Jeff Flake knows how to sell a book. His new tome, Conscience of a Conservative, hit bookstores today with a vast blast of publicity emphasizing how vehemently the junior U.S. Senator from Arizona, a Republican, denounces President Trump. The title is a conscious borrowing from a declaration of principles by fellow Arizonan Barry Goldwater, Flake's model of a conscientious principled conservative. In Flake's opinion, Donald Trump is neither conscientious, principled or conservative. To an extent, this is a matter of temperament. Trump is too "inconstant, mercurial, and shallow" to be a true conservative, Flake writes, much less President of the United States. The current President's unpredictable volatility is the opposite, in Flake's view, of conservative governance. Personality aside, Trump is guilty of enticing Republicans and others with "the sugar high of populism, nativism, and demagoguery." Flake warns that “The crash from this sugar high will be particularly unpleasant.”
The senator couldn't have picked a better time for an ad hominem attack on the Trump administration, in the aftermath of the meteoric rise and fall of Anthony Scaramucci, the White House communications director for an epic eleven days, and while the President rails against his own party failing to repeal Obamacare despite its Senate majority. Unlike the senior Senator from Arizona, Flake voted for the so-called "skinny repeal" bill, but that's an increasingly rare point of agreement between him and Trump. In promoting his book, however, Flake may have overplayed his hand by describing Republican infighting as the "spasms of a dying party." It's a strange thing to say given the GOP's undefeated record in special congressional elections so far this year, but I suspect Flake means that the Republican party is turning into something he soon won't recognize, that it may soon be dead to him, rather than that the party is doomed at the polls. He fears that a GOP dominated by Trump will abandon the principles that have defined the party for the last 50 years, since Goldwater's heyday. In an MSNBC interview Flake emphasized that "protectionism and isolationism are not conservative values." That crack about isolationism is just silly, since there really is no evidence that Trump is isolationist, while Flake's claim in the interview that "The Republican party has always been a free-trade party," is an abandonment, if not a simple forgetting, of a principle that defined the Republican party when it was founded. In that respect, at least, if not also in its suspicions of immigrants, the Trump movement represents a reversion to Republican attitudes predating the Goldwater-Reagan takeover of the Grand Old Party. The death spasms Flake perceives with such anxiety may only be the last stages of a long but temporary phase of American political history. We'll probably know sooner rather than later which side of history Jeff Flake is on.