love this country as much as we do. To suggest otherwise is simply unconscionable.” Is there any greater heresy in a tribal age?