Louisiana representative John Fleming came to Congress in 2008 and quickly established himself as one of the House’s most-conservative members. A physician and businessman, Fleming spent his first two years fighting against President Obama’s domestic agenda, and when the tea-party wave of 2010 brought dozens of like-minded Republicans to Washington, he joined with them to form the core of the conservative opposition that has been in frequent conflict with House GOP leadership.
In early 2015, Fleming and several colleagues formed the House Freedom Caucus, an invite-only group that would serve as home base for the lower chamber’s most conservative lawmakers. The group now has 39 members, and was the subject of a lengthy National Review story this week exploring its relationship to Donald Trump and the implications for conservatism.
Fleming, who is currently running for U.S. Senate in Louisiana, made some revealing remarks about Trump in the story, including, “The man is giving the exact speech I’d be giving if I ran for president.”
I interviewed Fleming in his House office on July 7, one week before the convention’s Rules Committee met in Cleveland. His commentary on 2016, the Republican party, and conservatism offered a unique window into the thinking of some influential Trump supporters on the right, at a moment when activists were still making their last stand against Trump’s nomination. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is excerpted here — Tim Alberta.
Tim Alberta: You have said you oppose any effort to pass rules that would allow delegates to install a different nominee at the convention. Do you think Donald Trump is a conservative?
John Fleming: Well, he’s convinced a lot of people in this country that he is a conservative. You know, that’s the whole problem when you don’t have a track record. People run for office all the time claiming to be a conservative, but until you have to vote, you really don’t know. So the way I view it, I’m still first and foremost a strong believer in representative democracy and the Constitution. And there’s no question that Donald Trump mopped the floor with 16 other people running for that office. So above all, I respect the choice of the American people.
Alberta: You said he’s convinced a lot of people he’s a conservative. Has he convinced you?
Fleming: Well, all I have to go on is what he says. He says he wants to protect our borders against illegal immigration; that’s definitely conservative. He wants to rebuild our military and destroy ISIS; no question that’s conservative. He does want to repeal and replace Obamacare; that’s hugely conservative. So when you go down the line and you include other things such as welfare reform, he’s saying all the things I want to hear and the American people want to hear. And when it comes to appointing Supreme Court justices, he came out with about the best list you could come out with. So he’s certainly been convincing about that. The one area where there’s a big question mark is where he is on religion and social issues, and there admittedly he may not be on the same plane as many of us here who are conservatives. So we’ll have to see. But let’s put it this way: Based on his rhetoric and his commitments, he’s far more convincing when it comes to being a conservative than Mitt Romney or John McCain — and I would argue even George W. Bush.
Fleming: I just have to say based on what I’ve seen and witnessed in the campaign, I’d say he fits much closer to the values of conservatives and the Republican party than anybody who’s run for office in the past several decades.
Alberta: Do you think he respects the Constitution?
Fleming: I’ll only know when he has the opportunity to show us. I have no way of reading his mind. I don’t have powers of extrasensory perception or anything like that. But that’s true of everybody; who’s to say that Mitt Romney or anybody else who’s run for that office had any respect for the Constitution?
Alberta: In speaking with some of your colleagues, I hear some regret over not taking Trump seriously, and not opposing him [earlier] because of that uncertainty over whether he’s a conservative. Do you share any of that?
Fleming: I think the American people made this decision themselves in their own living rooms. I don’t think what John Fleming could have said, or any other congressman or senator out there, would have made a bit of difference. Whether it’s organic and intuitive, or whether it’s polling, whatever he was doing and saying was what the American people wanted to hear. And if his heart isn’t really there, I’ll tell you, he has the most convincing act I’ve ever seen.
Alberta: Your district was carried by Cruz, but Trump was right there, and he won a lot of votes from conservatives who didn’t necessarily line up behind him based on ideology. So did that give you any pause, not wanting to come out in opposition to him?
People feel so disheartened and betrayed that the party isn’t standing up for their values, they don’t show up to vote for anybody.
Fleming: Well, you have to remember, the thing we’ve been looking for — the special sauce — has been how do we broaden our party? And what leaders in our party have been doing for a long time is to be more like the Democrat party in order to broaden our base. And they can’t figure out why we’re not winning national elections. When they look and do a deep dive and what they find is that people feel so disheartened and betrayed that the party isn’t standing up for their values, they don’t show up to vote for anybody. We saw that in the Romney race. Romney lost primarily because our people, our Republican base, just didn’t come out and vote at all. So we’re seeing a complete reversal of that with Trump. People are showing up at rallies in huge numbers. During the primaries the votes were up in huge numbers, 60 percent in some cases, whereas they were down among Democrats. I think we’re seeing a complete reversal in energy between Republicans and Democrats.
Alberta: If the goal is to broaden the party, isn’t that made difficult when more than 70 percent of Hispanics view Donald Trump unfavorably and think he is hostile toward them?
Fleming: No, because the formula Democrats have been going by for years to win elections is to find these vertical groups. They go after women, they go after Hispanics, they go after African-Americans, they go after LGBT. They go after all of these coalitions and try and pull them in, but the problem with that is it’s basically giving things to people based on who they are — their skin color, their gender, what have you. It’s all about giving things — pandering — in order to get votes. That’s not what our base is about. Our women, our conservative women, they don’t want to be treated like women, they want to be treated like Americans. And where the rubber hits the road is the economy — they want a more vibrant economy. They don’t want to give welfare to more people; they want more jobs. And they don’t want things given to them because they’re a woman, or they’re black, or whatever group they happen to be assigned to. They reject identity politics. And when Republicans go down that road, all we do is lose people.
Alberta: But the counter-argument is that it’s very difficult for voters to hear your message and your policy platform when they feel like they’re being insulted personally. That’s how Hispanics feel about Trump. And then he makes his latest comments about Judge Curiel . . .
Fleming: I think we’ve gone down a deep, deep hole of political correctness, and the American people are sick and tired of that. In fact, I think many people find it refreshing that people would just simply begin to just ignore that you have to watch every single syllable or word that you say because you might offend somebody. This country was built on free speech, the First Amendment, and by definition it says you can say whatever you want to. Now people might be angry at you, they might disagree with what you say, they might even find it insulting. But we’ve reached a point now where there’s a form of favored speech here. I mean, liberals can say whatever they want. We see this on campus, where liberals can attack any conservative, they can prevent any conservative from speaking on campus, they can call them names and what have you. And that’s perfectly acceptable. But for someone who’s the least bit conservative to say anything that’s the least bit straightforward, everyone’s offended and suddenly they should be ejected from society. People are tired of that. It’s nonsense.
This whole idea that the Star of David was on a tweet with Donald Trump — what complete nonsense to say that that was anti-Semitic. And I tell you, it really upsets me — and this has been a big problem in our party, the Republican party — that in order to make sure that we’re sterilized from any attack on us personally as politicians because of what another Republican does or says, we have to attack that Republican so that we’re somehow not tainted. It’s just gotten totally out of control. We saw this happen with Romney. He made a couple of comments that meant virtually nothing, and all of a sudden it’s Republicans who are the first ones to pounce on it. And now it’s happening with Trump. To protect ourselves, you see often see Republican politicians — not Democrats — attacking Donald Trump, when he really meant no harm.
Alberta: But if someone thinks something is wrong, don’t they have an obligation to say so? There are lots of Republicans who agree with you on political correctness in general, but who heard the Judge Curiel comments, like Speaker Ryan, and said they were just flat-out racist.
Fleming: I think the media pounces on things like that and makes them echo. But you hear Democrats like Joe Biden say things worse than that, and people just snicker and go on. I don’t think it’s fair. Politicians are human, they say things sometimes that are inartful. But there’s two totally different standards: One for Republicans and one for Democrats, and really one for conservatives and one for liberals. Liberals can say anything they want and nobody gets upset. A Republican says something as inane as “binders of women” and the world blows up. And the media plays a big part in it. That’s the reason why the media is trusted as much as politicians these days, because people see them as taking sides in the debate.
Alberta: Shouldn’t these questions be asked of both sides? Is it unfair to ask any public official on the taxpayer dime about the leaders of their party?
To protect ourselves, you see often see Republican politicians — not Democrats — attacking Donald Trump, when he really meant no harm.
Fleming: I agree, but it’s handled differently. Remember that in 2013 the government shut down because the president refused to work with us on a few adjustments to Obamacare. Well the media began to talk about a government shutdown. And the first people to criticize the House of Representatives, and Ted Cruz, were Republicans and the conservative-leaning media. Not Democrats. And it really appeared as though they were trying to separate themselves to make themselves look smarter. But the truth is, on the Democrat side they would never do that. Just with the Hillary Clinton [FBI probe], every single Democrat is jumping to her defense. Yet had it been a Republican, you would have had many Republicans siding against that person.
Alberta: You seem particularly upset with Speaker Ryan, when I mentioned his rebuke of Trump’s “textbook definition of a racist comment.”
Fleming: I don’t get the point of it. I don’t see how it’s helpful to do that. Any Republican who begins to pick up the political narrative of the other party, it’s not helpful.
Alberta: Since when is this about party? Members of the Freedom Caucus have always done everything in the name of conservatism. But with Trump, there seems to be this evolution where you’re suddenly protecting him because he’s the party’s leader. But Boehner never got that treatment. So why does party suddenly matter?
Fleming: The reason we have the Freedom Caucus is we feel that much of the Republican party is departing from the values of the Republican party. The Republican party should be synonymous with conservative values. So our position is, whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, if you’re not going to hold up our values, we need to speak up about it. I’d be as critical of Donald Trump as I was of John Boehner if Donald Trump wasn’t standing up for conservative values. But I’ve gotta tell you, virtually everything the man says is right down the line the kind of things we’ve been saying all along. The man is giving the exact speech I’d be giving if I ran for president.
Alberta: Do you feel better about the state of conservatism today than you did a year ago?
Fleming: Yes I do. I feel like there’s a pent-up demand to take this country forward in a conservative direction. People feel like this left-wing ratcheting that’s been going on since 2006 is really hurting our country. So I think Donald Trump gets elected and the Republican party becomes a slightly different party. I think the leaders, both on the consultant side and the elected side, and even the Republican-leaning media, have been trying to push the GOP in a certain direction which I think looks much more like the Democrat party. And there’s where they’ve become disconnected with our base.
Alberta: But isn’t the base disappearing? Non-college-educated whites and older whites are the most rapidly shrinking demographic groups in America. You already have several states that are majority-minority, and there will be many more soon. And the Census Bureau just said that for the first time, in 2016, there were more minority babies born in America than white babies. So doesn’t the base have to evolve and expand to bring more people in?
Fleming: Well, you’re making the case of all the highly paid consultants that prove to be wrong year after year — that in order to have these coalitions you’ve got to adopt much more of the Democratic party’s ideas. It’s as though we’ve got to track what people want us to do, rather than do what’s fundamentally right for America. We can’t keep going in this direction, or we’re going to look around and find ourselves a second-rate country.
In 1965 when we began Medicare and Medicaid, one-third of our entire budget was mandatory spending on entitlements. Today it’s two-thirds. In ten years it’s 72 percent. We run out of money for Medicare in about nine years. These are unsustainable things. So to continue in this direction, we have to continue thinking that we’re going to pay back money that we’re never capable of paying back. So conservatives like me, we’re thinking ahead — how can we fix this? But if winning elections is just all about making more people happy, then maybe de Tocqueville was right, that once the politicians realize they can win elections by bribing people with the national treasure, he said it was only sustainable for about 200 years and we’ve beat it by about 40. So we can go in that direction — we can continue with open borders, give amnesty to illegals, not demand that people work for what they get, have a health-care system that taxpayers have to finance — but ultimately we’re going to have to pay for it.
Alberta: But to fix these things, you have to win elections.
Fleming: Here’s the flaw in your statement. Democrats are willing to sacrifice for their values. Obamacare is the perfect example. They were willing to vote for that even though they knew it put their future on the line — and they lost the House and Senate. Republicans don’t do that. They fight to get the majority, and then they fight to keep the majority, and then they say, ‘Someday when we get a clean sweep, an undivided government, we’ll get what we want.’ Which means we never get what we want. And that is why our base is so deflated, because they work hard to get us elected and all they see is us working to keep our jobs.
Alberta: Don’t you need the White House to change the country?
Fleming: You need the White House. But George W. Bush took over a government that was in surplus, and he actually wrote in his book that he believed we should run a 3 percent deficit. He actually said that. So what does he do? He starts spending again, and then we get in wars we didn’t anticipate, and before you know it we have a growing deficit. Well then Obama, he gets elected, how can we say that we shouldn’t have deficit spending? We just had a Republican president who put us on that pathway. So you see, when we do what Democrats do, we do it just to stay in power, rather than to do the right things.
— Tim Alberta is National Review’s chief political correspondent.