The distance traveled is not merely political. A late November dinner at the vice presidential residence—attended by several other senators, and centered on tax reform—was the first meeting in months for Pence and Flake. The old friends had not even spoken when Flake announced his retirement. In an interview on the eve of the dinner, I ask Flake, who wears a pained expression when talking about Pence, if the unraveling of their relationship makes him sad. “Yeah. It does. It does,” Flake whispers, looking past me. He thinks for a moment. “But I guess those who have embraced Trumpism, or are resigned to it … ” Flake’s voice trails off. Pence’s office, asked for comment on his relationship with Flake, said in a statement, “The vice president, like the president, is eager and willing to work with any member of Congress that wants to work in the best interest of the country.”
The parting paths taken by these two elected officials tell a story bigger and more compelling than just their own. How this pair with so much in common wound up occupying opposite poles on the right’s political spectrum speaks not just to their individual ambitions and flaws and decisions, but also to the mercurial nature of conservatism today—and the changed electorate responsible for the rise of Trump. Both men realized, at the sunset of the Obama era, that something was fundamentally broken in the GOP—“a Republican Party that had lost its way,” as Pence described it to me during the 2016 campaign. Both witnessed mounting anger and anxiety in the country—especially in the party’s base—and felt compelled to act. Yet they ultimately allied themselves with radically different approaches: one viewing the nation’s disquiet as a problem to be solved, the other viewing it as a political advantage to be exploited.