Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake has a new book out, titled Conscience of a Conservative, that harshly critiques Trump and his own party. “If this was our Faustian bargain, then it was not worth it,” he wrote in an excerpt published by Politico. “If ultimately our principles were so malleable as to no longer be principles, then what was the point of political victories in the first place?”
In this particular excerpt, Flake doesn’t just attack Trump and Trumpism but critiques some of the Republican tactics that led to his rise:
It was we conservatives who, upon Obama’s election, stated that our No. 1 priority was not advancing a conservative policy agenda but making Obama a one-term president—the corollary to this binary thinking being that his failure would be our success and the fortunes of the citizenry would presumably be sorted out in the meantime. It was we conservatives who were largely silent when the most egregious and sustained attacks on Obama’s legitimacy were leveled by marginal figures who would later be embraced and legitimized by far too many of us. It was we conservatives who rightly and robustly asserted our constitutional prerogatives as a co-equal branch of government when a Democrat was in the White House but who, despite solemn vows to do the same in the event of a Trump presidency, have maintained an unnerving silence as instability has ensued. To carry on in the spring of 2017 as if what was happening was anything approaching normalcy required a determined suspension of critical faculties. And tremendous powers of denial.
Jennifer Senior, writing in the New York Times book review says:
Flake calls the president’s Twitter posts “all noise and no signal,” then adds: “Volatile unpredictability is not a virtue. We have quite enough volatile actors to deal with internationally as it is without becoming one of them.”
That is on Page 5. On Page 6, he notes that Trump is in the regular habit of destabilizing the American people, not just foreign leaders. On Page 29, he says the word “Orwellian” “seems quaint now, inadequate to our moment.” On Page 30, he denounces the “embrace of ‘alternative facts’ at the highest levels of American life,” adding that it “creates a state of confusion, dividing us along fissures of truth and falsity and keeping us in a kind of low-level dread.”
He also offers a shockingly astute insight into Trump’s modus operandi — and modus vivendi — during the presidential campaign. “Far from conservative,” Flake writes, “the president’s comportment was rather a study in the importance of conflict in reality television — that once you introduce conflict, you cannot de-escalate conflict. You must continually escalate.”
This is exactly the siren call Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans have been looking for from Congress’ so-called “principled conservatives.” But, as Senior puts it—to what end?
The book isn’t explicitly playing to Flake’s 2018 reelection efforts, although it could be laying the foundation for a career outside of Congress. It’s a risk for him to say this stuff. His approval ratings are in the gutter, and the White House is recruiting primary challengers to take him out. As The Arizona Republic notes, Democrats are unlikely to vote for him no matter what he says about Trump, and the Trump-supporting Republican base hates him for speaking out against Trump and supporting “centrist” policies like comprehensive immigration reform.
That said—Flake may be a nice guy who likes democracy and thinks that whole “Lock Her Up” thing was bad, but aside from the awkward fact that his Goldwater-worshipping political philosophy is rotten at its core, he hasn’t done an enormous amount to stand up to Trump and the accompanying decay of congressional norms aside from writing a book railing against those things. Flake voted to confirm all of Trump’s Cabinet nominees, even Ben Carson, a conspiracy theorist with no relevant experience, and billionaire vulture investor Wilbur Ross, who’d helped Trump avoid bankruptcy in Atlantic City. He also supported the motion to proceed on the AHCA, the repeal with no replacement, and then the “skinny repeal” bill. Last year, after politely meeting with Merrick Garland, he went along with his party’s eventually successful attempt to steal a Supreme Court seat.
So: what the fuck does Jeff Flake actually believe in? And what, exactly, is he going to do? Go on Fresh Air? Become a CNN commentator? He’s describing an unstable monster gobbling up American democracy, but he doesn’t indicate his support for substantial actions like, say, impeachment, which, though an entirely unsurprising omission, does seem like the only thing that could save his beloved institutions from being further eroded. Instead, Flake offers this tepid recipe (via Politico):
So, where should Republicans go from here? First, we shouldn’t hesitate to speak out if the president “plays to the base” in ways that damage the Republican Party’s ability to grow and speak to a larger audience. Second, Republicans need to take the long view when it comes to issues like free trade: Populist and protectionist policies might play well in the short term, but they handicap the country in the long term. Third, Republicans need to stand up for institutions and prerogatives, like the Senate filibuster, that have served us well for more than two centuries.
Good luck with that.