IN BITING SPEECH FLAKE DENOUNCES ‘RECKLESS’ TRUMP — New York Times headline, October 25, 2017

on October 24 was a seventeen-minute Senate floor speech to announce that he would not run for re-election, all gussied up with at least implied imprecations against a president and administration he could not bring himself to call by name. In seventeen minutes, Flake managed to find fault with nothing more specific in the world today than “our disunion … the indecency of our discourse … the coarseness of our leadership … the compromise of our moral authority.”

Tasty bait there, for anyone who wants to see what anyone wants to see. The Times was not alone in taking the bait as a “biting speech.” Others called it a “bombshell Senate speech” (USA Today), “most important speech of 2017” (CNN), “an indictment of Trump supporters” (Washington Post), “astounding speech” (Daily Beast), “powerful indictment of Trump” (Frank Rich), “a blistering speech” (Democracy NOW!), “cowardly attack on Trump” (Breitbart), “a fiery sermon decrying Trump personally” (Daily Wire), and so on across the political spectrum, with a few exceptions like Rolling Stone explaining why the “speech was meaningless.”

Flake himself gave the game away early, for anyone paying close attention. Flake’s third paragraph begins with a classic deceit: that everyone is at fault — suggesting that no one is at fault — which is a construction that manages to tell two lies at once:

Regret for the compromise of our moral authority, and by our, I mean all of our complicity in this alarming and dangerous state of affairs. It is time for our complicity and our accommodation of the unacceptable to end.

This is vacuity posing as seriousness. This is emptiness trying to pass for gravitas. And it apparently fooled Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, who wrote his constituents that Flake's speech was “a remarkable and powerful reflection on the current administration and the Bannon wing of the Republican party.” Did Leahy actually read the speech carefully, or just appropriate its vagueness for his own political purposes? Flake does not mention Bannon or anyone in the administration by name. Flake names the Republican Party only once, in reference to Teddy Roosevelt. Flake also names Abraham Lincoln. Otherwise he names no names. And Leahy calls this “remarkably blunt.”

This kind of broad-spectrum mystification, the common inability or unwillingness to call things by their rightful names, all seems part and parcel of our dominant present problem: dealing with a criminally destructive presidency — Donald Trump, to be sure, but also Mike Pence, Jeff Sessions, Steve Mnuchin, Scott Pruitt, Rick Perry, Ryan Zinke, Alex Acosta, and all the other empowered trolls that populate an administration carrying out daily destruction of our institutions with no congressional mandate and little media scrutiny.

Each and every act of destruction by each of these lawless people is actually an impeachable offense for the president, done with his blessing, in violation of his oath of office, as well as his Constitutional mandate (Article II, section 3): “he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” Tantalizingly, but with no follow-up, Flake exhorts:

With respect and humility, I must say that we have fooled ourselves for long enough that a pivot to governing is right around the corner, a return to civility and stability right behind it. We know better than that. By now, we all know better than that.

Flake doesn’t come close even to hinting at the lawlessness and unconstitutionality of this administration’s actions. He mentions the Constitution once, referring to Article I (that deals with Congress). Flake gives no hint as to why he mentions it, wandering off into quotes from James Madison to inchoate effect. Mostly Flake just twitters on and on about the “tone at the top” and “reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior” without a single example. Flake says this is “dangerous to a democracy.” No, what’s dangerous to a democracy is a senator like Flake and his 99 colleagues, all unwilling to iterate, never mind counter, the specific ugly behaviors of their naked emperor.

Flake’s “remarkably blunt” speech is only such in the abstract. He is blunt about nothing more than his Senate career: “I’m announcing today that my service in the Senate will conclude at the end of my term in early January 2019.” And even this is not really news. He’s been under constant attack from the right for his active criticism of Trump. His approval rating in Arizona stands at 18% and he has a Bannonite challenger already in the primary race that he’s considered likely to lose.

“I will not be complicit or silent,” Flake intones near the end of seventeen minutes of little more than complicity and silence in relation to anything that actually matters to real people. From beginning to end, Flake speaks obliquely in a pastiche of hints and Rorschach blots designed to find real meaning in high-toned vapidity. Flake acts as if tone and manner are the real problems: “we have given in or given up on the core principles in favor of a more viscerally satisfying anger and resentment.” But then he justifies the anger and resentment without a word about how that anger and resentment is expressed: constant threats against opponents and roughing up protestors but also systemically: police shooting unarmed black people, police state ICE raids sweeping up innocents, the US policy and practice of torturing prisoners at Guantanamo and elsewhere, or any of the other inhumane Republican policies wreaking havoc on individual lives as well as the planet. Instead of honest accounting, Flakes gives us a Pollyanna perspective:

This spell will eventually break. That is my belief. We will return to ourselves once more, and I say the sooner the better.

Apparently Flake is lying, to us or to himself. Before the day was out, Flake voted to betray American consumers by the millions, by the hundreds of millions. He joined most of his fellow Republicans in denying American citizens any recourse to the justice system in disputes with banks, no matter how corrupt. As Charles Pierce put it:

In the dead of Tuesday night, with the applause still ringing in his ears, Flake voted to strip the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau of a rule that allowed Americans to file class-action suits against banks rather than being forced into an arbitration process that generally is as rigged as a North Korean election.

Hypocrisy is hardly new to Flake. For all his whining about Trump’s tone, that tone was Flake’s own tone when he first ran for the Senate in 2012. Behind in the polls in mid-October, Flake resorted to an ugly, brutal, dishonest attack ad, described by this reporter at the time. Flake’s character assassination of the Democrat who had served in the Bush administration, Dr. Richard Carmona, propelled him to undeserved victory. And now his Senate career is over. And his overlong announcement of that ending was framed at the beginning and end with these curious remarks:

Sustained incumbency is certainly not the point of seeking office and there are times when we must risk our careers in favor of our principles. Now is such a time….
… we must be unafraid to stand up and speak out as if our country depends on it, because it does. I plan to spend the remaining 14 months of my Senate term doing just that…. A political career does not mean much if we are complicit in undermining these values.

Within hours of saying all this, Flake goes and votes to condemn his fellow citizens to a process that denies them almost any hope of justice when a corrupt bank has robbed them. Flake has voted with Trump Republicans roughly 90 percent of the time. Flake is wrong about the problem being manners. The real problem is the unremitting corporate attack on real people, real programs, and real places — and on the definition of reality itself. We will see how Flake performs between now and January 2018. His absence in the interim would produce a much-needed vacuum. More likely his presence will be increasingly heard if not felt. Reportedly he is positioning himself to run for president in 2020. If this speech is any guide to Flake’s campaign, we’re not in much danger of a Flake presidency. But stranger things have happened. We have a flakey presidency now.