Gage Skidmore / Flickr Jeff Flake...
Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Senator Jeff Flake made a plea to his party and to his colleagues today, in both his speech to the Senate and then in an op/ed piece published in the the Washington Post. In the Post, Flake chillingly reminds us that the last time the nation was in the kind of a quandary that it finds itself in today, Joseph McCarthy was conducting his infamous witch hunts in the land. Flake spoke of Joseph Welch, the counsel for the Army, who confronted McCarthy that infamous summer day in 1954:

Welch was the son of a small prairie town in northwest Iowa, and the plaintive quality of his flat Midwestern accent is burned into American history. After asking Sen. Joseph McCarthy for his attention and telling him to listen with both ears, Welch spoke: “Until this moment, senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty, or your recklessness.” And then, in words that today echo from his time to ours, Welch delivered the coup de grace: “You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

Flake went on to describe how the bracing moral clarity that day of the Iowa lawyer’s remarks acted as a tonic upon the country and put an end to McCarthy’s rein of terror. As Flake put it, the country had said, Enough! Then Flake went on to draw the parallel between 1954 and the present day, and Donald Trump:

Nine months of this administration is enough for us to stop pretending that this is somehow normal, and that we are on the verge of some sort of pivot to governing, to stability. Nine months is more than enough for us to say, loudly and clearly: Enough.

The outcome of this is in our hands. We can no longer remain silent, merely observing this train wreck, passively, as if waiting for someone else to do something. The longer we wait, the greater the damage, the harsher the judgment of history.

I have been so worried about the state of our disunion that I recently wrote a book called “Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle.” I meant for the book to be a defense of principle at a time when principle is in a state of collapse. In it, I traced the transformation of my party from a party of ideas to a party in thrall to a charismatic figure peddling empty populist slogans. I tried to make the case for the sometimes excruciating work of arguing and compromise.

Flake is to be lauded for his efforts. Unfortunately, the difference between the America of 1954 and that of 2017 is profound. On that summer day in 1954, when Joseph Welch so effectively called out Joseph McCarthy, those present in the room rose to their feet in unanimous and tumultuous standing ovation. Welch articulated the collective consciousness and truth carried the day. The spell of McCarthy was broken.  On this Indian summer day in 2017, the senators hearing their colleague not only did not rise to their feet, rather they squirmed uncomfortably in their chairs. 

Flake issued a call to arms, “As our political culture seems every day to plumb new depths of indecency, we must stand up and speak out. Especially those of us who hold elective office,” and nobody seemingly was listening. Perhaps his anomalous event of speaking out with moral outrage and clarity is yet another anomaly of the Trump administration that will shortly be normalized. It is devoutly to be wished otherwise and only time will tell. Jeff Flake either set an important wheel in motion today, or he threw a lovely stone into the lake — and it sank.

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