clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Sen. Jeff Flake vs. Donald Trump, explained

The Republican senator and Trump critic just announced that he’s retiring — because he was headed for defeat in his primary.

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, one of President Donald Trump’s most prominent Republican critics in the chamber, announced Tuesday that he will not run for reelection in 2018.

“There may not be a place for a Republican like me in the current Republican climate or the current Republican Party,” Flake told the Arizona Republic. “The path that I would have to travel to get the Republican nomination is a path I’m not willing to take, and that I can’t in good conscience take.”

Soon afterward, Flake delivered a speech on the Senate floor in which he criticized both Trump and members of his party overall. “Politics can make us silent when we should speak, and silence can equal complicity. I have children and grandchildren to answer to,” he said. “I will not be complicit.”

Flake’s decision to retire comes in the context of polls showing him trailing a primary challenger, Kelli Ward, by more than 20 points. In August, Trump tweeted that it was “great” that Ward was challenging Flake, calling him “toxic” and “weak.”

All this came about because, rather than staying quiet about his misgivings about Trump this year, as most other elected Republicans have, Flake decided to take him on directly. He wrote a book called Conscience of a Conservative that made waves in the political world for its lengthy, harsh critique of President Trump — and of the direction of the Republican Party more broadly.

In the book, Flake said he was deeply worried about the “nationalism,” “populism,” and “xenophobia” that he thinks have compromised conservatism. He also said he feared the “instability” of the president of the United States. Though it would have been easier for him to fall in line with his party, he wrote, “In good conscience, I could not. The stakes, for the future of conservatism and for the future of our country, are simply too high.”

Trump supporters naturally reacted with fury. “Let’s liberate Arizona from Jeff Flake in 2018,” talk radio host Laura Ingraham tweeted in August, calling him a “de facto Dem.” And former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon recently appeared at a rally promoting Flake’s opponent Ward.

Trump critics, meanwhile, have reacted with eye-rolling and skepticism of Flake. They point out that the Arizona senator has voted overwhelmingly for Trump’s appointees and his agenda, and ask what his harsh words are really worth if he won’t back them up with action. No one is pleased, and Flake’s approval rating plummeted accordingly.

But the bigger picture is that Flake’s political fate is a warning to Trump’s Republican critics — because it sends the message that going against the president increasingly seems like a sure ticket to political defeat in GOP primaries.

Who is Jeff Flake?

Washington Post/Laura Segall/Getty

Born in the small town of Snowflake, Arizona, Flake grew up in a Mormon family and lived on a cattle ranch. But the most revealing thing about him may be that when he looked for a political role model, he chose Barry Goldwater.

Goldwater, a longtime Arizona senator and the GOP’s unsuccessful 1964 presidential nominee, was a favorite of politically involved conservatives who were interested in principles and big ideas. His book The Conscience of a Conservative was a formative text of modern-day conservatism, making the case for principles of limited government, free markets, and anti-communism at a time when the ideological right had much less power in the party.

Much of Flake’s book (including the title) is a paean to Goldwater, and the young Flake in fact served as executive director of the Goldwater Institute think tank in the 1990s. That tells us a lot — unlike many of his colleagues, Flake didn’t get into politics as a next step after a law or business career. Instead, he was interested in ideas all along, and particularly drawn to movement conservatism’s ideological orthodoxy.

The ideas he initially got the most attention for after joining the House of Representatives in 2001 related to economics, as he enthusiastically sought to slash taxes and federal spending. “I believe that holding a conservative line on the growth of federal agencies, the federal budget, and the national debt is the most important part of my job,” he writes.

But after moving up to the Senate in 2013, he distinguished himself as a supporter of immigration reform including a path to legal status for millions of unauthorized immigrants, joining fellow Arizonan John McCain as part of the “Gang of Eight” that passed a bill through the Senate (but no further) that year. This put him against the tide of a party increasingly influenced by anti-immigrant passions — and starting from 2015, it put him against Donald Trump as well.

Flake’s book puts forward three distinct critiques of Trump


Flake has essentially melded together three distinct critiques of the president. He condemns his intolerance and willingness to demonize minorities. He raps him for his departures from conservative policy dogma. And he argues that Trump’s temperament itself is deeply troublesome.

1) Trump is a nativist: As an immigration reform supporter, Flake naturally objected to Trump’s anti-immigration policy positions and rhetoric. But he really objected to Trump’s campaign trail proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States. “Just when you think he can’t stoop any lower, he manages to do so,” he said in December 2015, and he opposed Trump’s actual 2017 travel ban as well.

As with many other politically involved Mormons, Flake here draws on his own experience being part of a religious minority group. “When we say ‘No Muslims’ or ‘No Mexicans,’ we may as well say ‘No Mormons.’ Because it is no different,” he writes in the book. He also warns that “extremism” akin to the old John Birch Society (the leader of which condemned civil rights legislation as an attempt to create an “independent Negro-Soviet Republic”) is “again ascendant in our ranks.” Flake argues that conservatives “must condemn it, in no uncertain terms.”

And though Goldwater, Flake’s hero, also opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for reasons of government power (“an area of rare disagreement I have with Goldwater,” Flake writes), Flake also recounts how Goldwater condemned the conspiracy theorists of the John Birch Society, saying, “We cannot allow the emblem of irresponsibility to attach to the conservative banner.”

2) Trump’s economic and foreign policies are insufficiently conservative: Here, Flake criticizes the president from the right for departing from conservative dogma. He mentions especially Trump’s skepticism of free trade (which Flake argues is clearly good policy), as well as Trump’s willingness to advocate for or intimidate specific companies.

Meanwhile, on foreign policy, Flake argues that Trump won’t clearly stand “against oppressive authoritarian regimes around the world,” and that he doesn’t care about the US’s global leadership role. Together, these deviations are so serious, he writes, that Trump’s nomination meant the GOP had “abandoned its core principles.”

3) Trump’s temperament and behavior are seriously flawed: Finally, Flake simply objects to much of Trump’s personal and political style — his overheated rhetoric against opponents, his penchant for conspiracy theories, and his “reckless” tweeting and habit of “flying off the handle.”

Indeed, Flake opens his first full chapter with a provocative analogy to Richard Nixon’s “madman theory,” in which the president deliberately and strategically tried to convince his foreign opponents that he was irrational. “Absent strategy, we are left with no theory, just the madman,” he writes.

Flake also critiques the modern Republican Party for being too negative, destructive, and partisan: Finally, beyond all this, Flake has a larger critique of the Republican Party’s trajectory over the past couple of decades. He criticizes past party leaders like Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay for engaging in the politics of destruction and “petty partisanship” rather than focusing on a constructive agenda.

He even makes a barely veiled critique of his own Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, referring to one of his most infamous statements without naming him: “It was we conservatives who, upon Obama’s election, stated that our number-one priority was not advancing a conservative policy agenda but making Barack Obama a one-term president,” Flake writes.

That’s harsh. So what is Flake doing about it?

Sen. Flake wrote this book. And he has criticized some things Trump has done, like the first travel ban and the firing of FBI Director James Comey. And he’s vowed never to vote to eliminate the legislative filibuster (something Trump has pushed for lately).

And ... well, that’s about it.

Despite holding a great deal of potential power as a member of the US Senate when Republicans have a slim majority, Flake has been hesitant to use that power to cause President Trump any problems. On all but a few Senate votes this year, he’s backed Trump’s position, and he hasn’t really tried to use his powers in more creative ways. As a result, critics like the New Republic’s Brian Beutler have dismissed Flake’s concerns as inconsequential posturing.

Yet those dismissals miss the fact that in writing this book, Flake has indisputably chosen to court a great deal of political trouble for himself and had put his renomination in 2018 at serious risk. He clearly feels strongly about the need to do something even though it’s now leading to his retirement from the Senate. The question is why he’s going about it in this particular way rather than some other one.

In my view, it’s understandable that Flake feels he’s in a bit of a bind here. He said all these criticisms of Trump during the campaign, and yet enough voters in enough Electoral College states — including the state he represents, Arizona — voted for Trump anyway.

Furthermore, as a traditional conservative, Flake actually agrees with much of Trump’s agenda. He wants people like Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court. He wants Obamacare repealed. He wants regulations to be rolled back.

With both of those considerations in mind — combined with his general disdain for the politics of obstructionism and scandal — Flake has clearly decided that some sort of campaign of all-out opposition to Trump’s agenda makes little sense. Instead, he is trying to win a contest of ideas, with his book.

Still, it is true that the book itself seems to imply more urgent and creative thinking is necessary. “To carry on in the spring of 2017 as if what was happening was anything approaching normalcy required a determined suspension of critical faculties. And tremendous powers of denial,” Flake writes. With that in mind, his relatively restrained senatorial actions do seem to have fallen short.

The big picture: Flake’s political collapse sends a chilling message to the president’s remaining GOP critics

Sens. Dean Heller (R-NV) and Flake are the two most endangered Republican Senate incumbents in 2018.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty

Though Flake’s critique of Trump hasn’t yet had much of an impact on national policy or Senate business, his admission that he was sure to lose his primary says much about whether Trump critics have a future in the Republican Party.

Because Flake wasn’t just on track for a defeat — he was on track for an overwhelming defeat. He trailed Ward by more than 20 points in two recent polls of GOP primary voters, which is a positively atrocious showing for an incumbent.

Meanwhile, polls generally indicate that Arizona GOP primary voters seem to like the president far more than they like Flake. (A PPP poll found that 65 percent of Arizona Republicans approve of Trump but a mere 22 percent approve of Flake.)

PPP / Our Lives on the Line

Oddly enough, Flake’s decision to retire may well pave the way for a more establishment-friendly GOP candidate to hold his seat. Arizona Republicans can now field another candidate who hasn’t so hurt his political image among the GOP base by criticizing the president.

Still, the complete collapse of Flake’s political career is sure to send a chilling message to other Republicans thinking about becoming prominent critics of President Trump.