Repub­li­can Sen. Jeff Flake says his party sac­ri­ficed too much to sup­port Trump

Book review by James Hohmann

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK -

Jeff Flake took Don­ald Trump’s at­tacks on Mex­i­can and Mus­lim im­mi­grants per­son­ally dur­ing the 2016 cam­paign. They were among the many rea­sons that the Repub­li­can se­na­tor from Ari­zona could not bear to vote for his party’s pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee and why he’s now writ­ten a sting­ing anti-Trump polemic, even though it will make win­ning re­elec­tion next year more dif­fi­cult.

The most news­wor­thy parts of Flake’s new book, “Con­science of a Con­ser­va­tive,” are his frontal at­tacks on the pres­i­dent. He writes that the GOP’s “Faus­tian bar­gain” to em­brace Trump as a way to ad­vance its agenda has back­fired by putting sa­cred in­sti­tu­tions and the rule of law at risk. He refers to Trump as a car­ni­val barker, ex­presses alarm about the pres­i­dent’s af­fec­tion for au­thor­i­tar­ian rulers and calls out his Repub­li­can col­leagues in Congress as en­ablers.

But the book is at its most com­pelling when Flake shows how he de­vel­oped the con­ser­va­tive world­view that would make Trump so anath­ema to him. It was his ex­pe­ri­ence as a worker on his fam­ily’s ranch, as a Mor­mon mis­sion­ary in Africa

and as the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Gold­wa­ter In­sti­tute in Phoenix, where he worked closely with his po­lit­i­cal hero, Barry Gold­wa­ter, in the years be­fore he died.

The 54-year-old Flake of­ten asks him­self, “What would Gold­wa­ter do?” And he feels cer­tain that the 1964 Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee, to whom Trump has of­ten been com­pared, “would not be pleased or amused” by the pres­i­dent or the state of the con­ser­va­tive move­ment.

Flake’s faith is an im­por­tant part of his nar­ra­tive. In 1838, the gov­er­nor of Mis­souri signed an “ex­ter­mi­na­tion” or­der that made it le­gal to kill any­one who be­longed to the Church of Je­sus Christ of Lat­ter-day Saints. His an­ces­tors faced per­se­cu­tion as they moved west and set­tled in Ari­zona. The se­na­tor vol­un­teers that his great-great-grand­fa­ther en­dured six months of hard la­bor in a Yuma prison for hav­ing a sec­ond wife. “When we say ‘No Mus­lims’ or ‘No Mex­i­cans,’ we may as well say ‘No Mor­mons,’ ” Flake writes. “Be­cause it is no dif­fer­ent.”

To make the case against Trump’s travel ban, the se­na­tor re­calls how two sur­geons from pre­dom­i­nantly Mus­lim coun­tries saved his fa­ther-in-law’s life af­ter a heart at­tack.

The week­end af­ter Trump pro­posed his ban in De­cem­ber 2015 on Mus­lims en­ter­ing the United States, Flake felt called to at­tend af­ter­noon prayers at a mosque in Scotts­dale so he could let the parish­ioners know that most Amer­i­cans are not given to such in­tol­er­ance. Ge­orge W. Bush sent him a note the next day. “Thank you for your voice of rea­son in these un­rea­son­able times,” the for­mer pres­i­dent wrote.

But the un­rea­son­able times con­tin­ued. “Dur­ing the cam­paign, I as­sumed that this shock­ing episode — among so many more — would be a po­lit­i­cal blun­der from which Don­ald Trump would never re­cover,” Flake ad­mits. “I read­ily con­cede that I got the pol­i­tics wrong. I will even con­cede that I un­der­es­ti­mated the pop­ulist ap­peal of Trump’s pro­posed Mus­lim ban. But I will not con­cede the un­der­ly­ing prin­ci­ple of re­li­gious free­dom.”

Grow­ing up on a farm that em­ployed mi­grant la­bor­ers, Flake got to know un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants as hard work­ers, not crim­i­nals, who lived in con­stant fear of de­por­ta­tion. “Our me­chanic Manuel was taken back to Mex­ico by the Bor­der Pa­trol nine­teen times,” Flake notes. “My life was made far more dif­fi­cult dur­ing the mid­dle of sum­mer when the Bor­der Pa­trol would raid our farm. Some­times the Bor­der Pa­trol would send small planes to search our al­falfa fields for mi­grants. When I would hear the dis­tinc­tive whine of the Cessna, I’d hop on a horse, put on a hat that would ob­scure my head, and try to di­vert the Bor­der Pa­trol away from our work­ers — a de­coy in the game of cat and mouse.”

He re­mains proud of his role in the Gang of Eight, which ne­go­ti­ated a bi­par­ti­san com­pro­mise to over­haul the im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem in 2013. It would have al­lowed mil­lions of il­le­gal im­mi­grants to live legally in the United States and to even­tu­ally be­come cit­i­zens, in ex­change for the con­struc­tion of 700 miles of fenc­ing on the south­ern bor­der and a dou­bling of the num­ber of Bor­der Pa­trol agents. The bill passed the Se­nate but went nowhere in the House.

Flake be­came in­spired to write this book dur­ing a trip to Mex­ico City two weeks af­ter the elec­tion, as he strug­gled to soothe the con­cerns of Mex­i­can lead­ers about NAFTA, the pro­posed bor­der wall and anti-im­mi­grant sen­ti­ments.

“We have given in to the pol­i­tics of anger — the be­lief that ril­ing up the base can make up for failed at­tempts to broaden the elec­torate,” he writes. “These are the spasms of a dy­ing party. Anger and re­sent­ment and blam­ing groups of peo­ple for our prob­lems might work po­lit­i­cally in the short term, but it’s a dan­ger­ous im­pulse in a plu­ral­is­tic so­ci­ety, and we know from his­tory that it’s an im­pulse that, once acted upon, never ends well.”

As a de­voted con­ser­va­tive from a bor­der state, Flake fears from a po­lit­i­cal stand­point that alien­at­ing Lati­nos will de­stroy the GOP. “We are skid­ding with each pass­ing elec­tion to­ward ir­rel­e­vance in terms of ap­peal­ing to a broad elec­torate,” he writes. “We knew all of this be­fore the last elec­tion, but we quickly set it aside for the su­gar high of pop­ulism, na­tivism, and dem­a­goguery. The crash from this su­gar high will be par­tic­u­larly un­pleas­ant.”

Pub­lish­ing this book is a true act of po­lit­i­cal courage. Many con­ser­va­tive in­tel­lec­tu­als have co­gently made the case against Trump­ism since the bil­lion­aire came down the es­ca­la­tor at Trump Tower two sum­mers ago, but Flake is the first sit­ting se­na­tor to do so in book form since the pres­i­dent took of­fice. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), who de­clined to en­dorse Trump last year, tweets a fair amount of crit­i­cism, but his re­cent book “The Van­ish­ing Amer­i­can Adult” steered clear of the pres­i­dent. And he’s not up for re­elec­tion un­til 2020.

Flake was al­ready fac­ing a tough pri­mary race next year, and this en­sures that it will be more chal­leng­ing. The White House po­lit­i­cal team has been ac­tively talk­ing with po­ten­tial GOP chal­lengers, with the goal of co­a­lesc­ing be­hind the most cred­i­ble con­tender who could de­feat him. Trump has re­port­edly told peo­ple that he’ll put up $10 mil­lion of his own money to help.

The se­na­tor mostly wrote his man­i­festo in se­cret. He did not even tell some of his ad­vis­ers that he was work­ing on it, lest they try to talk him out of putting these ideas on pa­per.

“I feel com­pelled to de­clare: This is not who we are,” Flake writes. “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 . . . . The ques­tion is: Will enough of us stand up and wrest it back be­fore it is too late? Or will we just go along with it, for our many and var­ied rea­sons? Those are open and un­re­solved ques­tions.”

What Flake will do next is also an open and un­re­solved ques­tion. Lib­er­als will com­plain that his ac­tions don’t match his talk. If he thinks the pres­i­dent is as dan­ger­ous as he lays out in the book, why isn’t he more ag­gres­sively try­ing to check him from his perch on Capi­tol Hill?

It seems al­most in­evitable that Flake will back off some of his strong­est rhetor­i­cal broad­sides, at least un­til he gets through the GOP pri­mary. In tele­vi­sion and ra­dio in­ter­views to pro­mote his book, he’s of­ten not gone as far as he does in its pages.

But Flake has laid down an im­por­tant marker, and he de­serves credit for tak­ing a brave stand when the po­lit­i­cally con­ve­nient thing is for him to bite his lip. He has cre­ated a per­mis­sion struc­ture for Repub­li­can se­na­tors with safer seats to ex­press pub­licly what they of­ten tell re­porters pri­vately.

As fu­ture gen­er­a­tions study this tu­mul­tuous time, “Con­science of a Con­ser­va­tive” — in many ways a se­quel to Gold­wa­ter’s 1960 book of the same ti­tle — will be an im­por­tant data point. “The his­to­ri­ans will sort out what ex­actly hap­pened in this in­ter­reg­num — this lapse of prin­ci­ple, this pe­riod of drift — they will name it,” Flake writes. “It is a tes­ta­ment to just how far we fell in 2016 that to re­sist the fever and to stand up for con­ser­vatism seemed a rad­i­cal act.” James Hohmann is a national po­lit­i­cal cor­re­spon­dent for The Wash­ing­ton Post and the au­thor of the Daily 202 news­let­ter.

PABLO MARTINEZ MON­SI­VAIS/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Sen. Jeff Flake’s book mourns the in­tol­er­ance that he says has taken over the GOP. “We have given in to the pol­i­tics of anger,” he writes.

CON­SCIENCE OF A CON­SER­VA­TIVE By Jeff Flake Ran­dom House. 140 pp. $27

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