Opinion: Recovering the conservative conscience

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By Randy Patrick

Alexander Hamilton warned of a demagogue who would create chaos so he could “ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.”

Today his words are prophetic.

Hamilton was an undocumented immigrant, yet his contributions to our country are immeasurable.

Sen. Jeff Flake appreciates the contributions of immigrants, though his own roots in the Old West go deep.

In his just-released “Conscience of a Conservative,” which takes its title from another Arizona Republican senator’s manifesto (printed in Shepherdsville, Ky., in 1960), Flake, like his hero Barry Goldwater, articulates concisely what it means to be an American conservative.

The reason the book has gotten so much attention, however, is its strong criticism of President Donald Trump, whose populist rhetoric, identity politics, and imprudent and immoderate behavior make him the antithesis of a traditional conservative.

His courage in standing up to a rogue president of his own party has resulted in Flake being lauded and lambasted. During a bizarre rally in Phoenix, just one day after a sober and scripted speech about the war in Afghanistan and the tragedy in Charlottesville, Trump was back to being Trump, saying reporters hate our country, threatening to shut down the government if Congress doesn’t give him the money to build his 2,000-mile wall along the Mexican border, and lashing out against Republican senators, including the two from Arizona, though he didn’t name them: John McCain and Flake.

“Nobody knows who the hell he is,” Trump said of Flake.

That may have been true a few weeks ago, but now many know who Flake is after his book hit the New York Times bestseller list and he has been on the Sunday morning news shows.

I bought the book the day it came out and couldn’t put it down. I recommend it to anyone who wants to understand the difference between real conservatism and the kind of authoritarian, hard-right populism Trump and his ilk represent.

Flake’s criticism of Trump is tough, but so is his criticism of his own party for being uncritical of the president.

“We pretended that the emperor wasn’t naked,” he wrote. “Even worse: We checked our critical faculties at the door and pretended that the emperor was making sense.”

Trump was elected, in part, because many don’t know the difference between government and entertainment.

“We degrade our politics enough as it is without turning our democracy over to carnival barkers and reality television,” he says.

Flake calls Trump out for being an habitual liar while accusing the press of lying. Trump “routinely calls true reports that irk him ‘fake news’ while giving his seal of approval to fake reports that happen to support his position,” he writes. “This is tremendously damaging; the words of a president are more resonant than any other leader on earth, and it is difficult to unlearn false things once learned.”

Among Trump’s lies that Flake mentions are these: that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya, that millions voted illegally in the 2016 election, and that vaccinations cause autism.

The president’s penchant for falsehoods and conspiracy theories, he says, is not to be taken lightly as “just politics,” and the GOP risks not being taken seriously if the party doesn’t reject it as a threat to our democracy.

“Bad information propagated by powerful people spreads like a contagion, infecting vulnerable people in its path,” he said.

Robust debate is healthy, but partisan rancor isn’t, and Flake blames Democrats and Republicans for the sickness that affects our politics today.

There was a time, he says, when Republicans were a party of ideas, but “that time is gone, replaced by a race to the bottom to see who can be meaner and madder and crazier.”

The GOP’s “unquenchable appetite for destruction,” he says, didn’t begin with Trump. He faults former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich for being “the modern progenitor of that school of politics.”

While politicians should differ on solutions to problems, it is wrong, he says, to consider other Americans, including one’s ideological adversaries, enemies.

In “Conscience of a Conservative,” Flake gives a strong defense of limited government, economic freedom, free trade, responsible immigration policy, religious liberty and respect for the dignity of all individuals — and asks how the Republican Party can now support an imperial presidency, protectionist trade policy, antipathy toward Mexican-Americans and Muslims, and a leader who ridicules and berates others for the sake of partisan loyalty.

Putting America first, he says, means putting country before party.

Flake’s refreshing honesty may hurt his re-election efforts. Trump has already hinted that he’ll back Kelli Ward, a far-right fanatic who tried unsuccessfully to unseat McCain, in the Republican primary against Flake. But the maverick senator believes it is worth it to risk one’s career for one’s principles.

He calls on fellow Republicans to reject the politics of destruction and “reassert a conservatism of high ideals, goodwill and even better arguments.”

I think Hamilton and Goldwater would be proud.