One of the easiest ways to gain 15 minutes of fame as a Republican is to attack another Republican. The cameras will roll, the pundits will marvel, and we will soon be assured of a collapsing conservative movement. This week, Jeff Flake of Arizona garnered himself a full 17 minutes of fame with his defiant speech on the U.S. Senate floor. The traditionally mild-mannered and impeccably professional Mormon anchor of the globalist wing of the Republican Party had seen his abysmal poll numbers and deduced the most effective way to assert any enduring legacy was to fire his pistol into the air.
The New York Times and Washington Post simultaneously celebrated the moment with a verb that still seems hyperbole for the man of perfect coif: “excoriate” (literally, from the Latin, “to rip the skin off”).
The top of the Times boasted of an “extraordinary speech on the Senate floor that excoriated [emphasis added] the president,” while the Post delighted in how their new favorite Arizonan “excoriated the president without using his name, delivering . . . a distress call to the nation.” CNN’s headline was more concise in its glorification: “Jeff Flake Just Flew a Kamikaze Mission Against Donald Trump.” It was more like seppuku.
From the beginning of the speech, Flake frames himself as a valiant adherent to higher principles, a man whose selflessness impels him to put said principles before his own advancement: “Sustained incumbency is certainly not the point of seeking office and there are times when we must risk our careers in favor of our principles.”
Lofty sentiments indeed, even if perhaps they are negated by the fact that the practical point of his speech was a concession that his future political prospects are already threatened to the point of hopelessness. There’s less “risk” to take when a sober analysis of the polling data and voter dynamics in his home state shows that he has already lost. So, why not go out with a bang? After all, most individual senators are not household names, so at least he could make his last stand as a rabble-trashing rebel.
Flake’s display of gentility is occasionally comic in its ostentatious circumambulation. He takes repeated pains to avoid naming Trump (“some in our executive branch”), displaying how a noble statesman should conduct himself in the political sphere, while also faulting Trump for his personal conduct in attacking his colleagues (*cough* Bob Corker *cough*). Then he name-checks a former president, “a Republican president named Roosevelt,” because Teddy had earned his respect through his active solicitation of criticism. This, mind you, is the same Teddy Roosevelt who once remarked, “When they call the roll in the Senate, the Senators do not know whether to answer ‘Present’ or ‘Not Guilty.’”
Flake also appeals to Article I of the Constitution, lauding Madison’s emphasis on the value of separation of powers and the counterbalancing effects of the different branches of government. He urges his fellow congressmen to criticize the president when warranted, while also in turn lambasting the president for his criticisms of his fellow congressmen. Then, bewilderingly, he intones, “Leadership knows that most often a good place to start in assigning blame is to look somewhat closer to home.” Again, Flake intends to cast a spotlight on the White House, while turning a blind eye to all the ways in which his own branch of government has become so unmoored from its constitutionally mandated duty of representing the interests of the people who voted for them.
He gets even more sanctimonious. Flake refers to his version of pluralism and globalism as “articles of civic faith” and assures us that “to behave as if they don’t matter is simply not who we are.” The “who we are” phrase has been abused violently in the last two years of political discourse, and it seemed to be a favorite of President Obama as he asserted the values he preferred in his people. Flake’s effort to appeal to U.S. history and to instruct his fellow citizens on their own moral essence is all the more confounding (to say nothing of condescending) because his conception is so antithetical both to the nation’s early history (try telling the Founding Fathers that this country is a “nation of immigrants”) and to the values that motivate so much of the modern American populace.
The question remains, “Who are we?” To the well-read conservative, these three words should be a reminder of one of the most eloquent expressions of the philosophical underpinnings of American greatness, Harvard professor Samuel Huntington’s eerily prophetic 2004 tome Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity. With dazzling ability to see past the political infatuations of his own time, he illustrates how far afield elected representatives such as Flake had become from their constituents on issues of national identity and civic values.
Huntington foretold of an elite internationalist consensus that then was floating in the air, untethered to the people who inhabited the nation. Or, in Huntington’s simplest formulation: “A creed alone does not a nation make.” As ever, immigration is the centerpiece, and Flake’s recent infantilization of American workers in a New York Times op-ed arguing for more low-skilled immigration, while effectively bragging about using illegal labor, is about as condescending as a U.S. Senator can be before, well . . . before finding himself out of office.
Indeed, when Flake examines the “discord and… dysfunction” in the American political sphere and deems it “devastating” to see “[w]hen a leader correctly identifies real hurt and insecurity in our country, and instead of addressing it, goes to look for someone to blame,” he seems oblivious to the mirror image of his own formulation. Trump is an easy foil and an unavoidable scapegoat, but Flake cannot grasp his own role in the creation of the dysfunction in the first place. Samuel Huntington’s words again cut to the heart of the problem:
Politically America remains a democracy because key public officials are selected through free and fair elections. In many respects, however, it has become an unrepresentative democracy because on crucial issues, especially involving national identity, its leaders pass laws and implement policies contrary to the views of the American people. Concomitantly, the American people have become increasingly alienated from politics and government.
This deep-seated discord has indeed become volcanic, but the eruptions of an emotional president are more a symptom of the underlying exasperation than they are a cause of it.
Perhaps one section of Flake’s speech rang true: a denunciation of “the compromise of our moral authority, and by our, I mean our complicity in this alarming and dangerous state of affairs.” No, not in the way Flake intended these words to position his internationalist ideals against a crass populist movement that increasingly repudiated him. Quite the opposite—as a reminder of just how alarming, dangerous, and morally compromised the neoconservative-dominated party of Bush and McCain have become.
These are not merely figures of a recent past, but are amply represented by prominent and well-connected actors who have tried to interpolate themselves and their ideology at every turn of this administration—in foreign policy gestures and interventionist military actions, in matters of trade and economic policy, and certainly in trying to thwart the immigration policies that had given Trump’s candidacy such propulsion.
In Flake’s fall, one may hope for a return to some core principles and policies that long predated the past couple decades’ neoconservative swerve, and a course correction from the elected representatives who view their constituents’ values and dreams as a secondary consideration in their duties.