Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2001 to 2013 and in the U.S. Senate from 2013 to 2019. He is a CNN contributor.
All over the country, in every small town and big city, from the high desert in rural Arizona where I grew up to the Rust Belt, from the Big Apple to the Mountain West, the spell has broken. The miasma of strategic division and malign incompetence that defined the last presidency has been discarded for a more familiar leadership model practiced by every other president since I was old enough to vote, regardless of party — reliable, compassionate, adult. Boring, even.
No irrational pronouncements made at 3 a.m. without consulting anyone who might actually know what they are talking about. Oh, and that’s another thing: The new administration is populated by those who know what they are talking about —men and women who are valued for their expertise and experience rather than their ability to flatter an unsteady executive.
And speaking of the executive: For the first time in what seems like forever, Americans are not fixated on the president and whatever upsetting, hateful, false or anti-democratic thing he has said or done. Friends have begun to marvel to each other that it has been weeks since they’ve even had to wonder what the president is up to and are stunned by the sudden and sharp contrast: Out of worry and fear, they thought all the time about the last guy, who, following the dictates of his insatiable ego, seemed to enjoy seizing the news cycles and programming their emotions. Now they don’t think about the president very much at all, which is just as it should be in a free society.
I want my president to have reverence for our constitutional system and to communicate American values to the world, to provide strong global leadership, to be decent and truthful, and to not embarrass me or cozy up to despicable figures or do rash and unconservative things, such as starting trade wars, or espousing conspiracy-theory nonsense, or taking the word of a Russian dictator over the findings of U.S. intelligence services, or calling the constitutionally protected free press the “enemy of the people” for having the temerity to report the truth.
The past four years have been an unending succession of places where we had previously never been before — lines crossed, principles jettisoned, norms crushed, values forsaken, American freedom itself imperiled. That’s what one man of ill will can do, if he is allowed and enabled.
History will show that in the dark days of President Trump, we experienced a very close call for the survival of our American project. And this near miss stems from Republican indulgence of the whims of one man — one catastrophically self-interested man who seemed to have not even a passing familiarity with the Constitution, the institutions of American liberty, or the basic notions of service and sacrifice.
But one man alone cannot put us on the brink the way he did without our permission. And so this failure is on us, and we owe it to the generations of Americans we will never know to understand how this happened so that it might never happen again.
We conservatives succumbed to the very thing that we had once organized ourselves to oppose. We forgot that a healthy mistrust of executive power was supposed to be our most deeply held belief. We forgot that the institutions of American constitutional democracy are sacrosanct and not some twisted “deep state” plot. We aided and abetted this assault on our values and on objective reality itself. We were accessories to this deeply ugly period. We endangered our country.
And so, conservatives six months from now will have embarked on a period of soul-searching. America needs, and Americans deserve, a principled and reliable conservative party. So, to put it mildly, we Republicans have work to do. Trust to regain. And we know it. And when we are honest with ourselves in the dawn of this new era, we are just as relieved as everyone else that the malefactor was turned out, consigned to a rogue’s place in history.
In July 2021, I have gone back to worrying about things both meaningful and mundane. I’ve set countdown clocks not to politics but to the birth of a new grandchild, secure in the knowledge that a steady leader is once again in the White House.
For the first time in what seems like forever, Americans sleep soundly again.