Well, I don’t know what Flake wants me to think, but I believe he behaved heroically on Tuesday. ThinkProgress sniped that it’s easy to criticize the president when your 18 percent approval rating precludes re-election. But while Flake has long had relatively low approval ratings, they really cratered precisely because of his opposition to Trump.
It’s certainly true that Flake has voted with Trump to advance right-wing policies, most of which I find morally repulsive. But Flake is extremely conservative — as of 2016, the American Conservative Union gave him a 93 percent lifetime rating, a score comparable to that of Jeff Sessions. The senator believed in the policies he was voting for; from his point of view, there was no valor in opposing them. All the same, he’s now arguing that telling the truth about Trump is more important than enacting his most cherished political priorities. In doing so, he’s sacrificed a career he’s spent a lifetime building. He’s given more than most to the fight against Trump and Trumpism.
Indeed, as much as I hate Flake’s politics, I suspect there’s a connection between his intense political commitments and his bravery. Not long ago, I spoke to Eyal Press, the author of “Beautiful Souls: The Courage and Conscience of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times,” a book about those who resist immoral authorities and institutions. We tend, Press told me, to “think of these people as iconoclasts, or imagine that they are somehow people with a kind of oppositional spirit,” but in fact, most of them are true believers in the purported ideals of their organizations. It’s because they value those ideals so highly, he said, that they’re moved to break ranks when they see them tarnished.
To recognize the role of Flake’s conservative principles in fueling his dissent is not to absolve the conservative movement for Trump. For decades, Republicans have stoked the culture war to win the support of people hurt by their economic policies. Under the guise of pushing back against left-wing bias, the right has systematically tried to discredit all objective sources of information, ushering in a berserk reactionary postmodernism in which truth loses its meaning. And though the Republican Party’s racial appeals used to be more coded, it’s been capitalizing on white resentment for a long time.
All the same, Trump is not just a vulgar version of a normal conservative. His authoritarianism threatens libertarian ideals as well as progressive ones, he’s personally repugnant in ways that transcend politics, and his incompetence endangers us all. There’s no contradiction between abhorring conservatism and being grateful to the conservatives who stand up to Trump.
Some who’ve criticized Flake have said that, rather than quitting, he should defend his principles in a primary fight. Maybe, but even the strongest-minded people can’t avoid tailoring their words and actions to suit the exigencies of political campaigns. The need to be re-elected can too easily become an excuse not to act.
Talking to a Republican Trump critic recently, I asked, as I often do, how his Republican friends in Congress live with themselves. He said some justify their silence by saying that if they speak out, they could be replaced by Trumpist lunatics. They’re not wrong, but they’re also offering up a common rationale for perpetual acquiescence. As Masha Gessen wrote right after the election, those who collaborate with authoritarianism often insist that they’re trying to ameliorate its excesses. There are always reasons not to speak up for what’s right.
Now that they’ve spoken, the next step for Flake, Corker, Senator John McCain and other Republicans who hope to be remembered kindly by history is to act. Corker, the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, could hold hearings into how Trump has already eroded America’s position worldwide.
Both Corker and Flake should be willing to support legislation protecting the investigation of Robert Mueller, the special counsel, into Trump’s ties to Russia. They should also back legislation to curb the president’s ability to launch nuclear weapons unilaterally, and leave the door open to supporting impeachment.
In his speech, Flake promised to use his remaining 14 months in office standing up and speaking out “as if our country depends on it.” If he fails to do that, he’ll deserve progressive dismissals. But while a stirring anti-Trump speech is not enough, it’s a start. The resistance needs all the help it can get.