Jeff Flake Is a Casualty of Collectivist Conflict
Temperamentally more than ideologically, the Jeff Flakes of the world do not fit into a politics increasingly marked by collectivist reaction.
Stop what you're doing right now, and look at the political chatter in your Twitter feed. I would put chances near 100 percent that you will soon see examples of both right-of-center trolling, which I'll loosely define here as saying something designed specifically to irritate and/or outrage the sensibilities of the dominant media/entertainment/Democratic culture; and also left-of-center boundary-drawing, in which a moralist will define virtue or acceptability in such a way that a right-of-center person of interest will inevitably find himself on the outside looking in.
I found these two examples within 60 seconds:
One couple gave Russia our secrets out of ideological commitment. The other sold Russia our uranium for bribes. Which is worse? pic.twitter.com/pB6tcPl6t3
— Dinesh D'Souza (@DineshDSouza) October 24, 2017
Is welcoming lawless bigot Roy Moore into the Senate GOP caucus a good way to strike back at Trumpism, Senators? https://t.co/MYFjPM5oyj
— Greg Sargent (@ThePlumLineGS) October 25, 2017
To answer the wags' questions (hey, they're just asking 'em!), in order: 1) Transmitting highly classified military secrets in wartime to a murderously expansionist world power while also recruiting other Americans for espionage is indeed considerably worse than whatever Hillary Clinton is being accused of. And 2) here's a not-hard-to-find CBS News headline: "Jeff Flake says Republicans should speak out on Roy Moore's past comments."
But reality-checking such arguments kinda misses the point of 2017 politics. The subtext of these tweets is more important than the text. It is Look at those arrogant hypocrites and He's not one of us. Responses like mine above can be thus answered with the classic, Musta struck a nerve!
Once you see major-party political discourse as largely a mutually reinforcing game of Trolls vs. Velvet Ropers, you can't unsee. It's "deplorables" vs. the "politically correct"; a president who crows that "46% OF PEOPLE BELIEVE MAJOR NATIONAL NEWS ORGS FABRICATE STORIES ABOUT ME," and media people who almost dutifully overreact with statements like: "That poll result…is perhaps the saddest moment in this tragic administration's brief and terrible history." It's Roy Moore's 5,000-pound Ten Commandments courthouse sculpture (one of the heaviest acts of trolling this century) vs. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's exclusionary assertion that "extreme conservatives who are right-to-life, pro-assault-weapon, anti-gay" have "no place" in his state.
The Velvet Rope Left is forever policing the boundary between permissible and disqualifying behavior, language, and political positions (luckily for the likes of Bill Maher, those who are good on the latter are granted leeway on the former, particularly when the usually disqualifying language is used against people with bad politics). The Troll Right is forever treating that boundary like an arbitrage opportunity for selling books at CPAC.
(Both trolling and boundary-drawing are in bountiful supply outside the two-party scrum as well, and very much so within libertarianism, but I'll set that aside for a future post.)
Like all good tragedies, the activity of both camps contains some logic and even a splash of righteousness. Trolls were absolutely correct to criticize the way Mitt Romney was unfairly declared ungood for having binders full of women and shaggy dog/car stories. Velvet Ropers, meanwhile, were certainly quicker to detect some collective demonization of minorities lurking within the Tea Party movement than I was.
But that has always been the upside in organized political hatreds, in having "the right enemies"—you can get to unpleasant truths quicker than those who are still laboriously sifting through the facts. Less happily (at least for those still troubled by conscience), you will also quickly pile up falsehoods, while dismissing the individualism of whole swaths of humanity. "Why bother with the never ending, genuinely hopeless search for truth," Václav Havel wrote in a classic 1985 essay, "when a truth can be had so readily, all at once"?
Though the in-group/out-group policework is often attached in the moment to ideology (if rarely with the acknowledgement that the standards of such are constantly shifting), the style at heart ultimately has more to do with temperament. Jeff Flake is not philosophically very far removed from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), but one's a bombthrower and the other drinks milk. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is in alignment with Flake about the long-term debt crisis and the necessity for new Authorizations for Use of Military Force, but has no qualms backing a sharia-fearing paranoiac as long as he wears the letter "R." Flake, on the other hand, sent words of encouragement to his own potential Democratic opponent after Arizonans starting hurling anti-Muslim invective in her general direction.
Velvet Ropers, meanwhile, have had a busy 10 days excoriating anyone left of center insufficiently hostile to anti-Trump Republicans such as Flake, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and George W. Bush. This Ring of Fire Network headline gets straight to the language-policing point: "Stop Praising Horrible Republicans Just Because They Don't Like Trump." It's as if the anti-Trump left is trying to prove the pro-Trump right's point: They will hate us no matter what we do.
The Troll Right in 2016 finally crossed from media success (what is Fox News Channel's "Fair and Balanced" slogan if not one of modern media history's most clever trolls?) to political muscle within the GOP. Ann Coulter went from writing bestselling troll jobs like Treason and Demonic to reportedly helping craft Donald Trump's first big policy white paper. The 32-year-old who helped push through the administration's historically restrictive new refugee policy reportedly got his political start in high school criticizing Latinos for speaking Spanish and noting their comparative academic deficiencies. The sitting president of the United States was until recently the country's biggest birther.
That just ain't Jeff Flake's style. He criticized birtherism early and often, calling it "ridiculous" and "unfortunate." He said in June 2016 that Trump "ought to apologize" for his statement that the "Mexican heritage" of Federal Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel is "an inherent conflict of interest." He was disgusted by the Access Hollywood tape. Some of this lines up with Flake's real policy differences with Trumpism, such as on immigration, trade, and debt; some of it speaks to his temperamental tendency to criticize his own political team when it goes astray.
But the real dividing line separating Jeff Flake not only from the ascendant Trump/Steve Bannon/populist wing of the Republican Party, but from the purity police in the Democratic Party, may be contained in this sentence last week from George W. Bush: "Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions—forgetting the image of God we should see in each other." Even if Bush had been the perfect messenger—and he most definitely is not—that sentiment these days is in full retreat. Collectivist conflict, in all its belligerent stupidity, is the rule, not the exception. The best that some of us on the sidelines can hope for is that it be as pointless as possible.
I know, I know, Musta struck a nerve!