By now, Jeff Flake thought this would all be over.
Flake, the former Arizona Republican senator and outspoken critic of Donald Trump, concedes that he expected the ripple effects in the Republican party Trump’s loss of the White House to have been bigger by now.
Instead, Flake has had to watch as Trump departed office but Trumpism refused to fade around the country. That includes in Flake’s home state, where the Republican party recently censured him alongside the two other most prominent Republicans – Cindy McCain, the widow of the late senator John McCain, and Doug Ducey, the Arizona governor.
“I do think this fever will break, but it’s been slow,” Flake said in an interview with the Guardian. “It’s been really slow.”
For much of the Trump administration Flake was something of a solitary voice within his party, opposing him first as a rare anti-Trump statewide elected official and then as a member of the club of Republicans who stood up to the 45th president only to face blowback.
Throughout all of that Flake hoped Trump would leave office one way or another, other Republicans would see the same light he did, and the opposition to the 45th president would grow. Flake calls it a “migration” of Republicans away from their fealty to Trump.
“This migration will start,” Flake said chuckling. “It’s just slow to get going.”
These days the outlook for anti-Trump Republicans can feel both bright and dark. Trump is out of office and there are elected Republican officials actively working to move on from Trump under the specter of blowback from activists within the GOP.
Congressman Adam Kinzinger of Illinois has set up a political action committee to fight against the QAnon movement saturating the Republican party. The House Republican conference chairwoman, Liz Cheney, and almost a dozen other Republicans voted to move forward with impeaching Trump again.
Other Republicans stood up to Trump as he was pedaling unfounded claims about voter fraud after Joe Biden won the presidential election but before he took office.
But those forces are more a small rebellion or insurgency and less an army involved in an inter-party civil war. The anti-Trumpists are growing but very slowly, Flake concedes. Flake thinks successfully convicting Trump in his upcoming impeachment trial would help speed things along.
“I think if there’s enough elected officials who say ‘we’re done’ then that is the threshold, we cross that rubicon that we need to cross, and then Trump fades quickly,” Flake said.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this for Flake, a libertarian leaning conservative with soap opera-star good looks. He served in the House of Representatives for over a decade before winning the Senate seat once held by conservative icon Barry Goldwater in then-reliably red state Arizona. But as Trump’s unlikely presidential bid took off, Flake refused to go along with most of his Republican colleagues and fall in line. In October 2017 he delivered a speech in which he said he wouldn’t seek another term.
“I didn’t want to leave the Senate. I wanted to do another term at least,” Flake said. “But the thought of standing on a campaign stage with Donald Trump and laughing at his jokes and staring at my feet while he ridiculed my colleagues – I just could not do it. There’s nothing worth that. But I look and think going off and leaving the party or starting a third party that just doesn’t – we need two strong parties in this country. I think that we’ll be back, I hope that we will. I want to be part of that.”
Since then Flake hasn’t shied away from speaking out against Trump and he plans to continue to do so, in addition to some teaching work he’s doing at Arizona State University. Flake is also a familiar face on cable news and in political reporting.
Flake is optimistic as well. He predicted in his interview with the Guardian on Tuesday that extremist congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, a QAnon conspiracy theory supporter, would be stripped of her committee assignments, an effective legislative neutering for any member of Congress. She was – though it was Democrats, not Republicans who did it.
He also doesn’t think Cheney is doomed to lose re-election as Trumpists seek her ouster. On Wednesday, House minority leader Kevin McCarthy opted to support Cheney in the face of an uproar over her move to help impeach Trump.
“You’re having some defining moments here soon with Marjorie Taylor Greene and what they’re going to have to do with her and that will – maybe expedite this departure, I guess,” Flake said. “I wouldn’t count Liz Cheney out here. She has some benefits and ties that’s just so high profile now that she might be able to survive it. Maybe Adam Kinzinger too. I’m sure hoping and praying so.”
Asked if he’s been in touch with either Cheney or Kinzinger, Flake said he hadn’t but he said he’s talking with some similarly minded Republicans.
“Trumpism requires a certain amount of swagger that you lose when you lose. And he lost,” Flake said. “In Georgia he couldn’t pull those two senators across the finish line. So yeah, I very much believe that would be the case and that would come a lot faster if more elected officials would say ‘yeah, we gotta move on.’ I think they’ll get to that point but boy it’s been slow.”
He also has seen shoots of promise at home. His neighbors in the Pheonix suburbs where he lives once ran up Trump flags on their properties. Not anymore.
“There were actually two neighbors, one on either side, had Trump flags, they’re both down,” Flake said, cautioning that elsewhere in his neighborhood Trump fans are still flying their support.
Recently Flake and his wife took a long leisurely bike ride through his neighborhood and counted the Trump signs still up. They cringed when they saw signs at houses they knew. They then went by one house with three cars in his driveway. As they passed he yelled ‘thanks for doing what you did. We gotta get past this.’”
That surprised Flake, he recalled. He didn’t know the man and he assumed of all the houses he passed this would be home of a Trump fan.
“We engaged in a very enlightened conversation about the future of the party and how he wanted to stay but it was difficult,” Flake said.