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The real reason Sen. Jeff Flake’s anti-Trump book is so important

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.
Bill Clark | CQ Roll Call | Getty Images
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.

Senator Jeff Flake is worried.

The Republican from Arizona is worried abut the "nationalism," "populism," and "xenophobia" that he thinks have compromised conservatism. He's worried about the "instability" of the president of the United States. And he thinks that because of conspiracy theories and fake news, the political system faces a "crisis with the truth itself."

Flake argues these points in his new book Conscience of a Conservative, which is making waves in the political world for its lengthy, harsh critique of President Trump — and of the direction of the Republican Party more broadly.

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Though it was common for elected Republicans — Flake among them — to loudly criticize Trump during the campaign, there's been far less of this during his presidency. Some in the GOP clearly think their party's political fortunes are yoked to Trump. Some have tempered their critiques in hopes of achieving policy accomplishments. Some just fear earning the ire of their Trump-loving base voters.

If Flake has any of these misgivings, he's overcome them. Instead, he's deliberately sought to define himself as a Republican Trump critic in a very high-profile way. Though it would have been easier for him to fall in line with his party, he writes, "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 have reacted with fury. "Let's liberate Arizona from Jeff Flake in 2018," talk radio host

, calling him a "de facto Dem." And the White House has recently met with several declared or potential primary challengers to Flake, according to Politico's Alex Isenstadt.

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 has plummeted.

Overall, while Flake's critiques have had little impact on national policy so far, his idiosyncrasies could still have national implications. In part, that's because he's one of just a few vulnerable Senate Republicans up for reelection in 2018 as the GOP tries to hold on to a narrow majority in the chamber.

But more broadly, and regardless of whether you're impressed by his actions or not, Flake's political fate matters because it could determine whether Republican Trump critics have a future in the GOP — or whether going against the president increasingly seems a sure ticket to political defeat.

Who is Jeff Flake?

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 opposedTrump'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 racist John Birch Society "is again ascendant in our ranks," and says "we must condemn it, in no uncertain terms."

And though Goldwater, Flake's hero, famously opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("an area of rare disagreement I have with Goldwater," Flake writes), Flake also recounts how Goldwater condemned the racist 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

. 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 put his renomination in 2018 at serious risk. Flake clearly feels strongly about the need to do something even though it might end his career. 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: If successful, Trump fans' effort to oust Flake could send a chilling message to the president's remaining GOP critics

Though Flake's critique of Trump hasn't yet had much of an impact on national policy or Senate business, his political fortunes could prove extremely significant in determining the balance of power in the Senate — and whether Trump critics have a future in the Republican Party.

Currently, though Republicans hold a mere 52 seats in the Senate, it looks like it will be tremendously difficult for Democrats to actually retake the chamber in 2018. That's because a mere eight Republicans will be on the ballot next year, compared to 25 Democrats (including 10 in states Trump won).

Still, as we saw in the health care fight, the specific size of the Republican majority and the idiosyncrasies of the particular members in that majority can prove enormously important. The GOP bill failed by just one vote, cast because John McCain had gripes with the process. If McCain weren't in the Senate or Republicans had one more seat, it could well have passed.

The most obvious pickup opportunity for Democrats has long been Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV), since he's representing a state Clinton won. Then, it would seem, Flake is the next best option, since the other Republicans on the ballot are in deep red states, and Trump won a surprisingly small 3.5-point victory in increasingly diverse Arizona in 2016.

Still, national Democrats haven't yet managed to entice a candidate who would traditionally be judged as top-tier, like a member of Congress or a well-known statewide figure, into the Arizona race. Flake has drawn a handful of challengers, like attorney and activist Deedra Abboud, but they are mostly unknown in the state and untested politically.

Yet Flake is now looking increasingly embattled. A Public Policy Polling survey of Arizona voters conducted for a liberal advocacy group found that his approval was a dreadful 18 percent. If other polls find numbers anything like that, Democrats will have a much better chance of landing a strong challenger.

And Flake may face his own problems getting through his primary first. Because while his state is transitioning from a red state to a purple one for the general election, Arizona GOP primary voters seem to like the president far more than they like Jeff Flake. (The PPP poll found that 65 percent of Arizona Republicans approve of Trump, but a mere 22 percent approve of Flake.)

Flake's book will surely be exhibit A in any primary challenge. Kelli Ward, a former GOP state senator who unsuccessfully challenged John McCain in a primary in 2016, is already running against Flake on a pro-Trump platform. And other pro-Trump Republicans in the state, like former state party chair Robert Graham and Treasurer Jeff DeWit, are reportedly also considering running.

The White House, too, is reportedly musing about taking on Flake more directly. Administration officials have reportedly met with Ward, Graham, and DeWit in recent weeks, as Politico's Alex Isenstadt reported. "I'm not sure about any potential funding of a campaign," White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders recently said. "But I think that Sen. Flake would serve his constituents much better if he was less focused on writing a book and attacking the president, and [instead on] passing legislation."

If Flake does survive his primary, he will have proven that a conservative can be a harsh critic of President Trump and remain a force in elected politics. Conversely, if he goes down to defeat, his fate could well make other Republicans even more hesitant to criticize Trump than they already are.

So despite Flake's hesitance to take action in the Senate, he truly is waging a fight for the future of the Republican Party — one he may well lose.