This is the text of an email that I sent to the office of Jeff Flake (R.-Arizona).
Dear Mr. Flake:
On Tuesday October 24, you made a public announcement that you were not going to run for re-election to the Senate in 2018, on the same day making a speech to the Senate explaining your reasons. Among other things, you said “our democracy is more defined by our discord and our dysfunction than it is by our values and our principles… We must never regard as ‘normal’ the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals.” Without referring to Donald Trump by name, you specifically said: “Mr. President, I rise today to say: Enough. We must dedicate ourselves to making sure that the anomalous never becomes normal.” But you concluded by saying that you had to address this matter by retiring at the end of your term, because: “It is clear at this moment that a traditional conservative who believes in limited government and free markets, who is devoted to free trade, and who is pro-immigration, has a narrower and narrower path to nomination in the Republican party – the party that for so long has defined itself by belief in those things. It is also clear to me for the moment we have given in or given up on those core principles in favor of the more viscerally satisfying anger and resentment. To be clear, the anger and resentment that the people feel at the royal mess we have created are justified. But anger and resentment are not a governing philosophy.”
The reaction among Beltway liberals and even conservatives was not entirely sympathetic. Many wondered why you would refuse to fight against a system that you now consider intolerable, while others pointed out that the fact that one can only speak out by refusing to participate in it is the reason it cannot be reformed. But the general mood was one of disappointment. I have even seen one columnist (David Faris, at The Week) say that you and Bob Corker ought to defect to the Democrats if you really want to make a difference by tilting the balance. I can understand why you would dismiss such an appeal. It’s not like Democrats are doing very well on their own merits. Moreover, liberals who seriously proffer such an idea severely underestimate the cultural gap that has to be crossed, especially on issues like abortion rights. They don’t understand the level of persecution complex in conservatism, just as they overestimate their own capacity to argue in good faith. When a leftist says “be reasonable and compromise with us!” the right-winger hears “You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.”
But your party already has been assimilated, hasn’t it?
You may disagree, but I’ve thought that the pathologies behind Trump were long-developing before he decided to run for office, and that the Republican Party already was more his party than your party. They were just waiting for Trump to show up. As Jonathan Chait put it in a short but potent piece for New York Magazine, http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/10/jeff-flakes-rousing-speech-illustrates-trumps-hold-on-gop.html “The conservative identity of the modern party is a function of elites harnessing ethno-nationalist resentment, and using it to advance a policy agenda favored by conservative elites. At times they have succeeded (a series of tax cuts) and at times they have failed (attempting to privatize Social Security and reform immigration). But they largely declined to question the underlying cast of their party and their method of using one kind of political appeal to harvest votes, and using the power acquired thereby on another kind of policy altogether. Trump stole their base from them fair and square by appealing directly to what they wanted. ”
If you believe that anger and resentment are not a governing philosophy, and if you also believe that it is now prohibitively difficult for a Republican like you to succeed in the Republican Party, then you must realize that there is no longer a party there worth supporting. At the same time you want to have genuine political competition, which cannot happen by defecting to the Democrats. But what is really necessary is to realize that this is not a matter of “waiting for the fever to break.” It is not a matter of waiting until Trump is not president anymore and assuming things will get back to normal. Things will not get back to normal. Because “normal” was a dysfunctional political system that was not serving the voters, and that is why they ended it.
For one thing, you have to ask yourself how much of your opposition to Trump is based on his policies (whatever they are, I don’t know) and how much is based on who he is. Put another way, would you still support the same agenda in the Senate if the president were, say, Ted Cruz or any other Republican? And then ask: Would the people who voted for Trump support your party’s legislative agenda if any other Republican were president?
I suspect the answers to these questions are Yes and No, in that order.
And that is why you did not call on Republicans to vote for Evan McMullin or Gary Johnson when you had the chance, it is why you did not make your decision until now, and it is why your fellow Republicans have yet to muster even that much courage.
Because you – and in the broad view, when I say “you” I mean the Republican Party collectively more than you, Mr. Flake – have operated on the same bait-and-switch that Mr. Chait implied in his piece, where the donor class that funds your campaigns wanted one thing and the people that actually vote wanted another and you were trying to split the difference and hope neither of them noticed. The result is that while you may think the Republican Party represented free trade, immigration reform, and small government, its voters wanted a Big Government that looked out for their demographic. Even now, the two factions are lying to each other, and lying to themselves. Steve Bannon, Trump’s “populist” idea man, is currently planning to take the scalp of every incumbent Republican Senator except Ted Cruz. Why? Because he, like Bannon and Trump, supports and is supported by the Mercer family. (Just as Bannon, Cruz and Trump are all connected to Goldman Sachs.) The people who claim they are going to “drain the swamp” are just as much a part of it as all the others.
Senator Flake, you correctly decided that the only way to win this game was not to play it. But that isn’t enough. Because walking away is not going to improve the system in the long run. In the short run it means that the forces currently in control will be able to replace you with someone more to their liking.
Returning to Chait’s column: “In his dramatic resignation speech on the Senate floor, Flake holds up as the solution the separation of powers created in 1789:
I stand to say that we would better serve the country and better fulfill our obligations under the constitution by adhering to our Article 1 “old normal” — Mr. Madison’s doctrine of the separation of powers. This genius innovation which affirms Madison’s status as a true visionary and for which Madison argued in Federalist 51 — held that the equal branches of our government would balance and counteract each other when necessary. “Ambition counteracts ambition,” he wrote
“Whatever its other successes, this aspect of the Constitution’s design is proving a failure. Ambition is not counteracting ambition. Members of the Legislative branch are able to oppose Trump only if they surrender their ambition. The Constitution did not anticipate the role that would be played by political parties, which has created a reality in which the Legislative and Executive branches are either set in implacable opposition to each other (if under split control or in which the former is a tool of the latter (if under unified control). ”
This is an issue with the system regardless of who the president is. It was a problem with the Democrats under Barack Obama and especially under Bill Clinton. But until now it was not a national security issue.
Donald Trump did basically the same thing as Bernie Sanders, running for the nomination of a major party that he never really belonged to and had never served in office under, because that would have been easier to run for the general election than as an independent. But in Trump’s case, it was also because he knew that an effective sub-branch of government would have no choice but to do what he says. There are reasons why Sanders failed and Trump succeeded, but mostly because the two parties were not in the same situation. The Democrats had a popular incumbent president who (along with senior leadership) decided it was Hillary Clinton’s “turn” after agreeing to support his nomination in 2008. Thus the party put its thumb on the scales during primary season. Moreover, Sanders really didn’t have much of a support base in the South, where he really needed to pick up votes. Whereas not only did Trump appeal to Republicans who felt like they weren’t being listened to before, the Republican leadership was so desperate for power after eight years out of the White House that they would say anything, promise anything and break any other promise to follow somebody who looked like a winner. And so, they did. And they, and you, continued to support him no matter what shameful thing he did, because to you the shame was worth political power. And because doing otherwise would have let the Democrats win.
And so your party continues to support Donald Trump, who is doing that much more than the Democrats to undermine traditional morality and the institutions of government, precisely because you are enabling him to do so.
The party system has become like a cancer on the body politic, and like a cancer, it turns the healthy processes of a body against itself in order to grow.
It cannot be allowed to continue this way. But it will do so unless it is stopped. And you are one of the few people who is in position to do something about it.
My suggestion: change your party registration and run for re-election under the Libertarian Party.
Republican voters are all angry at the leadership, but whereas the Trump fans were mad at them for not making the country a police state, the rest of us were angry at them for going too far in that direction. Your party leadership blew us off because compared to the amount of nativists out there, you decided there weren’t enough of us. But the nativists are all with Trump now. So we’re going to have to be enough.
Your base will have to be the people who have no base. The rest of us. The people who, like you, saw what was happening to the political system and decided we wanted no part of it.
Would running as a Libertarian spoil the next Senate election? The question is, spoil it compared to what? That is a choice every potential candidate has to make if for one reason or another they can’t get a major party nomination. As journalists have pointed out, both Lisa Murkowski (a Republican primaried by the Tea Partiers) and Joe Lieberman (a Democrat primaried for not being left-wing enough) did end up making independent runs and winning re-election without a party. You already are facing the choice of a party that betrays your principles versus a party that always opposed your principles. There would have been some measure of grief if you had acted on principle earlier, but not nearly as much as the amount you have to face now that you’ve painted yourself into a corner.
Doesn’t running as a Libertarian mean abandoning conservative principles? What principles are those, or rather, what principles do conservatives still have in practice? Are you worried that you would have to give up being anti-abortion? The Libertarian Party is not as specific on the issue as the Democratic Party. The party platform (at lp.org) says: “Recognizing that abortion is a sensitive issue and that people can hold good-faith views on all sides, we believe that government should be kept out of the matter, leaving the question to each person for their conscientious consideration.” In any case, weighing the unknown number of potential unborn versus the thousands upon millions of people in Korea, Japan and the United States being endangered by Donald Trump’s vanity, the matter of being “pro-life” is a simple question of priorities.
But you said you didn’t want to go through the stresses of running a campaign. Well, that’s the beautiful part. If you’re running as a Libertarian, you won’t have to run all across the country, hat in hand, schlepping for campaign contributions. Because you won’t get any. Certainly not from the Koch Brothers, who are often cited as founders of the Libertarian Party but are not helping them now. It’s almost as if, contrary to liberal propaganda, corporate billionaires want a regulatory state, as long as they can control it. So don’t even bother. Just do your job like you’re doing now. In fact, you’ll have just as much chance of getting elected as a third-party candidate as you will by taking your current choice of action and not running at all.
What you will have is something no other third-party candidate has, and that is the advantage of incumbency. That in turn means you can use the media exposure you already have to promote a new concept of politics, that holds freedom of trade, freedom of movement and freedom of conscience as primary values, that holds the Constitution as the law of the land, not the whims of the political class. That is what you and a few other Republicans like Rand Paul have always said you believed in, but perhaps if you had gotten that across with your legislation, you might not be in this dilemma now.
If you don’t want to do this, that’s okay, but if you are remaining in the Republican Party for the duration of your term and thereafter, that means you are going to have to answer some questions when, not if, they come up. Like, if “Chemtrail” Kelli Ward is nominated to take your seat, will you endorse her, for the sake of party? Or will you say that there are bigger issues than party? If you don’t run as a Libertarian, if you don’t at least try to get out of the trap, then you’re in the same situation you are now: wait until the primary and watch a Trump sycophant take your nomination or wait until next November and watch a Democrat take the seat. Quite likely both. At least this way you can try to change the terms of debate, and that is the only way anything can start to improve.
Because like I said, Mr. Flake, some of us already made your decision some time ago. We did not know exactly how the crisis would manifest, but we knew something was coming, based on the decisions that Republicans were making, and we knew that the system they created could not last. As you came to realize this week.
As they used to say on the Left: If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.
P.S.: The response I got from the Senator’s email was: “Thank you for contacting me. Because of the overwhelming number of e-mails I receive every day, I can only respond to residents of the State of Arizona.”