Interview with the former Republican senator from Arizona who left to avoid having to defend Trump and warned his party of the consequences of the ‘Faustian pact’ with the president
This interview is part of a series of talks with leading intellectuals, editors, activists, economists and politicians who help to describe the state of affairs before the elections. You can read the other deliveries here.
Jeff Flake He is a right-wing man. Very right wing. And he’s going to vote for Democrat Joe Biden in this November’s US election. Flake has been linked to the Arizona Republican Party his entire life. He was director of the think tank Barry Goldwater Institute, one of the most influential names in the history of American conservatism, later was a congressman (2001-2013) and finally a senator (2013-2019). He grew up politically with his mentor, Senator John McCain. Until four years ago, his political life was destroyed with the appearance of Donald Trump.
Flake and McCain, two Republicans who considered talking to their opponents part of their job, endured Trump’s scorn for months and watched the businessman ignite the party’s most virulent ranks. In the summer of 2017, Flake published a secretly written book titled The conscience of a conservative: a rejection of destructive politics and a return to principles. In it he denounced the “Faustian pact” between Trump and the Republicans, willing to justify the destruction of political norms in the US in exchange for votes.
Finally on October 24, 2017, Flake took the floor in the Senate to announce that he would not run for reelection in November 2018. It was practically certain that a Trump player would run against him in the primary in Arizona and win. Flake (Snowflake, Arizona, age 57), said goodbye to politics with an emotional speech in which he said: “Mr. President, today I stand up to say enough.” Addressing his own party, he denounced their “complicity in this alarming and dangerous state of affairs.” “I have children and grandchildren to answer to, Mr. President, and therefore I will not be an accomplice.”
Question. Let’s start with the basics. What is it to be an American Conservative?
Answer. Wow, that’s hard to answer these days. I think the definition has changed for a lot of people. Traditionally, or at least contemporary conservatism, it consists of believing in small government, economic freedom, free trade, and strong US leadership in the world. But it’s turning out to be something else entirely for many Republicans.
P. Do you think a majority of the Republican Party shares that vision?
R. No. I don’t think what we’ve seen in these years is conservative politics at all. It cannot be applied, of course, in the aspect of reduced government, when you have a deficit of three trillion dollars, and that before the coronavirus. As for economic freedom, handing out subsidies instead of allowing farmers and others to have free trade relationships, I don’t think it’s conservative. Free trade has been a pillar of the Republican Party, but this Administration is protectionist. And aside, conservatives, at least those of the Edmund Burke school, believe in preserving the institutions that work and in being an example of prudence and sobriety. The separation of powers, freedom of the press, the independence of the judiciary, are conservative institutions that must be protected. This president has gone in the opposite direction.
P. Is there a moral or religious aspect to being a conservative?
R. Yes, I think there is. Particularly in the Burkian style I mentioned. There is it in prudence, temperance and the belief that our rights come from God and that there is a way to live a moral life. That is difficult to square with… we are justifying many things about our president in exchange for rhetoric that can be pro-life (anti-abortion) or respect for a religion that is that of the majority of Americans. But he is not in favor of religious freedom, which is a conservative principle. When you veto Muslims, it is difficult to claim that you stand for religious freedom.
P. Were there notices in the Republican Party before Trump? Do you think they ignored some signs that something was up?
R. Yes I believe it. It touched me closely. I was a member of group of eight that we negotiated the immigration law (in 2013) and pushed to pass it in the Senate. We are negotiating with Paul Ryan and others in the House of Representatives to move it forward. And suddenly, Eric Cantor (Republican leader in the House) lost his primaries in a totally unexpected way. That was a sign that something was going on. That was attributed to the Tea Party. In any case, it was a sign that we had to have faced this a little earlier. I don’t know if we could have stopped it, or what we could have done, but by then it was well advanced.