I want to dig rather deep into Senator Flake’s anti-Trump op-ed, because it perfectly encapsulates what I think is wrong with a certain species of Conservatism. His bits are in block quotes:
Who could blame the people who felt abandoned and ignored by the major parties for reaching in despair for a candidate who offered oversimplified answers to infinitely complex questions and managed to entertain them in the process? With hindsight, it is clear that we all but ensured the rise of Donald Trump.
Your first clue is “oversimplified”. You see, you might think that the problem of lax enforcement of our laws is, well, lax enforcement of our laws – but you’re wrong! It’s complex. Sure, all complexities tend to work in favor of letting Progressives get their way and/or get away with it, but it’s complex! Trust us!
I will let the liberals answer for their own sins in this regard. (There are many.) But we conservatives mocked Barack Obama’s failure to deliver on his pledge to change the tone in Washington even as we worked to assist with that failure. It was we conservatives who, upon Obama’s election, stated that our No. 1 priority was not advancing a conservative policy agenda but making Obama a one-term president—the corollary to this binary thinking being that his failure would be our success and the fortunes of the citizenry would presumably be sorted out in the meantime.
How dare we Republicans make it a goal that Obama be a one-term President! Oh, what’s that you say? The Democrats have pledged to try and make Trump a less-than-one-term-President? And have dreamed of doing a “Watergate” on every GOP President since Nixon? Who cares about that! That is one of their own sins in this regard! We GOPers are better than that – so, let’s not have any of this nonsense about trying to make a Democrat a one-term President.
It was we conservatives who were largely silent when the most egregious and sustained attacks on Obama’s legitimacy were leveled by marginal figures who would later be embraced and legitimized by far too many of us. It was we conservatives who rightly and robustly asserted our constitutional prerogatives as a co-equal branch of government when a Democrat was in the White House but who, despite solemn vows to do the same in the event of a Trump presidency, have maintained an unnerving silence as instability has ensued. To carry on in the spring of 2017 as if what was happening was anything approaching normalcy required a determined suspension of critical faculties. And tremendous powers of denial.
I’ve been sympathetic to this impulse to denial, as one doesn’t ever want to believe that the government of the United States has been made dysfunctional at the highest levels, especially by the actions of one’s own party. Michael Gerson, a conservative columnist and former senior adviser to President George W. Bush, wrote, four months into the new presidency, “The conservative mind, in some very visible cases, has become diseased,” and conservative institutions “with the blessings of a president … have abandoned the normal constraints of reason and compassion.”
Just ignore all that bit about W being “selected, not elected”. Also, for goodness sake, please don’t remember all that “Chimpy McSmirk BusHitler” stuff. Pretty sure we need you to forget all that violent fantasies that Progressives entertained about President Bush, as well. And, if you really want to be cool, forget all those times you’ve been called a racist, sexist, homophobic bigot.
More important that we fear that “instability” – you see, when things aren’t going along just as they have, it is bad. Don’t ask why it’s bad: it just is. You are supposed to be shaking in your boots that Trump isn’t doing things like everyone else! Please be frighted. Pretty please? With sugar on top? If you won’t be frightened, then how am I to convince you to give power back to those you rejected last year?
For a conservative, that’s an awfully bitter pill to swallow. So as I layered in my defense mechanisms, I even found myself saying things like, “If I took the time to respond to every presidential tweet, there would be little time for anything else.” Given the volume and velocity of tweets from both the Trump campaign and then the White House, this was certainly true. But it was also a monumental dodge. It would be like Noah saying, “If I spent all my time obsessing about the coming flood, there would be little time for anything else.” At a certain point, if one is being honest, the flood becomes the thing that is most worthy of attention. At a certain point, it might be time to build an ark.
This is far more revealing than Flake meant, I’m sure. They hate that Trump tweets. They say they hate it because it is vulgar and chaotic – but what they really hate is that Trump is able to speak directly to the people. This bothers them because they know it signals and end on the Establishment monopoly on forming the American mind. It doubly bothers them that they know their Progressive buddies who run Twitter can’t afford to shut Trump down.
Under our Constitution, there simply are not that many people who are in a position to do something about an executive branch in chaos. As the first branch of government (Article I), the Congress was designed expressly to assert itself at just such moments. It is what we talk about when we talk about “checks and balances.” 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. And so, that unnerving silence in the face of an erratic executive branch is an abdication, and those in positions of leadership bear particular responsibility.
Apparently, being erratic is a crisis? You see how he’s doing this? He’s piggy-backing the idea of impeachment on to the notion that, somehow, Trump is just bad. He hasn’t broken any laws; he hasn’t done any un-Constitutional acts (you know, like using the IRS to attack his opponents – say, Senator Flake, did you urge the impeachment of President Obama over that “erratic” action?); but he’s got to go! Once again: please be afraid!
There was a time when the leadership of the Congress from both parties felt an institutional loyalty that would frequently create bonds across party lines in defense of congressional prerogatives in a unified front against the White House, regardless of the president’s party. We do not have to go very far back to identify these exemplars—the Bob Doles and Howard Bakers and Richard Lugars of the Senate. Vigorous partisans, yes, but even more important, principled constitutional conservatives whose primary interest was in governing and making America truly great.
Funny how that time of institutional loyalty always worked out to a Republican President being done in or at least harmed by his fellow Republicans. Where were the Democrats who went out to advise President Clinton that his perjury had forfeited his ability to be President? A Democrat who even made a peep about Obama’s pen-and-phone actions? The whole concept of institutional loyalty is bull – and Senator Flake knows it. There should be institutional loyalty, but there isn’t; and never really has been. We have partisan elections to determine which partisan policies we’ll pursue – and if the Congress and the White House are of the same party, they are just going to go on with it. The only difference is that there are always Republicans who are willing to undermine the evident will of the American people in creating either a Republican Congress and/or a Republican White House. Thanks, Senator! We definitely gave you our votes and campaign cash so that you could cut us off at the knees!
But then the period of collapse and dysfunction set in, amplified by the internet and our growing sense of alienation from each other, and we lost our way and began to rationalize away our principles in the process. But where does such capitulation take us? If by 2017 the conservative bargain was to go along for the very bumpy ride because with congressional hegemony and the White House we had the numbers to achieve some long-held policy goals—even as we put at risk our institutions and our values—then it was a very real question whether any such policy victories wouldn’t be Pyrrhic ones. If this was our Faustian bargain, then it was not worth it. If ultimately our principles were so malleable as to no longer be principles, then what was the point of political victories in the first place?
The “period of collapse” started on January 20th – that is when some of us on the right decided, “you know, if the Democrats are going to play by certain rules which unfairly advantage Democrats, so will we”. We hear much of Conservative “principles”, but I’d like to know what set of Conservative principles has kept Planned Parenthood at the public trough for decades, even though we’ve often had the power to de-fund it? What got our higher education system to become a bastion of leftist tyranny against Conservatism without Senator Flake doing anything about it? You know, a Congressional majority has many way of applying pressure, Senator – why is no pressure ever put against Progressives advancing their cause? Why do your vaunted Conservative principles always work towards hamstringing our side, not theirs?
Meanwhile, the strange specter of an American president’s seeming affection for strongmen and authoritarians created such a cognitive dissonance among my generation of conservatives—who had come of age under existential threat from the Soviet Union—that it was almost impossible to believe. Even as our own government was documenting a concerted attack against our democratic processes by an enemy foreign power, our own White House was rejecting the authority of its own intelligence agencies, disclaiming their findings as a Democratic ruse and a hoax. Conduct that would have had conservatives up in arms had it been exhibited by our political opponents now had us dumbstruck.
It was then that I was compelled back to Senator Goldwater’s book, to a chapter entitled “The Soviet Menace.” Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, this part of Goldwater’s critique had seemed particularly anachronistic. The lesson here is that nothing is gone forever, especially when it comes to the devouring ambition of despotic men. As Goldwater wrote in that chapter:
Our forebears knew that “keeping a Republic” meant, above all, keeping it safe from foreign transgressors; they knew that a people cannot live and work freely, and develop national institutions conducive to freedom, except in peace and with independence.
The election was hacked! I had no idea that any Republican Senator was subscribing to the Russia Collusion twaddle, but here it is. I don’t know if Flake believed this and thus became anti-Trump or if he was anti-Trump and thus believed it out of a general desire that Trump be terrible. It doesn’t matter. It’s a hoax; a myth; something that doesn’t exist. But the anti-Trump people are, seemingly, going to run with it. As for having affection for strongmen…an argument can be made to not have relations with dictatorial regimes. That does include Russia – but it also includes China. Funny how I never seem to hear one of these “principled” Conservatives demanding we break it off with China…even though China is vastly more powerful than Russia and is clearly preparing a military force designed to fight us. And you know why they won’t go after China: Corporate America is making too much money in China.
So, where should Republicans go from here? First, we shouldn’t hesitate to speak out if the president “plays to the base” in ways that damage the Republican Party’s ability to grow and speak to a larger audience. Second, Republicans need to take the long view when it comes to issues like free trade: Populist and protectionist policies might play well in the short term, but they handicap the country in the long term. Third, Republicans need to stand up for institutions and prerogatives, like the Senate filibuster, that have served us well for more than two centuries.
We have taken our “institutions conducive to freedom,” as Goldwater put it, for granted as we have engaged in one of the more reckless periods of politics in our history. In 2017, we seem to have lost our appreciation for just how hard won and vulnerable those institutions are.
“Plays to the base” is Establishment-speak for “talks about issues the yokels care about”. “Grow and speak to a larger audience” means, “make pathetic gestures in favor of Progressive policies in the hope that it’ll get me a good mention in the MSM”.
And, of course, he’s in favor of retaining the filibuster – because it helps Democrats to hamstring the GOP. That he knows full well Democrats will dispense with it at the first opportunity is just of no matter to people like Senator Flake. He doesn’t care about things like that – far more important to a “Conservative” like Flake is that things remain as they are…with Progressive policies ruling the roost; with corporate taxes kept low; with plenty of cheap labor for the Chamber of Commerce donors…and with a docile GOP base worked up to vote GOP every couple years, but never angry that the GOP fails to deliver.
I really have done with all that. Trump isn’t a threat to the United States – Senator Flake is. Flake is far more polite than Trump, but Flake’s politeness is masking the utter destruction of the United States of America. If we Conservatives/Republicans abandon Trump and go along with the likes of Senator Flake, all we’ll see is the slow imposition of a totally Progressive ideology – in other words, the end of our Republic because Progressives aren’t actually in favor of freedom (they have a different concept of freedom from us – to them, freedom is about not having want; for us, it is about not having masters).
I’ve got no hostility towards Flake. He is who he is – he is a product of the Establishment, defending the Establishment. The fact that he’s Republican rather than Democrat is really no more than a reflection of the GOP’s electoral advantage in Arizona. Had Flake been from, say, Oregon then he’d pretty much be the same…but he’d be a Democrat Senator from Oregon and in spite of this or that particular view, would mostly be wedded to the idea of keeping things as they are. We voted for Trump to end that – whether the prime motivation was outright support or just a desire to keep Hillary out, the thing about it all was a rejection of things as they are. We still don’t know if Trump can deliver, but rely on it that if he fails, we’re still not going back to Senator Flake, hat in hand, to ask him to return us to business as usual. For fifty years we waited for Senator Flake’s sort to take the power we gave them and do something we wanted – they couldn’t even de-fund NPR. Forget it, Senator: we’re done with you. Your op-ed will impress your fellow Never Trump people and get you a pat on the head from the MSM. Congratulations. Hope you like it.