We Read Jeff Flake's New Book So That You Don't Have To

Wikimedia Commons; Random House
Jeff Flake, Arizona's beleaguered junior senator, has a new book out today.

Titled Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle, it's thankfully only 140 pages long. (A brief excerpt, titled, "My Party Is In Denial About Donald Trump," can be found on Politico.)

But, like most political manifestos, it's often dry and dense, particularly when he veers off into a hagiography of conservative thinkers like Friedrich Hayek.

Also, it costs $27, or $12.99 on Kindle.

So we figured we'd do you a favor and read it for you. Here are the main takeaways:

1. Flake is extremely conscious of the need to appeal to Latino voters.

"Every four years in this country, the electorate gets about two percentage points less white," he writes. "As an increasingly old and increasingly white party, we are skidding with each passing election toward irrelevance in terms of appealing to a broad electorate."

Flake is highly critical of nativism; he categorizes the demonization of minority communities in order to appeal to angry white voters as "the spasms of a dying party." That impulse, he later notes, "is always destructive, always comes with a cost, and never ends well."

He also makes a pragmatic argument for immigration reform, writing that his upbringing on a cattle ranch in rural Arizona helped him to realize "how indispensable [immigrants] are to making things work in America."

During the 1970s and the 1980s, he recalls, his family farm employed undocumented migrant workers, which wasn't illegal at the time. It was, however, illegal for those workers to be in the country, so Border Patrol would conduct periodic raids, sending small planes to search the family's alfalfa fields for migrants.

"When I would hear the distinctive whine of a Cessna, I'd hop on a horse, put on a hat that would obscure my head, and try to divert the Border Patrol away from our workers — a decoy in a game of cat and mouse," he writes, explaining that the shortage of workers after a raid made his life "far more difficult during the middle of summer."

Flake largely ignores the humanitarian crisis that's currently driving Mexican and Central American migrants to risk their lives crossing the border so that they can seek asylum — instead, he's focused on people who come to America to work for short periods of time so that they can send money home.

"I have always said that I could never look at these migrants and consider them criminals," he concludes. "They were working to feed their families and we could simply could not have gotten along without them."
2. He wants to be just like Barry Goldwater when he grows up (except for that whole voting-against-civil-rights thing.)

At various points, Goldwater is described as "prophetic and timeless" and "a towering figure from Arizona." Flake writes that the former senator displayed "fierce independence and visionary leadership," and fought for "the soul of our country."

And Flake makes it clear that his book is intended as a homage to Goldwater, down to the title, which is borrowed from Goldwater's 1964 manifesto, The Conscience of a Conservative.

"I often wonder what Barry Goldwater would make of the current state of his party and of American politics more generally," he muses. "I am confident that he would not be pleased or amused."

A whole chapter titled "What Would Goldwater Do?" (yes, really) highlights the many ways in which the Trump administration has diverged from Goldwater's brand of traditional conservatism.

Sample question: "Is it conservative to heap praise on dictators and to speak fondly of countries that crush dissent and murder political opponents, and muse that the Chinese massacre of students at Tiananmen Square 'shows you the power of strength?'"

Flake later goes on to defend Goldwater's vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, explaining that he doesn't believe that Goldwater was genuinely hostile to the idea of ending racial discrimination.

"I believe he was opposed to the law because he thought that enacting such a policy wasn't a proper role of government and that economic and social forces — the 'society,' independent of the government — would have eventually solved the manifold problems of racial discrimination," he argues.

However, Flake also acknowledges, "this is an area of rare disagreement I have with Goldwater."

He goes on to explain that the government had been "an active agent of repression" for most of the century after the Civil War, and concludes that "it was a fit role of government to provide relief from an undeniably unjust situation."
3. He sees Trump's Muslim ban as an attack on religious freedom.

Flake cites his own Mormon faith when explaining his opposition to the ban, detailing how, in the 1800s, Missouri's governor signed an extermination order, calling for all Mormons to be removed from the state.

Mormons, he writes, "have had foundational and horrifying experience with some of these worst impulses of mankind and became both refugees and immigrants in our own land. And so when someone starts talking of religious tests and religious bans, we know better. Because we have seen this all before."

Later on, he points out the some of the logical failings of the ban, such as the fact that it "would give the jihadis precisely the struggle they want."

But his argument here is fundamentally a philosophical one: "When we say 'No Muslims' or 'No Mexicans,' we may as well say 'No Mormons,'" he writes. "That kind of talk is a dagger in the heart of Mormons. It is a dagger in my heart. Because we know firsthand that America was not made great by giving in to these impulses but by fighting them, and defeating them."

In the book's second chapter, Flake tells a story about how two surgeons, born in Palestine and Afghanistan, saved his father-in-law's life, before going on to critique Trump's attitude towards refugees from majority-Muslim countries. "Neither of these men started out life as 'high-value migrants,'" he notes. "Neither would likely have become who he became had he not made it to America."

Once again, the stereotype of the hard-working (and therefore deserving) immigrant makes an appearance. Flake points out that "it is difficult to find successful tech firms in Silicon Valley that don't have Iranian Americans in positions of influence [...] But it's not just Silicon Valley — by any metric, Iranians in America, many of them having fled Khomeini's revolution, have become successful, and become American."

It's a rare admission for a Republican politician, yet not exactly the thundering declaration of fundamental human rights that many liberals would want. Which brings us to the next point ...
4. He's not a liberal.

Much has been made of the fact that, for all his criticism of Trump, Flake has voted in line with the president's position 95.5 percent of the time.

This somewhat misses the point. Flake is a Republican, and his votes mirror the principles that he's held all along. (See for instance: his recent vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act.)

By criticizing Trump, Flake is saying a lot of things that Democrats want to hear. He's just not voting the way they want him to vote. And he's not going to.

Throughout the book, Flake makes it clear that he's a believer in small government who dislikes "the welfare state." He's silent on the administration's attacks on women's rights and LGBTQ rights, which isn't surprising when you consider that he's pro-life and voted against gay marriage.

Flake criticizes the party for its nativism, sure, and he has a lot to say about Trump's hostility towards trade deals. But other than that, his critique of the Republican party in its current incarnation has less to do with its policies, and more to do with its slide towards authoritarianism and tendency to peddle conspiracy theories.

His critique of Trump's inflammatory rhetoric, like McCain's recent call for bipartisanship and civility, is grounded in the belief that you should act like a gentleman and show proper decorum while you're screwing over poor people. A recent viral Twitter joke summed it up perfectly:

All that being said, Flake's choice to write this manifesto does bring up an entirely valid question — what exactly does he plan on doing to push back against Trump, and the current direction of the Republican party? 5. Flake is worried about the future of American democracy, but doesn't suggest a way to save it.

Flake is scathing when it comes to the Republican party's "traffic in outlandish conspiracy theories" and "embrace of 'alternative facts.'" He criticizes Fox News for its role in promoting birtherism, and describes Alex Jones as "one of the most egregious polluters of civil discourse in America"

Pizzagate, likewise, is cited an example of the "outrageous alternate reality" emerging from "feverish chat rooms of the most conspiratorial websites on the Internet."

This willingness to ignore basic reality has serious consequences, he warns:

"Enduring democracies depend on the acceptance of shared facts, facts such as as: certified elections are valid, millions of votes were not illegally cast in the 2016 election, vaccinations don't cause autism, and two Hawaiian newspapers announcing the birth of Barack Obama more than fifty years ago probably means that Obama was born in Hawaii."

And he's also critical of the newfound tendency among Republicans, chiefly Donald Trump, to label anything that reflects negatively on them as "fake news."

"As conservatives, we believe in the marketplace," he chides. "If we aren't confident enough to take our ideas to the people and confident enough that they'll be heard, especially given the political hegemony that we currently enjoy, then I am not sure that we deserve that hegemony."

Toward the end of the book, Flake writes, "As we in America contemplate the hard-won conventions and norms of democracy, trust me when I tell you that we realize that none of this is permanent and that it must be fought for constantly."

It's not clear who the "we" here is. U.S. Senators? A handful of Republicans? The American people, generally?

And it's also not clear what he wants to see happen. The book doesn't end with a multi-step plan to return the Republican party to its roots, or any call to action.

Flake's willingness to criticize Trump is undoubtedly a big deal. But the real test will be what happens next. 
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Antonia Noori Farzan is a staff writer at New Times and an honors graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Before moving to Arizona, she worked for the New Times Broward-Palm Beach.

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