There are two things that Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona wants the reader to take away from his new book Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle. The first is that President Donald Trump is a singular threat to democracy, conservatism, and America, and that the Republican Party, after decades of drift, abetted his rise out of a mix of cynicism and cowardice. The second is that he really did not want to write this book.
“I will start by saying that I regret having to write this book,” reads the book’s first sentence. “I regret it because its necessity is a sign that the American conservative movement, which has been a force for great good to our country and to the world, is lost.” Writing to imagined conservative critics—who will no doubt be real enough, soon enough—he concludes defensively: “This is not an act of apostasy. This is an act of fidelity.”
Flake’s Cincinnatus shtick is a clever, if transparent, rhetorical trick. Publishing an attack on one’s own party called Conscience of a Conservative—taken from Barry Goldwater’s seminal manifesto of mid-century conservatism—could seem like grandstanding. This makes dialing up the humility quotient to eleven a necessity. But this tension reflects what is wrong with Flake’s book, which sacrifices an actual philosophy of conservatism for a sentimental and often disingenuous plea to make America decent again.
Conscience of a Conservative was written in secret. Until late last week it was kept under wraps by Flake’s publisher, Random House, because Flake wanted to guarantee that no one would try to talk him out of it as he heads into what is expected to be a tough re-election fight in 2018. “I have good people around me who are committed to principle,” Flake told NPR, “but the political world will tell you keep quiet, don’t take a risk, and I thought that it was important to stand up when I had something to risk. I think it means more at that point.”
At its best, Conscience of a Conservative is both solemn and fiery, an excoriation of Flake’s own party and president. He describes his party’s embrace of Trump as a “Faustian bargain” that “wasn’t worth it,” because Republicans deluded themselves about Trump’s true nature. “We pretended that the emperor wasn’t naked,” he writes. “Even worse: We checked our critical faculties at the door and pretended that the emperor was making sense.” He presses his colleagues to call out Trump’s various attacks on conservatism, democracy, and reason. In this respect, Conscience of a Conservative may be the most clear-eyed and righteous takedown of Donald Trump from a Republican in office.
But what the reader may not know about Jeff Flake, and which he certainly doesn’t reveal in his short book, is that he has voted with Donald Trump 95 percent of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight. Last Friday, at one o’clock in the morning, he even ambled over to his colleague from Arizona, John McCain, and unsuccessfully lobbied him to vote yes on a so-called “skinny bill” to repeal Obamacare—a vote that would not only have cost millions their health insurance, but would also have been an endorsement of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s debasement of Senate procedures and norms. Earlier that week, echoing some of the themes in Flake’s book, McCain had castigated Republicans for blindly following Trump’s orders. “Whether or not we are of the same party, we are not the president’s subordinates,” he said. “We are his equal!” McCain ended up voting no. Flake voted yes.
The health care effort captures in extreme form everything that’s wrong with the Republican Party in the Trump era, and Flake is simply unable to square this circle. Flake delivered his book in June, before the health care vote, but the dissonance is inescapable, especially given the scope of Flake’s attack.
This is underscored by what the book lacks. Conscience of a Conservative is not a work of political philosophy, at least not in any traditional sense. “We must return to the conservatism of our best traditions as if for the first time,” he writes. “If this is a call for a new conservatism—and it is—then it is just as well a call for the old conservatism.” If that sounds like it doesn’t mean anything, that’s because it doesn’t. Instead, Flake’s conservatism is mostly a mix of worn cliches about self-reliance (learned, as they so often are, on a rugged Arizona ranch) and freedom.
In terms of policies, Flake is an unrepentant free trader and globalist. He is a pro-immigration Republican who is disquieted by his party’s embrace of racism, which he seems to think is a recent phenomenon. He is what you would call a Jeb Bush Republican, which is probably the loneliest thing there is to be.
Conscience of a Conservative is understandably consumed by recent history, particularly the 2016 campaign. Flake attacks the rise of “fake news” stories, like Pizzagate, which resulted in a shooter opening fire on a pizzeria that conservative media had claimed was operating a child sex ring. He criticizes the conservative movement’s embrace of fake news and other conspiracy theories that are red meat for a ravenous base. But confusingly, he presents anti-Hillary Clinton fake news stories as a distraction from “real” scandals like Benghazi, conveniently ignoring the fact that Benghazi, not Pizzagate, is the best example of the ways that conservative media and Republicans exploit fear and tragedy for their own benefit.
He really hates Newt Gingrich—and, to a lesser extent, his successors Tom DeLay and Dennis Hastert—for ramping up both grievance politics and swamp-like corruption. Gingrich, described as a “character with extraordinary talents for self-promotion,” is singled out repeatedly as both a catalyst of the Republican Party’s wayward drift and as a kind of proto-Trump. Meanwhile, Trump’s team is derided as nihilistic, conspiracy-obsessed, and conservative-free, a hub for “ethno-nationalists and moderates related to the president.”
But we already know all this. The question is, what to do about it? Flake is very clear about what Trump should do, which is more or less the exact opposite of what he has done: Embrace free trade, stop lying about 4 percent economic growth, cease antagonizing allies and praising dictators, trust American intelligence agencies, don’t incite hate against ethnic and religious minorities, let go of the whole “voter fraud” thing.
But he’s not as clear about what conservatives should do. He says they should return to “conservative values,” but those are only hazily defined. Mostly he seems to want Republicans to continue to demand entitlement cuts, but to do so without being racist. His advice for Congress is that it should work together more, return to “regular order,” and, most importantly, play nice. There is no serious diagnosis of the historical trends that led to the Republican Party becoming a vehicle for corporate libertarian extremists like the Koch Brothers.
And what about Jeff Flake himself? He gets why his colleagues can’t see the truth that is right in front of their nose. Orwell was right—it’s hard to do. Republicans are too consumed with electoral politics and the various soul-destroying bargains they have made with the White House, donors, and conservative media to call out the assault on democracy that they’ve helped abet. But Flake is an integral part of the problem he’s describing. He knows what’s happening—he wrote a book about it!—and yet in Congress he has stayed in line. One can’t help but wonder if Flake’s time would have been better spent lobbying his fellow conservatives in Congress than writing this book.
Conscience of a Conservative is a lucid look at what ails the Republican Party. That it comes from a Republican gives it credibility, and that Flake mostly steers clear of attacking Democrats and liberals adds even more points. And yet, for all that’s laudable about Conscience of a Conservative—and there’s more than I expected there to be—this is not the bravest or most effective way of getting at the problem. McCain sabotaged Obamacare repeal in a self-indulgent and theatrical way, but he did ultimately take a stand against both the president and Mitch McConnell. Flake attacks Trump as a false prophet, a huckster, and a demagogue, but has done little to check his power in any way. Flake also sits on the Judiciary Committee, which among other things is investigating the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, and yet has not used his perch to conduct any meaningful oversight of the president.
Conscience of a Conservative might end up being a wake-up call for conservatives. But we have had plenty of such calls over the past two years, from the likes of Mitt Romney and John Kasich and Evan McMullin. As far as words go, Conscience of a Conservative is as good a takedown of Donald Trump as has been written by a conservative. But words aren’t what matter now.