Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Jeff Flake's Better Angels

That was no ordinary speech Jeff Flake delivered on the floor of the Senate Tuesday. The only thing that comes remotely close is Elizabeth Warren's now epic "Moment in the Sun" speech from 2014, in which she took on not only Wall Street but her own party in a manner that would've made Frank Capra blush with pride.

What Flake did was historic and unparalleled in American politics. He didn't just challenge a sitting president, or even his own party; he challenged the entire country as a whole. He didn't mince his words in the seventeen plus minutes he spoke. No hedging of bets or halfway measures. He was blunt and to the point, even if at times his voice crackled just a bit, as if he were delivering the eulogy of a dear friend. That friend being the United States of America.

Do not simply read the transcript; listen to it. Listen to ALL of it. And do not simply dismiss this speech as merely the parting shot of a lame duck senator who finally has the freedom to speak his mind because he knows he doesn't have to run again. In today's GOP, the courage to speak one's mind is as rare as a palm tree at the Arctic Circle. Look also past the obvious policy disagreements you may have with Flake. He is, despite what the wing nuts may say about him, an avout conservative who fervently believes in self-sufficiency, limited government, low taxes and equally low regulations. On any given day he would be a formidable opponent for the Democrats.

But this was not any given day; not by a long shot. While he may not have spoken as eloquently as Barack Obama, or as passionately as Warren or Bernie, the totality of what Flake said will continue to reverberate long after he and everyone we know is gone from this Earth. This was Lincoln at Gettysburg, only longer. I'm not kidding. The parallels are striking. Both men spoke of the deep divisions within the country. And while the Civil War claimed millions of lives and split the country in two, the divisions we now face are no less of a threat to the Union that Lincoln eventually gave his life to preserve.

And while I am hesitant to highlight any one part or parts of the speech - it was that good - two passages stand out. The first is aimed directly at Flake's own party; the second at all of us.
When we remain silent and fail to act when we know that that silence and inaction is the wrong thing to do -- because of political considerations, because we might make enemies, because we might alienate the base, because we might provoke a primary challenge, because ad infinitum, ad nauseum -- when we succumb to those considerations in spite of what should be greater considerations and imperatives in defense of the institutions of our liberty, then we dishonor our principles and forsake our obligations. Those things are far more important than politics.
There is an undeniable potency to a populist appeal -- but mischaracterizing or misunderstanding our problems and giving in to the impulse to scapegoat and belittle threatens to turn us into a fearful, backward-looking people.
This populist appeal is the driving force behind Donald Trump's success, and to a certain extent, behind Bernie's as well. Make no mistake about it, but for the xenophobia, sexism and megalomania, Trump could've run as a Democrat and won. Not all backward-looking people are registered Republicans; some are independents who vote for "antiestablishment" candidates like Sanders. And they're not going anywhere.

This isn't just a Republican crisis, or a Democratic crisis; it's a national crisis. The inability of the people to fully comprehend the extent of the problems that beset them, coupled by a dearth of credible solutions to those problems has created the very "vacuum" that allowed Trump to rise to power. The corruption that has plagued both parties was perceived by the electorate as a cancer that only his tonic could cure.

In a sense, what Flake is doing is laying down the gauntlet, not just for members of his own party, but for all of us. He isn't just speaking out against Trump, like so many Democrats seem hellbent on doing; he's calling for an anti Trump to rise up and save the Republic. He will not be complicit and neither should we.

Much has been written about the flagrant lies that Donald Trump has told over the last two and a half years. Indeed, the Washington Post has compiled a tally of them. At present, it is well over a thousand since he was sworn in. But here's the thing to remember: it's only a lie if people think it's a lie. And to the people who voted for and continue to support him, Trump is as innocent as a newborn baby. Pointing out the number of lies he tells only helps him to solidify the hold he has over these people. Like any good despot, he revels in undermining the very institutions that have historically defined the nation. The more they attack him, the more secure his position becomes.

If there is an anti Trump out there, he or she will have to craft a positive vision for America that brings hope to the hopeless, encouragement to the frightened and a safe haven to the lost. Healing the wounds that separate us will not be an easy task. Sadly, I am not nearly as optimistic as Flake that "this spell will eventually break." We could be in a for a very long and painful ride.

Lincoln spoke of our better angels; Jeff Flake referenced them in his speech. Now it is up to us to resurrect them before it's too late.

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