Conscience of a Conservative
By Jeff Flake
140 pages. Random House. $27.
It seems safe to say that Senator Jeff Flake’s new anti-Trump book is politically contraindicated. His approval ratings in his home state, Arizona, are so low they are somewhere down in a missile silo; according to Politico, the president has privately said he would spend $10 millionin the Republican primary to whisk Flake out of the Senate with a broom.
Then again, maybe this is what a man who’s facing political expiration does: speaks his mind, goes for broke. Or perhaps he’s simply fed up. Flake was one of the few Never Trumpers in Congress to remain so right through Election Day.
Whatever his reasons, Flake has gone “Bulworth” on us, emulating that movie’s devil-may-care, truth-telling politician, in “Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle.” It’s striking how many influential figures in this slim volume he manages to impale with a stick and then lightly spit-roast. Newt Gingrich (a “character with extraordinary talents for self-promotion”). Michael Flynn (“conspiracy theorist”). Alex Jones (“one of the most egregious polluters of civil discourse in America”).
But above all others: Donald J. Trump.
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 ashockingly 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.”
No wonder the senator wrote this book in secret. As a Republican member of Congress, he is declaring Trump a domestic and international menace. Other conservatives in the news media and strategist class have been saying just this for well over a year, of course, but they don’t depend on a radicalized base to keep their jobs. Flake is the first elected official to cross this particular rhetorical Rubicon, and he seems to be imploring his colleagues to follow. He offers a despairing, unsparing indictment of everyone in Congress who went along with Trump’s election.
Flake doesn’t take much of a stab at explaining why a significant portion of the electorate came to embrace such a presidential candidate. But the senator does try to explain why his fellow conservatives did, tracing the winding path of how “gamesmanship replaced statesmanship” in Washington. Among the many culprits: redistricting, the roaring lobbying industry and Gingrich, whom he considers the Typhoid Mary of today’s politics-of-personal-destruction epidemic. In exchange for control of the executive branch, Flake argues, congressional Republicans turned a blind eye to an unstable figure who put American institutions and values at risk. “If this was our Faustian bargain,” he writes, “then it was not worth it.”
This book will no doubt make Flake the baron of the rubber-chicken-dinner circuit, should he want the title, and a momentary darling of the left. (Not that the left shares anything in common with him politically. His politics are basically anathema to the left.) And “Conscience of a Conservative” has an undeniable rhetorical power — it is fluid, well written, mature in tone. But Flake also has the material power to change things. How reconcilable are his words with his deeds?
In the Senate, Flake has shown himself to be a pleasant fellow of integrity. He tweeted warmhearted congratulations to his friend Tim Kaine when Hillary Clinton selected him as her running mate; he condemned the “lock her up” chants at Trump rallies; he worked on the bipartisan Senateimmigration bill in 2013. In his book, he says outright that he never voted for Trump. A recent essay in The Atlantic by McKay Coppins gives a good window into his character. Growing up on an Arizona cattle ranch in a Mormon family of 13 certainly helps build one.
But Flake has also cast most of his votes in favor of Trump’s policies. Just last week, he voted for the bill to repeal Obamacare without replacing it, and then he voted for the hastily assembled “skinny repeal.”
On that point, he seems to be at odds with his book, in which he specifically cautions Republicans against engineering a sloppy repeal of Obamacare behind closed doors. “Legislation executed without hearings and written by only one side is always a bad idea, regardless of who does it,” he writes.
The primary intellectual failing of “Conscience of a Conservative” is that it doesn’t untangle the dysfunction in Washington from the dysfunction of his own party. Republicans haven’t just embraced Trump’s nativism and politics of resentment because it’s politically expedient. Many Republicans have peddled anti-immigrant sentiment for years, and a return to Goldwater’s principles probably wouldn’t remedy that; the rejection of free trade agreements also has complex roots.
But if you take Flake at his word, it’s not just Republican principle that’s at stake right now. It’s democracy itself, imperiled less by one man’s philosophical incoherence (Flake’s word) than by his disrespect for our institutions and his highly erratic character. Which means that it’s the moral duty of Flake’s colleagues to act.
“Under our Constitution, there simply are not that many people who are in a position to do something about an executive branch in chaos,” Flake writes. But members of Congress can. “Too often we observe the unfolding drama along with the rest of the country, passively, all but saying, ‘Someone should do something!’ without seeming to realize that that someone is us,” he writes.
What he has in mind, he does not say. I hope someone will ask him.