Conscience of a Conservative: A Review

“Far too often, we come to destroy, not to build. As the country burns. And our institutions are undermined. And our values are compromised. And the people become increasingly despondent and enraged. And we become so estranged from our principles that we no longer recognize what principle is.”

The man who wrote that, Republican Senator Jeff Flake, was virtually unknown outside of his home state of Arizona before the 2016 Presidential election. During the rise of Donald Trump, however, Flake quickly became known as a leading figure of the anti-Trump Republican movement. Even after Trump’s victory in the 2016 Election against Hillary Clinton and subsequent inauguration, Flake continued his criticism of the new President.

On August 1st, 2017, Senator Flake published Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle. With reverence to fellow Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater who authored The Conscience of a Conservative in 1960, Flake laments the direction of the current Republican Party. He describes how the GOP has developed values that are antithetical to the traditional conservatism of figures like Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. In Flake’s eyes, the GOP “has become compromised by other powerful forces – nationalism, populism, xenophobia, extreme partisanship, even celebrity.”

What is conservatism? According to Flake, the answer lies in the Old Guard of the Republican Party. At its most basic level, conservatism is the principle that “government should be limited and prudent in its exercise of the power granted it by the people.” Citing figures such as National Review founder William F. Buckley, Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, and of course, Barry Goldwater, Flake explains the importance of values such as economic liberty, individual responsibility, restraint, and limited government. He believes that conservatives should support checks and balances, tax and spending cuts, and free trade. Throughout the book, Flake demonstrates how these values have come under attack by the current Republican Party.

The primary antagonist of the book is President Donald Trump who, in his campaign and first few months as president, has launched a wave of anger and fear throughout the United States and turned the Republican party upside down. Flake regards some of Trump’s actions as anti-conservative and contrasts them to the policies and actions of established and revered conservatives.

Flake begins his attack on Trump in the book’s second chapter with a touching story about his father-in-law, Owen Bae. After suffering a severe rupture in the aorta, Bae’s chances of survival were slim. However, with the assistance of two Muslim doctors, one from Palestine and one from Afghanistan, his life was saved. Both doctors came to the United States after fleeing their home countries to escape terrorism and violence. Flake follows this story by stressing the importance of legal immigration and denouncing Trump’s executive orders that suspended the arrival of Syrian refugees and issued a travel ban on multiple Muslim-majority nations. He goes on to call Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric “morally repugnant and un-American.” These two adjectives can be used to summarize Flake’s general opinion of Trump and his policies.

Throughout the book, Flake alternates between personal anecdotes and tales of old conservative icons to further emphasize his beliefs. He constantly reminds the reader that he grew up on a cattle ranch in Goldwater’s Arizona. His modest Mormon upbringing is most likely emphasized to provide a contrast with Trump’s privileged early life. He talks about the loyal and hard-working migrants who worked on his ranch to counter Trump’s rhetoric about Mexican illegal immigrants. One chapter is dedicated to Goldwater and Buckley and has a segment called “what would Goldwater do?” Here, Flake lays out many of Trump’s actions to demonstrate how anti-conservative they are, including his praise of oppressive regimes, slander of ethnic and religious minorities, and promotion of conspiracy theories. Flake also discusses free trade policies, the condemnation of news media, and partisanship in his comprehensive denouncement of President Trump.

However, Flake does not only blame Donald Trump for the decline of the Republican Party. For him, it all began with Newt Gingrich, who became Speaker of the House in 1995 after the Republicans became the majority party for the first time in 40 years. Flake describes Gingrich as someone “whose talent for politics exceeded his interest in governing.” Gingrich and his protégé, former Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, allegedly oversaw a period of petty partisanship and crony capitalism. Other forces which contributed to the rise of Trump include right-wing news outlets, such as Fox News and InfoWars, that report on conspiracies rather than facts as well as Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook for helping spread radical sentiment throughout social media.

President Trump responded to Senator Flake’s book with a barrage of attacks and tweets as well as an endorsement of Kelli Ward, a Republican Arizona State Senator who is running for Flake’s Senate seat. This response from the President, along with rock-bottom approval ratings, prompted Flake to announce that he will not seek reelection. This development was a victory for Trump and his allies as well as a grim reminder of the decline of the moderate wing of the Republican Party.

Although Flake is quite critical of President Trump, his Senate voting record is not. Since Trump took office, Flake has voted in line with the rest of the Republican Party. He supported many controversial cabinet nominations, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and EPA Chief Scott Pruitt. Additionally, Flake voted in support of measures to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (his fellow Republican Arizona Senator John McCain cast the decisive vote to shoot down one of the repeal bills) and both versions of the tax code overhaul. Flake may publicly disapprove of Trump, but he has not demonstrated any willingness to act in the Senate. There are two explanations. Flake may just be timid and indecisive. Or, more likely, Flake agrees with Trump’s actions and tacitly admits that Trump has supported some conservative policies. Although he has uprooted many traditional conservative principles in favor of harmful populism, Trump has also passed a tax code that favors significant cuts (something Flake has advocated for his entire career) and nominated Neil Gorsuch, a Scalia protégé and unapologetic conservative, to the Supreme Court.

Still, despite his lack of personal resistance to Trump’s legislative agenda, Flake and his new book serve as important reminders to all Americans, not just conservatives, of the direction that President Trump is moving the Republican Party toward. He provides a comprehensive outline of the important conservative values to which he believes Republicans must strive to return. However, he fails to explain just how those values can be reobtained. Currently, Flake and other Trump-resistant Republicans are not faring well. He and Tennessee Senator Bob Corker are stepping down at the end of their terms following public spats with President Trump, exacerbated a revolt among their voter base. Few other Republicans have been willing to publicly criticize Trump, and even fewer have actively tried to block parts of his agenda. The populist wave remains strong on the Right, and Trump remains unchallenged in his leadership of the GOP.

Conscience of a Conservative is music to the ears of moderate Republicans and intellectual, libertarian-oriented conservatives. Senator Jeff Flake is right; the principles and values that have guided the Republican party for decades are compromised. The legacy of Barry Goldwater is in danger. But, it is not yet clear whether these insights matter. The 2016 elections proved to the country that traditional conservativism has lost its appeal to the Republican Party base, at least temporarily. 2018 and 2020 will be a test for Flake, Trump and the entire GOP. The Democratic Party has already responded forcefully to its humiliation in 2016 with significant victories in Virginia and deep-red Alabama. GOP primaries all across the country will be hotly contested between Goldwater conservatives and anti-establishment Trump disciples. Flake may have been pushed out for now, but the battle for the heart of the Republican Party has only just begun.