Do you ever get the feeling we’re all going to be judged for this moment? Historians, our grandkids and we ourselves will look and ask: What did you do as the Trump/Scaramucci/Bannon administration dropped a nuclear bomb on the basic standards of decency in public life? What did you do as the U.S. Congress ceased to function? What positions did you take as America teetered toward national decline?
For most of us, it’s relatively easy to pass the test. Our jobs are not on the line when we call out the mind-boggling monstrosity of what’s happening. For Republican senators, it’s harder. Their consciences pull them one way – to tell the truth – while their political interests pull them another way – to keep their heads down.
Some senators are passing the test of conscience – Ben Sasse, Lindsey Graham, Susan Collins, Mike Lee and John McCain. And to that list we can certainly add Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake. In a few days he comes out with a book called “Conscience of a Conservative,” which is a thoughtful defense of traditional conservatism and a thorough assault on the way Donald Trump is betraying it.
Flake grew up in rural Arizona. “Cattle ranching is the hardest work I’ve ever known and the best people I have ever known have been cattle ranchers,” he writes. He was one of 11 children and his family did not dine out, even once, while he was young. He lost part of a finger and learned frontier self-reliance on the ranch. As a Mormon he learned to be wary of the government, and especially the way it can persecute minorities.
He came to Congress in 2001 and earned a reputation as a scourge against federal spending and earmarks and as a champion of tax cuts. But he walked into a Republican Party that was descending from Goldwater and Reagan, his heroes, to Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay. When I had coffee with Flake this week, he spoke about the philosophical and political corruption of the DeLay era with uncharacteristic contempt.
Things got worse. In 2016 the Republican Party, Flake argues in the book, lost its manners. “It seems it is not enough to be conservative anymore. You have to be vicious.” And it lost its philosophy. “We become so estranged from our principles that we no longer recognize what principle is.”
Flake told me he doesn’t want his book to be seen simply as a broadside against Trump. The rot set in long before, but Trump takes the decay to a new level.
On the day in 2015 when Trump endorsed a Muslim ban, Flake tweeted “Just when you think @realDonaldTrump can stoop no lower, he does.” Flake attended prayers at an Arizona mosque that afternoon. At the core of this book is a bill of indictment listing the ways Trump has betrayed the Goldwater Creed:
“Is it conservative to praise dictators as ‘strong leaders,’ to speak fondly of countries that crush dissent and murder political opponents …? Is it conservative to demonize and vilify and mischaracterize religious and ethnic minorities …? Is it conservative to be an ethno-nationalist? Is it conservative to embrace as fact things that are demonstrably untrue?”
Flake told me he didn’t even tell his staff about the existence of this book until just two weeks before publication because he didn’t want them to talk him out of publishing it.
He began working on it at night during the general election campaign, assuming it would be an autopsy for the party after Trump’s defeat. “It matters more now. It would be easier to wait until after the next election,” he told me, but he wanted to plant his flag at a time when his political future is at risk, at a time when it matters.
Frankly, I think Flake’s libertarian version of conservatism paved the way for Trump. People are being barraged by technology-driven unemployment, wage stagnation, the breakdown of neighborhoods and families. Goldwater-style conservatism says: “Congratulations! You’re on your own!” During the campaign, Trump seemed to be offering something more.
But Flake is in most ways an ideal public servant. He is an ideological purist but a temperamental conciliator. On spending and free trade he takes lonely principled stands; on immigration he’s crafted difficult bipartisan compromises.
In a time when politics has become a blood sport, he’s sunny and kind. “Assume the best. Look for the good,” his parents taught him. But he possesses a serene courage that is easy to underestimate because it is so affable.
Most important, he understands this moment. The Trump administration is a moral cancer eating away at conservatism, the Republican Party and what it means to be a public servant.
The 52 Senate Republicans have been thrust by fate into the crucial position of responsibility. They will either accept this decay or they will oppose it. They will either collaborate with the Trumpian path or seek to direct their party and nation onto a different path.
Flake has taken his stand. As the other Senate Republicans look at his example, they might ponder this truth: Silence equals assent.