The day following Trump’s rally, I talked to Senator Jeff Flake on the phone. I was still in Phoenix, and he was elsewhere in Arizona, and we were talking about decency in American life and American politics when he brought up the shooting of Congressman Steve Scalise. “I worry that too many good people are turning away from politics when they see the vitriol that is on display,” he said. “One of the most stark examples is the baseball practice in June. All of the sudden, bullets are being fired at the field. I just remember thinking, ‘Why us? Who could look at a bunch of middle-aged members of Congress playing baseball and see the enemy?’”
It speaks to the relentless and multidirectional chaos of our nation under Trump that I had forgotten about the shooting, which happened on June 13, only nine weeks before Phoenix. And it had not registered with me that Senator Flake had been there. I apologized to him.
“It’s obviously not something that happens every day,” he said.
We should pause here and note that the senator and I were calmly, dispassionately talking about an incident wherein a gunman named James T. Hodgkinson opened fire on a baseball practice Republicans were holding in preparation for a friendly game between members of Congress. Hodgkinson was enraged by the election of Donald Trump and shot at least 50 rounds into the field, aiming for Republicans and gravely wounding Representative Scalise of Louisiana.
“After the first volley,” Flake remembered, “I turned toward the dugout and could see the bullets hitting the gravel in front of the dugout — that was where I had to run for any kind of shelter. And the thought that came to me was, ‘Really? Us? Here? Now?’ It seems so incongruent. It’s awful. That was a sobering experience.”
Listen to the language Senator Flake is using: “Not something that happens every day.” “A sobering experience.” Flake is from Arizona, an open-carry state, and he knows hunting and how to use firearms. But his understatement speaks to the fact that, as a nation, we are accustomed to a kind of everyday violence that would be unconscionable in any other advanced society.
As the gunfire continued, Flake was in the dugout, applying pressure to the leg of a congressional aide who had been shot. Meanwhile, Scalise crawled from second base into the outfield, struggling to put more distance between himself and the shooter. When Flake realized the shooter had been immobilized, he ran to Scalise and applied pressure to his wounds. After medical personnel arrived, Flake took Scalise’s phone and called Scalise’s wife so she wouldn’t have to have to hear about the shooting on the news.
“I just spoke to Steve Scalise yesterday,” Flake told me. “He’s obviously still recovering, as are others. This is six years after the Giffords shooting, and I’m in the hospital again, waiting to hear if one of my colleagues was going to pull through.”
On January 8, 2011, Gabby Giffords, a Democratic congresswoman representing Arizona’s 8th District, was holding a “Congress on Your Corner” constituent meeting in a Tucson grocery store parking lot. A 22-year-old man named Jared Lee Lougher pulled a Glock 19 semi-automatic pistol and shot Giffords in the head. He shot and killed six others, including Gabe Zimmerman, a member of Giffords’ staff; a federal District Court judge named John Roll; and Christina-Taylor Green, a nine-year-old girl. The other three victims were each over 60 years old.
After the shooting, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik said, “When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths…the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous.” He worried that Arizona was uniquely welcoming to the kind of radicalism Lougher embodied. “We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry,” said Sheriff Dupnik.
Giffords slowly recovered from the shooting. Though still needing extensive medical assistance and with only 50 percent of her vision intact, she was able to attend President Obama’s State of the Union address one year later. As her friend and fellow Arizonan, Jeff Flake sat next to her. During one of the speech’s applause lines, Giffords wanted to stand and clap but couldn’t manage it herself. Flake helped her up and supported her as she applauded. Afterward, he was pilloried by Republican members of Congress who thought he was somehow consorting with the enemy.
“We’ve just gone too far,” Flake said on the phone. “I remember going to play basketball with President Obama. He invited a bipartisan group of members early in his first year to play basketball on the South Lawn, on the court there. I remember getting to the White House, and a call was passed through the Capitol switchboard or something, and a woman was crying hysterically. ‘Don’t play basketball with that man!’ she said.”
Flake sighed. I told him he sounded tired. He laughed.
“It may just be the day. I think we’ve given in to the politics of anger,” he said. “I think we saw a lot of that manifested during the campaign, and we see it carry through events like last night in Phoenix. That was not a hopeful message, not an optimistic, Reaganesque kind of message.”
In August, Flake released a book called The Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle. It extolled the brand of conservatism espoused by Barry Goldwater and embodied by more politically genial and statesmanlike Republicans like Ronald Reagan. The book eloquently dismantles Trump’s vacuous politics, his enflaming of animosities, his fearmongering and ignorance, and enumerates the countless ways Trump does not embody his, or any, version of conservatism.
As a result, Trump has called Flake “toxic” and has vowed to do what he can to unseat him. But after sending signals that he would take on Senator Flake at his rally in Phoenix, Trump in the end chose to be coy. After taking a few swings at John McCain, Trump added, “And nobody wants me to talk about your other senator who is weak on borders, weak on crime. So I won’t talk about him. Nobody wants me to talk about him. Nobody knows who he is.”
“It’s going to be a tough campaign,” Flake said. “I knew I was going to have a tough primary and a tough general. I’ve had tough primaries because I’ve taken a little different view on immigration than some of my colleagues, and that always ensures that I’ll have a tough primary race.”
Flake’s views on immigration are practical and far more compassionate than Trump’s. Flake grew up on a working cattle ranch in Snowflake, Arizona, one of 11 children. His father hired Mexican seasonal laborers, and Flake learned the necessity of immigration to the functioning of the American agricultural industry in his state and in the nation as a whole. He has long been an advocate of Obama’s DACA action, known as the DREAM Act, which allows the children of immigrants, those who had been brought to the United States as small children, to stay without fear of deportation. These young people, more than 800,000 strong — who grew up as Americans, who enrolled in college, who now have jobs and even families of their own — were given security and a promise of a path to citizenship.
“We have to return to the politics of comity and inclusion,” Flake writes in Conscience of a Conservative, “and reject the politics of xenophobia and demonization. But when there are so few contemporary examples of politics for the common good, where do we look for such a beacon?”
Ten days after the Phoenix rally, Trump would announce he was rescinding the DREAM Act.