It’s been hard to miss Jeff Flake lately.
Not as hard to miss as Donald Trump, especially when he likens Confederate leaders to George Washington, but hard.
If you’ve somehow missed it, let’s review: Flake, a conservative Republican U.S. senator from Arizona, wrote a book in secret, keeping it from even his staff, knowing it would be colossally controversial.
In it, he excoriates Trump as antithetical to what genuine conservatives such as Flake hold dear. He alleges that the GOP made a “Faustian bargain” with a demagogue who lured Republicans, lustful for power, into forgetting their commitment to fighting tyrants and to free trade, individual freedoms and moral leadership.
Intrigued, I read Flake’s book, titled “Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle.” While I cheered the criticism of Trump, it struck me as naïve to believe that it would gain traction within his party.
His narrative certainly mesmerized the mainstream press. The flurry of stories and columns was a bit like the admiring but fleeting spotlight on John McCain, Flake’s cancer-afflicted colleague from Arizona, when McCain gave the thumbs down — literally — to GOP efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Flake was not just in national newspapers; every magazine I picked up seemed to have something on his book.
“Why he’s crashing his own party,” read the introduction in Time. “A Republican senator revolts,” read The Economist headline, with a cartoon of Flake yanking the tail of an elephant holding a Trump sign with its trunk. “The gentleman from Arizona,” read the headline in The Atlantic, the subhead asking: “Can a nice guy like Jeff Flake defend basic decency?” A “flame-throwing polemic,” opined a Washington Post columnist.
Flake may have been the media flavor of the month, but apparently he is in deep trouble back home, where he faces re-election next year against an unforgiving and extreme Republican base.
Trump, who takes criticism worse than any human being on the planet, has said he would donate $10 million of his own money to defeat Flake. I saw one of his primary challengers on television saying she is running because Arizona lacks a “conservative” senator, because she apparently believes McCain and Flake are feckless moderates.
Most of the publicity about Flake’s book preceded the violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, but this week’s spectacle of an unhinged Trump reinforced Flake’s assertion that the GOP has sold its soul for a Supreme Court seat and the hope for lower taxes.
In the wake of Charlottesville, congressional Republicans have sprinted away from their magnificently unpopular president. “My goodness,” they seemed to say in unison, “my Republican party would never do such a thing; we would never embrace all of these haters and thugs.”
In reality though, Republicans have been acting to enable Charlottesville — and maybe future Charlottesvilles — for more than half a century. On race, Trump has simply dispensed with the old dog whistles and grabbed a bullhorn.
Back in the 1980s, the television producer Norman Lear founded a progressive advocacy group to fight the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority.” In a recent fundraising letter, Lear said that Ronald Reagan was swept into the presidency with Falwell’s help and that led indirectly to Trump.
But I’d argue the roots of Trump can be traced back further, to a politician Flake described as his boyhood hero: Barry Goldwater.
In 1964, Goldwater, who was also a Republican senator from Arizona, led a populist presidential primary campaign against eastern GOP moderates. Goldwater’s backers considered Dwight Eisenhower — the two-term GOP president, World War II commander and hero of D-Day — to be kind of a wishy-washy wimp, I gather.
While Goldwater was ultimately thrashed in the general election by Democrat Lyndon Johnson, those were the first baby steps on a path that eventually brought us to the tea party, Trump and the spectacle of Charlottesville.
Not buying it?
In 1964, Goldwater voted against the Civil Rights Act, citing states’ rights. “The structure of the federal system, with its 50 separate state units, has long permitted this nation to nourish local differences, even local cultures,” Goldwater said. (If that local “culture” embraces racial suppression, so be it, he seemed to say.)
John Dickerson, the CBS journalist, wrote in “Whistlestop,” his book about presidential campaigns, that Goldwater in 1964 “was courting not just Southern whites but whites in the North and the Midwest who were worried about the speed of change in America and competition from newly empowered blacks.”
Those Goldwater backers of 1964 sound a lot like the Trump “Make America Great Again” base of today — angry, aggrieved and white.
Richard Nixon attended that 1964 GOP convention, according to Dickerson, and later employed its lessons to win two presidential elections. Nixon noted that Goldwater had created a populist uprising that the mainstream GOP wanted to stop. Nixon saw a powerful negative energy he could exploit. And exploit it he did, through his appeal to the “silent majority.”
Dog whistles through the years were many. The affable Reagan announced his presidential candidacy near the site where civil rights workers had been murdered in Mississippi and talked about an imaginary welfare queen. George H.W. Bush was happy to leverage the racially changed Willie Horton campaign ad to stir white fears.
But back to Flake.
Midway through his book, he writes this about his hero, presumably with a straight face: “I do not believe … that Goldwater was opposed to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 out of hostility toward civil rights. I believe he was opposed to the law because he thought enacting such a policy wasn’t the proper role of government and other social forces — the ‘society,’ independent of the government — would have eventually solved the manifold problems of racial discrimination.”
With the benefit of “historical hindsight,” Flake writes that this is an area of “rare disagreement” with Goldwater, and he acknowledges that “government itself was an active agent of repression.”
No wonder Flake is under fire in today’s GOP. Government-led voter suppression and racial gerrymandering are essential to the party’s contemporary toolbox, so calling it out — even in the historical past — is nothing short of blasphemous.
Too many Republicans still seem willing to hold their noses and abide racial bigotry, not wanting to offend a vital subset of their winning coalition.
That subset was on full display in Charlottesville, but it has been quietly nurtured by the so-called “party of Lincoln” for decades.
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