“To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public."—President Theodore Roosevelt
In the end, there was nothing but applause. Senator Jeff Flake, a staunch conservative from Arizona, dropped his sword and left the field of battle Tuesday in a move that President Donald Trump saw as a symbol of his victory over the GOP and in favor of his molding it in his own image. Symbols are powerful things and can supersede reality. As Flake stood before the Senate and spoke in words that resonated across the world on Tuesday, our president and his staff basked in their momentary and symbolic victory.
Trump won. Flake quit, so he lost. It was black and white. By Flake announcing that he would not seek reelection, Trump could crow loudly that the "weak senator" from Arizona was giving up because he knew he was gonna get whooped in the midterms.
Flake saw it differently and received tumultuous cheers as he said the president’s symbols do not square with reality: "Reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior has become excused and countenanced as 'telling it like it is' when it is actually just reckless, outrageous and undignified,” Flake told the senate.
Senator Bob Corker, another member of the GOP who has decided to throw in the towel rather than battle the dark symbols of the new president, has openly feuded with Trump for the last few weeks in a drive-by-shooting style Twitter feud with Trump. Sarah Huckabee Sanders told the press corps Tuesday the president was winning the symbolic fight with Corker as well.
“Look, you've got an individual in the president—he's a fighter. We've said it many times before. The people of this country didn't elect somebody to be weak; they elected somebody to be strong. And when he gets hit, he's going to hit back. And I think Senator Corker knows that, and he's maybe trying to get a headline or two on his way out the door.”
In other words, Sanders dismissed a very real concern with the symbolism of a snarky put-down. The president is very big on symbolism and winning symbolic battles. He meets North Korean insults with symbolic put-downs. He doesn’t like people taking a knee during the national anthem at NFL games because it is disrespectful to the symbol of our Republic, the flag. Taking a knee is therefore symbolic of disrespect to another symbol. Battling symbols enable confusion and thus gives the president the chance to flip the script, which he did masterfully.