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A Republican senator rails against Trump

Book review of 'Conscience of a Conservative'

Jennifer Senior 

Conscience of a Conservative 
Jeff Flake 
Random House
140 pages; $27

It seems safe to say that Senator Jeff Flake’s new 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 million in 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. 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.”

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.”

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 radicalised 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.

Conscience of a Conservative takes its title directly from Barry Goldwater’s 1960 manifesto. Like Goldwater — who was also a Republican senator from Arizona — Flake bemoans the crisis facing conservatives, and like Goldwater, he believes that conservatives have only themselves to blame.

The contexts are different, naturally. In 1960, liberalism was ascendant; the problem, Goldwater wrote, was that conservatives seemed “unable to demonstrate the practical relevance” of their philosophy — free markets, limited government, a strong defence. Today, conservatism is ascendant, at least in name, with Republicans controlling both the legislative and the executive branches of the federal government. But it has been drained of precisely the principles Goldwater cherished, principles to which Flake very badly wants to return and for which he rebuilds a case. What, Flake wonders, would Goldwater have made of a Republican commander in chief who threatens to dismantle free trade agreements, undermines his own intelligence agencies and cozies up to autocrats?

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 Senate immigration bill in 2013. In his book, he says outright that he never voted for Trump. 

But Flake has also cast most of his votes in favour 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.” 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 realise that that someone is us,” he writes.

What he has in mind, he does not say. I hope someone will ask him.
©2017 The New York Times News Service

First Published: Sun, August 06 2017. 22:41 IST