Jeff Flake, Donald Trump, and Edmund Burke
Last Tuesday, at a fundraising reception for his reelection campaign, Jeff Flake and I briefly reminisced about our – well, his – early days in Washington a quarter century ago, when we were both policy wonks working on African issues.
Those were simpler times. George H.W. Bush was President. The Cold War had just come to an end, and the West and its liberal values had won. We were riding a tide of prosperity buoyed by the Reagan administration’s economic policies and the 1986 tax reforms. Jeff had not yet run for public office but I had tested the political waters in a special election for the Virginia House of Delegates.
Jeff Flake went on to bigger and better things: president of the Goldwater Institute in Arizona, Member of Congress, U.S. Senator and chairman of the Africa subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Today he stunned us with his announcement that he would retire from the Senate because of the debasement of the Republican Party and government institutions by their putative “leader,” Donald J. Trump.
He explained his decision not to seek reelection to the Arizona Republic by saying “there may not be a place for a Republican like me in the current Republican climate or the current Republican Party.”
In an eloquent and hard-hitting speech on the floor of the Senate – which became the lead story on today’s edition of All Things Considered on NPR and no doubt flooded the headlines and airwaves of Arizona news outlets – Flake laid out his reasons for retiring and made it clear that Trump is a cancer eating away at the body politic. If anyone deserves blame for the destruction of the Republican party and its values, it is Trump.
What was once the party of Goldwater, Ford, and Reagan has become listless, boneheaded, and petulant.
But those are my words, not Flake’s. Here is what he had to say to his colleagues in the Senate today:
It must also be said that I rise today with no small measure of regret. Regret because of the state of our disunion, regret because of the disrepair and destructiveness of our politics. Regret because of the indecency of our discourse. Regret because of the coarseness of our leadership.
Regret for the compromise of our moral authority, and by our, I mean all of our complicity in this alarming and dangerous state of affairs. It is time for our complicity and our accommodation of the unacceptable to end. In this century, a new phrase to describe the accommodation of a new and undesirable order, that phrase being the new normal. That 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 institution the flagrant disregard for truth and decency.
Without fear of the consequences and without consideration of the rules of what is politically safe or palatable, we must stop pretending that the degradation of our politics and the conduct of some in our executive branch are normal. They are not normal. Reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior has become excused and countenanced as telling it like it is when it is actually just reckless, outrageous and undignified.
And when such behavior emanates from the top of our government, it is something else. It is dangerous to a democracy. Such behavior does not project strength because our strength comes from our values. It instead projects a corruption of the spirit and weakness. It is often said that children are watching. Well, they are. And what are we going to do about that? When the next generation asks us, why didn’t you do something? Why didn’t you speak up? What are we going to say?
Mr. President, I rise today to say: enough. We must dedicate ourselves to making sure that the anomalous never becomes the normal. With respect and humility, I must say that we have fooled ourselves for long enough that a pivot to governing is right around the corner, a return to civility and stability right behind it.
Make no mistake – talented, wise legislators like Jeff Flake depart the Senate and political life because a blowhard in the White House has no sense of propriety, or empathy, or humility, and no understanding of the Constitution or the rule of law or the limits of his own authority. This bodes ill for the Republic.
As I write this, I am still shaking in anger and sadness. Edmund Burke wrote that the “only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” When sinister forces like Steve Bannon and his orange-rind puppet gleefully sideline good men like Jeff Flake, evil triumphs.
Cover photo: (left to right) J.V. LaBeaume, Rick Sincere, Sen. Jeff Flake