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1.5 Cheers For Jeff Flake

GOP senator identifies what's wrong with Trumpism, but what does he have to counter it? The ghost of Barry Goldwater

Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake unloads on Donald Trump, saying that his party — the GOP — is “in denial” about the threat Trump represents. Excerpts:

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.”

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.

Okay, yes, Donald Trump is a big problem, and the Congressional Republicans have to quit looking away when the president does bad things. But then:

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.

Sounds like a whiff to me. He’s right about how Republicans need to distance themselves forcefully from the president’s more obnoxious and spiteful statements and policies. And he’s right about defending institutional norms. But Flake’s second principle gives his game away. Where does he think Trump came from, anyway? Whose jobs went away because of globalization? You don’t have to abandon the general principle of free trade to recognize that the system we have now has left millions of Americans stranded economically without much hope, and that something has to change. But in the book Flake proudly claims to be a “globalist”.

It would be wrong to read into that one line an entire worldview, but my guess is that Sen. Flake is one of those Republicans who believes that Trump is an aberration, and that if the GOP can just survive him, then it can return to Reaganite orthodoxy, and all will be well. If it is true that Flake believes this, then the Republican Party deserves what it gets. All of that was on offer in 2016, and was flatly rejected by GOP primary voters. Sen. Ben Sasse said recently that both parties were “exhausted” intellectually. One sees why. From what I’m able to gather from reading reviews, news reports, and other commentary online, Flake is quite good at calling out Trump’s flaws, and the bad habits in the Republican base that befouled our politics (e.g., believing and propagating conspiracy theories), but Flake’s alternative is nothing more than warmed over Goldwater libertarianism.

Barry Goldwater was the GOP nominee for president in 1964. The book Goldwater wrote, from which Flake copies the title of his own, appeared in 1960.

(If any of you readers have read the book and believe I have mischaracterized Flake’s counter-Trump version of conservatism, I welcome your corrective.)

America needs an intelligent, center-right populism. Instead, we have … well, read the entire transcript of the Wall Street Journal‘s interview with Trump. It is utterly depressing, if by now unsurprising.

UPDATE: Reihan Salam, a conservative Republican who actually has read the book, offers a convincing takedown of it. Excerpt:

None of this means Flake’s convictions are anything less than sincere or admirable. It’s just that the world has changed, and it’s not clear that Flake has changed with it.

If Republican opposition to Trump takes this form — that the problem with Trump is that he strays too far from libertarian orthodoxy — I can confidently say that the opposition will amount to nothing. Or rather, that it will amount to nothing more than a pretty good pitch to the Kochs and other like-minded donors to bankroll a hopeless presidential campaign.



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