Three (More) Thoughts on Flake, the Future of the Anti-Trump GOP, and Mormonism

I had the pleasure of talking with Laurie Goodstein, the New York Times‘ great “religion beat” writer about the Mormon resonances in Arizona Senator Jeff Flake’s remarkable speech from the Senate floor this past Tuesday.

I have three more thoughts about it:

First, the Senator gave the most forceful and formal public rebuke of Trump and Trumpism by a member of the President’s own party. The Senator also announced his retirement. Yet in doing both, as E.J. Dionne and Ross Douthat wrote about the speech, Flake acknowledged that the sad reality that there isn’t a place for his kind of conservatism–based on “decency, character”–in Trump’s Republican Party. (A glance at Flake’s 91 percent with Trump voting record shows that there is a home for restriction’s on women’s reproductive rights, rolling back regulations that protect consumers and the environment,  and deep tax cuts for the rich. That’s probably why he hasn’t called for impeachment. And that’s probably why his still “publicly” on-Trump-train GOP Congressional colleagues haven’t yet bolted from Trump).

I agree with Douthat (an unusual moment for me!) about the decision by Senators Corker and Flake not to seek reelection. Here’s what Douthat says:

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I pray that Flake (and Sasse–we are looking at you, too) does primary Trump and/or back another candidate who will.

Yes, they will likely lose and/or fracture the party so badly that it gives the White House to a Democrat (which I’m almost sure that Kasich and Flake–I’m not sure about Sasse–thinks would be a better alternative to Trump). But it will provide the kind of bi-partisan attack against Trump’s inchoate fascism that political scientists say is necessary to truly derail Trumpism.

Second, today in my “Religious Diversity in America” class (along with finishing Wounded Knee and its aftermath, beginning the history of Asian and Catholic immigration to the U.S., and the World Parliament of Religions!!!!) we will be doing a deep dive into Flake’s speech.

It’s worth a watch:

As I told Laurie, I found a lot of Mormon stuff in it:

-It sounded like a General Conference speech in which a Mormon apostle admonishes the (Mormon) Body of Christ for being tempted by the “world” and calls on the Mormon people to reject “accommodating” to evil. Most often, at General Conference, rejecting evil has meant rejecting what the church leaders call sexual “sins” including homosexuality. But at this past General Conference in October, Russell Ballard also called the Body of Christ to reject the sins of racism, nationalism, and sexism (this is the speech when he dropped Jane Manning James’s name!)

-I think Flake was also speaking to Trump’s tendency to “punch down”–to attack the most vulnerable. This line, in particular, jumped out: “The reckless provocations, most often for the pettiest and most personal reasons, reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with the fortunes of the people that we have been elected to serve.”

Trump has done so most clearly–and despicably this week–in his attack against Myeshia Johnson, the widow of an American soldier, La David Johnson, who was killed in Niger earlier this year. As WaPo’s Eugene Scott, among others, have pointed out, Trump has a fondness for attacking black women who dare to question him.

I was reminded here of two episodes from early Mormon history:

  1. When Charles Wandell, the missionary who first introduced Jane Manning James to Mormonism, was put on trial in Nauvoo for “unchristian conduct towards certain colored brethren” for his failure to pay for Jane Manning and her family’s passage across the Lake Erie as they made their way from Connecticut in the fall of 1843. (I write about that in Race and the Making of the Mormon People on pages 130-131).
  2. The case of “Chism,” a black resident of Nauvoo, who was savagely beaten when he was accused of robbery. After the city court failed to convict Chism’s assailants, John Taylor’s Nauvoo Neighbor excoriated the court for perpetrating a “mockery of Justice.” Here’s a passage from the April 1, 1844 edition of the paper:

The statement of the Negro was that Messrs. Easton, Townsend, and Lawyer W. H. J. Mart were the persons engaged in this diabolical affair. Mr. Gibbs, one of the witnesses against Townsend, believed the above persons were engaged in it; but as a Negro knows nothing in this state, and Mr. Gibbs could not positively swear to it, of course we don’t know; but we have our opinion, and so have the public.

Taylor and Joseph Smith Jr. himself thought that white citizens were giving false testimony in order to “thwart the ends of justice.” Another interesting turn of phrase here is “a Negro knows nothing in this state.” As the case with Mrs. Johnson, her mother, and Congresswoman Frederica S. Wilson who first brought the nation’s attention to Trump’s insensitive “condolence” call, be it in 2017 or 1844, a black person or persons cannot serve as witnesses when challenging a white mane’s version of  events. (See page 132 in Race and the Making of the Mormon People).

Joseph Smith had complicated–sometimes troubling views–on people of African descent–(take for example, he defended slavery as biblical and godly in 1836 but then ran for the presidency as a gradual abolitionist in 1844, declaring that slaves and Mormons were the most persecuted Americans). But Smith and Taylor did not buy this logic that a black man could not serve as a witness.

We don’t remember ever having seen more indignation manifest than was manifested on this occasion, and the public mind is not satisfied at the turn affairs have taken. Lynch law will not do in Nauvoo, and those who engage in it must expect to be visited by the wrath of an indignant people, not according to the rule of Judge Lynch, but according to law and equity. 

The reference to “Judge Lynch” is ironic/eery as Smith and Taylor would soon be victimes of lynch mob violence only a few months later.

But back to Flake’s speech.

My final thought about this speech is that, as much as it is “Mormon,” it’s also a speech full of civil religion. In Bellah’s canonical first articulation of American civil religion, he listed three “crises” in American history in which Americans questioned the foundation of the belief in American exceptionalism–that is, America’s unique (divine) mandate to spread liberty, freedom, and democracy both internally and internationally.

We are clearly entering a fourth crises. As Flake said:

Now it seems that we, the architects of this visionary rules-based world order that has brought so much freedom and prosperity, are the ones most eager to abandon it. The implications of this abandonment are profound and the beneficiaries of this rather radical departure in the American approach to the world are the ideological enemies of our values. Despotism loves a vacuum and our allies are now looking elsewhere for leadership. Why are they doing this? None of this is normal.

Recent studies have shown that Americans are losing faith in democracy itself. Trump’s daily attacks on our norms and values are only making things worse of course, making a the segment of the population who believe only a “strong man” can bring back their jobs, protect their “culture,” and most importantly reestablish their ethno-religious dominance (See David Roediger’s Wages of Whiteness).

And here, as much I admire Flake for standing up to Trump, his “rich first” politics cannot exist without Trump and Trumpism, at least not yet. Trump promises voters that white supremacy (and white male supremacy in particular) will remain dominant. All Trump (and Flake) demand in return is support for huge tax cuts for the rich, funded the gutting of social safety nets and deficit spending.

To quote the great sage of our era Chris Rock (who truly is one of the most astute observers of race relations working today):

“There ain’t a white man in this room that would change places with me. None of you. None of you would change places with me, and I’m rich!

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