Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.
Right-wingers attempting to brand themselves as anti-Trump is a grift weâve seen dozens of times beforeââtypically from media types such as Glenn Beck, David Frum,Â Max Boot, andÂ Joe Scarborough. But rarely does one see it from a sitting senator such as Jeff Flake, the Arizona lawmaker attempting to take the mantle of his mentor, John McCain, as liberal and centrist media outletsâ favorite not-entirely-evil-Republican.
With the release of his new book,Â Conscience of a Conservative, Flake has managed in the past week to get puff pieces in theÂ New York Times,Â Politico(which he wrote himself),Â NPR,Â Mother Jones,Â AP,Â Fox News,Â USA Today,Â CBSâs Face the Nation, theÂ New York TimesÂ (again), and a long, sycophantic profile in theÂ Atlantic.
Itâs understandable why Democrats and their anti-Trump allies would welcome thisâafter all, the anti-Trump resistance needs all the help it can get. Thereâs only one problem: thus far, Flakeâs opposition to Trump has been entirely rhetorical in nature. Great in interviews, good with op-eds, pleasant when entertaining Atlantic profilersââbut when it comes to substance, opposing the actions by the administration in the Senate or any of his cabinet or Supreme Court or cabinet picks, heâs a reliable Republican apparatchik.
As Voxâs Matt YglesiasÂ noted, âhas Jeff Flake done anything to use his powers as a United States senator to check Trump in any way?â
A cursory scan gives the answer no. Flake has,Â according to FiveThirtyEight voted in line with Trump 95.5 percent of the time, making him the eighth most reliable senator for the White House. Most noticeable among these pro-Trump votes was last weekâs disastrous Obamacare repeal that Flake supportedÂ at every turn.
In addition, Senator FlakeÂ supportedÂ every one of Trumpâs cabinet nominations, his unilateral bombing of Syria inÂ April, and his Supreme Court pick, NeilÂ Gorsuch. These are some of the rare media âwinsâ for Trump and at each turn Flake was there to lobby in favor of them.
This isnât, to be clear, about âpurity politics.” No one is suggesting Flake has to be a card-carrying MoveOn organizer to be worthy of joining the forces against Trump. The issue is, has he done anything to actually undermine Trump in his powerful capacity as a United States senator? If the answer is no, one is compelled to ask, how big of a danger does Flake actually consider Trump? And, to the extent he does consider him a danger, does he think him less of one relative to the net utility of bombing Syria, slashing taxes for the rich, gutting the Affordable Care Act, and packing the Supreme Court withÂ actuarially desirable far-right justices? The answer is clear since he continues, time and again, to back these policies, and in doing so, helping rack up the occasional but potent victory for Trump.
Like his media boosters, Flakeâs primary moral criteria appears to be one of tone. The book is subtitled âa rejection of destructive politics,â in reference to Trumpâs prickish demeanor, less so about the specifics of his policies. While itâs true Flake has objections to Trumpâs approach to trade, immigration extremism and anti-NATO statements, he has little say on his recent trans military ban, his ratcheting up war in Syria and Iraq, or his pulling out of the Paris climate accords. Probably because Flake himself has terrible records onÂ LGBT issues,Â hasnâtÂ met aÂ war heÂ didnât like, and offeredÂ qualified approvalÂ for leaving the Paris Agreement.
As with Flake’sÂ colleagueÂ John McCain, the scam is ultimately one of lowered expectations. Because Trump has sunk discourse and the broader GOP to Mariana Trench depths, anyone who vaguely gestures toward baseline decency is heralded as a brave truth-tellerââan angle Flake exploits to help polish his image and garner goodwill from an otherwise indifferent or hostile media.
But this isnât a scam the press has to indulge without getting anything of substance in return. If Flake is serious about opposing the administration’s agenda and making Trumpâs ability to inflict pain on the country more difficult, he should ante up something, anything at all, beyond words. He can start by figuring out how to use his position of influence in the Senate to make life just a bit harder for Trump. Then maybe his status as a courageous anti-Trump voice will be more than a book tour sales pitch.