The Corner

Politics & Policy

The Towering Jeff Flake

Senator Jeff Flake, the Arizona Republican, gave a significant speech yesterday. In it, he discussed the “new normal.” That is exactly the subject to discuss, I think. “In this century,” Flake said, “a new phrase has entered the language to describe the accommodation of a new and undesirable order, that phrase being ‘the new normal.’”

He continued,

… we must never adjust to the present coarseness of our national dialogue with the tone set up at the top. We must never regard as normal the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals. We must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country: the personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms, and institutions, the flagrant disregard for truth and decency.

If we simply become inured to this condition, thinking that it is just politics as usual, then heaven help us.

Yes, heaven help us.

Flake also quoted Theodore Roosevelt, one of the best political thinkers, and one of the best political writers, in American history. (I got to know TR better than ever when I was writing my history of the Nobel Peace Prize. I was amazed at both the quality of his writing and the quality of his thought.)

Here is some of what Flake quoted:

The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts. … Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile.

Flake, in his speech yesterday, said, “This spell will eventually break.” Broadly, he was talking about the hold that Trump and Trumpism have over the Republican party, and over much of the conservative movement. I don’t know about this. I think we are in for something more enduring.

Sometime during the general election of 2016, I heard a prominent conservative say, “Soon we’ll all be in the same foxholes again.” I don’t know about this. Too much has been revealed. The fissures are serious. Admirers of Le Pen, Orbán, and Farage, let’s say, versus admirers of Reagan, Kemp, and Sasse. Or, if you like a rhyme, Bannon versus Hannan. There may be no going back.

To speak personally, I left the Republican party on the night of May 3, 2016, when Trump clinched the nomination. I don’t belong in a party that thinks Donald Trump ought to be president. I don’t say that I’m right (although, of course, one thinks so). I say simply that today’s GOP and I are a mismatch.

I wrote an essay explaining this: “#ExGOP: The shock of disaffiliation.” I had been a Republican, and a conservative, a lot longer than Donald Trump. Decades longer.

In the course of that essay, I said the following: “In my view, Trump is grossly unfit to be president, in both mind and character — especially the latter. Even if I agreed with him on the issues — even if I thought his worldview sound — I would balk at supporting him, owing to the issue of character.”

This is the kind of thing that many on the right now call “moral preening” or “virtue-signaling.” I don’t care, frankly. The conservatives, chiefly, had taught me about the importance of character in high office, and it was too late for me to unlearn the lesson.

More from that essay: “By nominating him [Trump], the Republican party has disfigured itself, morally. Democrats won’t like to hear this, but for all those years, I thought the Republican party had the high ground, morally. I feel that this ground has collapsed beneath me. That is one of the painful aspects of this moment.”

In all likelihood, you will never find a party that you are 100 percent comfortable with. That you agree on every jot and tittle with. Particularly if there are only two (major) parties in your vast, continental nation! I could happily belong to a party that was more “nationalist” than I, more protectionist than I, more isolationist than I, more big-government than I. What about the issue of abortion? This is extremely important to me. What about education reform? I’m just wild about Betsy (DeVos).

But there are some things that can’t be captured on a “scorecard,” or by a “balls and strikes” approach to politics. How about a disdain for the truth? How about the acceptance of a steady stream of lies?

Writing about Trump, Roger Scruton said, “This extraordinary person, whose thoughts seem shaped by their very nature to the 140 characters of a tweet, makes no distinction between the true and the false and assumes that no one else makes such a distinction either.” Trump is right, to an amazing extent.

I have never been a fan of Jeff Flake. I have ripped him six ways to Sunday, chiefly over his stance on Cuba, which I have found incomprehensible. But, in saying what he said yesterday, and in writing the book he did, Jeff Flake stands very, very tall, and I will always admire him.

At one point in his speech, Flake said, “When the next generation asks us, ‘Why didn’t you do something? Why didn’t you speak up?’ what are we going to say?” A colleague of mine quipped, “You’re going to say, ‘I quit’!”

I don’t think so. Jeff Flake thought, spoke, wrote, and acted in a way that made him unelectable, or un-nominatable, by today’s GOP: the Trump GOP. He did not go along to get along. That’s what he did. He actually sacrificed his political career. He forwent holy reelection. And, again, I admire him a lot.

I hope that people will read Flake’s speech (which, again, is here). Forget commentary about it (including mine). This is the kind of thing that bears chewing over in individual minds.

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