Former Sen. Jeff Flake talks extremism in US politics with ASU community

portrait of former U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake

Former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake

For the second time in less than a year — a tumultuous one for a number of reasons, politically, socially and economically — former U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake spoke to the ASU community, fielding questions on the recent rise in anti-democratic violence in the U.S., the Capitol insurrection and the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump.

The March 15 virtual discussion was hosted by Arizona State University's School of Politics and Global Studies, with American government expert and Senior Lecturer Gina Woodall serving as moderator.

Woodall introduced Flake, who joined ASU in December as a distinguished dean fellow with The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, a role that involves conducting seminars, visiting classrooms, giving public lectures, meeting with students one-on-one and more.

During Monday’s discussion, Flake reflected on his political coming-of-age in the 1980s when President Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” mantra and Sen. Barry Goldwater’s “rugged individualism” inspired him to align himself with the Republican Party. But by the time Flake got to Congress in 2001, he said, the party’s interest in such ideas was already beginning to wane.

“I would argue that today … it's changed very much. It's more … about culture wars,” Flake said, and less about the traditional ideas that used to define the Republican Party, such as “limited government, economic freedom, free trade (and) strong American leadership.”

It’s that shift that Flake argued has resulted in the party losing power.

“Republicans lost the House of Representatives in 2018. We lost the Senate. In 2020, we lost the White House, and in 2018, I believe we lost more than 400 legislative seats nationwide. … I believe that this should have led to more introspection than it has,” Flake said.

In one of her questions to Flake, Woodall asked him his thoughts on a recent New York Times article that reported the results of a survey of roughly 1,200 Republican voters that revealed five factions of the party that have emerged following Trump’s presidency:

  • Trump Boosters — 28% of those surveyed fell into this category, defined as those who “approve of how Mr. Trump did his job, but only a slight majority of them support him being the nominee again, and they are more supportive of the Republican Party than Mr. Trump personally.”
  • Die-hard Trumpers — about 27% of those surveyed fell into this category, defined as “supporters of the former president who would back him in a hypothetical primary regardless of who else was running but who don’t believe in QAnon conspiracy theories.”
  • Post-Trump G.O.P. — 20% of those surveyed fell into this category, defined as those “who like Mr. Trump but want to see someone else as the party’s nominee.”
  • Never Trumpers — about 15% of those surveyed fell into this category, defined as those who would never support Trump as the party’s nominee.
  • Infowars G.O.P. — about 10% of those surveyed fell into this category, defined as those who “view QAnon conspiracy theories favorably and believe in many of them.”

Flake called the results of the survey “sobering, to say the least.”

The article also reported that 57% of Republicans polled said they would support Trump in an election again, which Flake believes is not enough to warrant him running again.

“If you're trying to find a more ‘Trump-y’ group around the country, I don't think you could find a more ‘Trump-y’ group than among CPAC followers, and if you can only get 57% of them to say, ‘Run again,’ then you shouldn't run again,” Flake said.

“And I maintain that (Trump) has no intention of running again. He certainly wants to keep that floated out because he's more relevant the longer that is out, and he likely could … win the Republican primary. But he knows well, I believe, and most Republicans know, that that he wouldn't win the general. He lost the last one by 7 million votes (and) 72 electoral votes. There's no indication that it should be any different next time. But there still is the problem of (Trump) maintaining a big influence on the party and endorsing candidates that will win the primary but then go on and lose a general election.”

One solution to that, which both Woodall and Flake agreed on, could be ranked-choice voting.

”If anything is going to save the Republican Party, it's reforms like that,” Flake said, “but it will be very much opposed by party officials and those on the extremes; that subset of a subset of a subset that controls Republican primaries, and on the Democratic side, the more progressive or liberal Democrats won't favor it either. But I think, frankly, there may be enough in the middle where we could get it passed.”

Here’s more of what Flake had to say …

On the recent rise in anti-democratic violence in the U.S. and how it may affect our relationship with other countries:

“Obviously it makes it more difficult,” Flake said. To demonstrate this point, he referenced a tweet by President Emmerson Mnangagwa of Zimbabwe, who accused the U.S. government of losing its moral right to condemn other nations for their democratic processes after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

“He wasn't the only one,” Flake said. “There were dictators and tyrants around the world celebrating (that it became) more difficult for us to have the moral authority … to encourage countries to move toward freedom.”

On the Capitol insurrection:

“I was at the Capitol for some really strange events that I never thought I'd see. Awful events (like) 9/11,” Flake said. “But I never thought I’d see anything like (the insurrection on Jan. 6). … I would never (have thought) that Americans would attack their Capitol as they did, and try to overturn a legitimate election, really at the encouragement of the president who lost the election.”

On the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump:

“I thought it was going to be a difficult sell when the president was already out of office,” Flake said. “The main remedy impeachment brings is removal. And when he was already removed, that was just an easy excuse for Republicans to say we shouldn't do it. Now, had I been in the Senate, I would have voted to convict him. … If it's not an impeachable offense to encourage a mob to storm the Capitol to overturn an election that you lost … I mean … I think that that justifies impeachment.”

Woodall followed up by asking Flake whether he thought Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, which states that any person who has taken an oath to protect the Constitution can be barred from holding office if they participated in an insurrection against the United States, could or should be applied to prevent Trump from running again.

“That would simply, I think, make more of a martyr out of the president,” Flake said, reminding discussion attendees that he doesn’t foresee Trump running again anyway. “Former President Trump is losing influence daily. It's just very difficult, no matter who you are, to maintain influence once you lose the trappings of the office and the levers of power, and in today's world, when you lose your Twitter platform. … Trump (support) isn't so much a philosophy as it is an attitude. You know, ‘We're tough, we're owning the libs … And it relies on winning. And that's why (Trump) has been so reluctant to admit that he lost.”

View a recording of the full conversation.

Top photo courtesy of Pixabay

Emma Greguska
emma.greguska@asu.edu