On Oct. 24, Senator Jeff Flake from Arizona announced that he would not seek re-election when his term ends in 2018. He responded to the actions of the Trump presidency, which he believes would cause him to “compromise far too many principles” in the near future as the presidency continues to change the nature of American democracy. He criticized his own party, denouncing its members’ “complicity” in this behavior and also blamed the demise of its principles in this shameless president-party collaboration (Arizona Republic).
In his speech, Flake explained why he decided to retire from the Senate, mostly due to the ideology taken up by the current presidential administration. Intriguingly, he is a member of the Republican party and represents a state that has voted red ever since 1952, (with the exception of Bill Clinton in 1996, according to 270towin). Still, Flake has come forth, attempting to show his refusal to let his own affiliations get in the way of a unified American people. In reference to the current divide preventing this unification, he claimed that “we have given in or given up on the core principles in favor of the more viscerally satisfying anger and resentment”—words with a weight about the current foregoing and forgetting of standards that few Republicans have uttered recently.
This staunch stance against Trump, however, comes as a small surprise. Flake is, after all, a “traditional conservative” (as stated in his book Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle)—a group on the right that feels the current President is dismantling the ideals of a party they hold strong to. Traditional conservatives believe that government should be limited, that free trade should be protected, and that there should be a strong defense for the country (National Review).
We have seen the president and his administration recurrently undermine these core ideas with his uncontrollable use of executive power to pass legislation that infringes on the granted rights of immigrants (like the ban on Muslim countries), his attacks on NAFTA and U.S.-China trade relations as well as his encouragement of big business and his open hostility to intelligence agencies that defend the country, such as the FBI.
On top of this, traditional conservatives like Flake hold a certain pride in the structure and hierarchy values of their ideology. This ideology erodes when juxtaposed with the alt-right, whose platform encourages a more ethnocentric point of view (People Press). And of course the president’s persona itself also upends this established chain that Republicans like Flake aim to uphold.
Indeed, the lines between what is radical ideology and what is mainstream seem to erode further each day for the Republican party, as their leaders in Congress and the White House either remain silent or encourage the president on issues that jeopardize their traditional ideals. Flake had been one of the few within the President’s party to consistently oppose his platform, even from the nomination.
So Flake’s opposition to Trump’s continual disruption of the established right comes as nothing out of left field. However, what is interesting is this decision to oppose Trump by placing himself in the exact position where he cannot directly do so, by stepping out of the political ring. His exact words in his speech were “I’ve decided that I would be better able to represent the people of Arizona and to better serve my country and my conscience by freeing myself from the political consideration that consumes far too much bandwidth and would cause me to compromise far too many principles” (Arizona Republic). He stated that he will “better represent” his constituents by removing himself from his office.
But what exactly did Flake have in mind when he decided that moving himself out of President Trump’s way would be the most effective response? Would it somehow affect the President so drastically that a change would be invoked? Surely not, as the major impetus behind his retirement is his lack of support from both Arizona constituents and obviously the White House. Indeed, his approval rating in Arizona is just 30%; clearly, Flake did not believe the bout against President Trump was worth it alongside the workload required to regain traction with his own election.
So then, with no other choice, perhaps he decided to just go out as nobly as he could, and tie in “moral” and “conscientious” reasons, rather than just admitting defeat. To go out acknowledging how he lost to the president would be quite demeaning to someone who had been one of the few to speak out from the beginning. Instead, he claimed that while "there may not be a place for a Republican like me in the current Republican climate or the current Republican Party. . . we must be unafraid to stand up and speak out as if our country depended on it” (Arizona Republic). In other words, perhaps he wished to appear to leave some sort of message, some last call to arms, for the remaining politically-sane (at least in his eyes). Perhaps he wished to not retire as a weak and frail dotard, but as someone who could say he fought until the very end.
Unfortunately for him, history is seldom written by the few who stand in the way of a more predominant force like President Trump, and one may expect that his stance will not go down as very momentous in history.
Take the simple example of presidential candidates. If I were to ask minor history buffs who won the American election in 1932, many would immediately respond “Franklin Roosevelt”. But does anyone remember his opponent? It was Herbert Hoover, who was running for his second term, politically limping out of the Great Depression that had just hit during his presidency. Hardly anyone remembers or even acknowledges Hoover’s 1932 campaign and work that he put it to achieve his party’s nomination—all because of how bitter unemployed Americans desired a new face in the Oval Office, one that would bring them actual hope (Miller Center).
Yet each presidential candidate arguably incorporates the same amount of effort in their respective campaigns, and the only difference in the result is who the country elects. The work behind the scenes of each candidate remains unbeknownst and irrelevant to the voters. Hoover remains in relative obscurity among the general population’s knowledge; one can only assume even fewer know about his run during the 1932 election. Few would be able to identify or recognize the importance that he might have seen in putting together his campaign.
Indeed, history easily forgets the loser and one may only hope that Flake will be recognized after this decision. The president, himself a walking news crises, adds some significant story to the books every day. And on the rare occasion when the president is quiet, another aide of his whisks away our attention from the more passive actions of those like Flake.
Will Flake be remembered? It would be easy for the members of his party to easily erase his impact. Time only will tell, but we can assume that the answer is no. Maybe what America needs is not someone like Flake, attempting to make a statement by creating the illusion of a graceful exit, but a figure who will push against the bully pulpit and show we can still fight for the democracy of old.