Jeff Flake plants a flag

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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.

Flake has taken his stand. As the other Se­nate Repub­li­cans look at his ex­am­ple, they might pon­der this truth: Si­lence equals as­sent. The New York Times

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