Arizona Senator Jeff Flake is fighting to protect conservative principle from the white identity politics of Donald Trump. At least, that is what Flake likes to tell us. The truth is that Flake, in his arrogance and extremism, is one of Trump’s indispensable allies.
Senator Jeff Flake refused to endorse Trump in the 2016 general election and recently wrote a book explaining that the GOP should return to its healthy roots, which correspond with Flake’s policy preferences. Perhaps coincidentally, Flake is doing badly against his Republican primary opponent, even though her behavior is a reminder that the best argument against conservative populism is the people who run as conservative populists.
It could get even worse for Flake—a stronger primary opponent might emerge—but if so, it won’t be because of mean tweets by President Trump, nor because a spirit of hate has been let loose upon the land. It will be because Flake’s libertarianism is extremely unpopular. It is unpopular within the Republican party and throughout the country.
Flake wrote a book that explained what he thought had gone wrong in the recent history of the GOP, but he left out the central contradiction of post-George W. Bush Republican economic orthodoxy: The Republican party has simultaneously stood for cutting old-age entitlements and reducing taxes on high earners.
Individually, these policies are unpopular; together, they are absolutely toxic. I think entitlement cuts are necessary, and should entail gradual reductions for people who are currently in their fifties. But it is impossible to argue plausibly that we need to cut benefits for the old because we are broke, and at the same time cut taxes for the affluent. Flake does nod in the direction of a grand bargain that combines entitlement cuts with tax increases, but he doesn’t mention that he was a longtime supporter of replacing the federal tax code with a 23-percent national sales tax. If Flake is confused as to why people are turning their backs on the traditional Republican Party, he might remember that he is part of the reason many see the GOP as the party of the rich rather than the party of limited government.
It is on immigration that Flake’s self-destructive extremism is most obvious. Flake argues that America needs more low-skill workers—even though America’s low-skill workforce has the country’s highest unemployment rate and by far the lowest labor-force participation rate.
Flake correctly argues that low-skill immigrants shouldn’t be demonized. He is right, but the problem is not the character of low-skill immigrants. The problem is that American institutions work terribly for American low-skill workers of all races and ethnicities. Our population of low-skill workers has more troubled families and more troubled children, and has seen stagnant wages over the last thirty years.
The public seems to understand this. Flake's Gang of Eight immigration bill would have vastly increased low-skill immigration (a point on which Flake misleads in his New York Times op-ed), yet only 11 percent of Republicans favor increasing immigration.
But that is just the nativist Republican party, right? Wrong. Only 18 percent of Hispanics favor increasing immigration. Only 15 percent of Mexican-born Hispanics favor increasing immigration. Over twice as many Mexican-born Hispanics favor decreasing immigration. These Americans have no place in Flake’s imagination and, for much of our news media, they might as well not exist.
And the above numbers probably overstate the support for Flake’s immigration position. Most Americans (whether Democrat, Republican, or independent) favor transitioning to a system that favors skills and English-proficiency. The poll question asked about immigration generally. Had it asked specifically about increasing low-skill immigration, the proposal would have been roughly as popular as…reducing taxes on the rich while cutting Social Security and Medicare for everyone else.
This is Flake’s real political weakness. In their bones, people of both major parties know that America’s least skilled workers and their families need help—and help that is likely to be expensive. A politics of using immigration to increase the ranks of the low-skilled, and then reducing the programs they will depend on when they are old and unable to do physical labor, might seem like good business to the affluent. But it isn’t good statesmanship, and it isn’t good citizenship.
In a recent column, David Brooks made a distinction between “conservative universalists,” such as Flake, and “conservative white identitarians,” who are likely to support Trump. How do those categories match up with the real world? In 2012, Romney won 59 percent of the white vote and 27 percent of the Hispanic vote. In 2016, the white identitarian Donald Trump won 57 percent of the white vote and…28 percent of the Hispanic vote. Trump made similar (very small) improvements in the GOP vote among African Americans and Asian Americans. So much for Brooks’s conservative universalism.
For the sake of argument, let us grant that every criticism of Trump as a candidate of white resentment is perfectly true. That makes the failure of the Jeff Flakes that much more spectacular. Republicans should be ashamed that a larger proportion of nonwhites voted for Trump than for the smug, exhausted identity politics for rich people represented by the Jeff Flakes of the world.
Conservative universalism isn’t universalist, and the ideology of Jeff Flake isn’t inclusive. The conservatism of Brooks and Flake is designed to flatter business owners and affluent, salaried suburbanites. Our country is much bigger than that.
I much prefer Flake, as a person, to Trump. But Flake and his fellow Republicans have happened upon a set of policies that are untimely and unpopular. Their arrogance and extremism opened the door to demagogues like Trump.
Flake thinks he represents an alternative to Trump, but he is Trump’s justification and helpless prey. We can only hope for the emergence of a real, populist, and responsible alternative to Trump.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things.