Not Much Room for Decency and Calm

Jeff Flake, Val Venis, and enlightenment at the downtown Phoenix Carl’s Jr.

Dave Eggers
Sep 8, 2017 · 16 min read
Photo: Getty

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.

Image for post
Image for post
Photo: Getty

“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.

Just before the Phoenix Police Department shot tear gas into the crowd, I was standing at the barricade on Monroe Street next to a young man with curly sand-colored hair and light-blue eyes. When the first stun grenade went off, I turned to him and asked, “Did you see anything?” Meaning, Did you see anything to provoke the police to go on the offensive like this?

“Nothing,” the young man said, and took off.

After running from the gas down Third Street, I stopped at Van Buren and, amid the yellow haze in front of Hooters, saw the same young man. He was doubled over and gagging. When he stood up, his eyes were swollen and pink. His face was soaked with tears.

“I got fucking tear-gassed in my fucking face,” he said. “Boom, right in my face. I can’t see shit.”

He gave me his name, but I’ll call him James to protect his safety. A student at Arizona State University in Phoenix, he’d watched most of the Trump rally on television and then decided to come out to see what was happening on the streets. He’d just arrived at the barricades when the tear gas overtook the city.

“At first, honestly, I liked Trump,” said James. He wiped his face with his shirt. “He wasn’t a politician. And I didn’t want to see another politician go into the White House. My dad was an FBI agent, and then he was Secret Service, so I kinda knew the backstage of being a politician. But now that Trump’s been president for a while, obviously it hasn’t been good.”

The turning point for James was Trump’s travel ban, prohibiting most travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries. “I’m half Middle Eastern,” James said. “I thought, ‘That’s not constitutional.’ I’m half Italian, too. We’re all foreigners. So when that happened, I started having my doubts.”

James and I stood on the dark Phoenix street corner, watching unmarked police SUVs speed by. The helicopters continued to circle overhead, their floodlights searching for conflict. James went back to his dorm, and I was struck by the realization that if a thoughtful young man like him, whose father worked closely with elected officials in Washington, so distrusts politicians that he initially preferred Donald Trump to anyone with experience or steady temperament, it demonstrates not just a failure of Washington. It’s a failure of our society — our education system and our media in particular — to show any respect for the real work of governing and the functioning of the state.

Earlier in the day in Phoenix, at the corner of Third and Washington, I’d seen a large bald man walk by holding a handmade sign reading “The Rock for President.” I asked him if he was serious about the sign. After all, Democratic political operatives were already mentioning Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, a former professional wrestler and now movie actor, as a possible challenger to Trump in 2020. Part of the motivation was cynical, in that only a bigger celebrity — better known and physically far more imposing — could defeat a reality-TV star.

“He’s my friend,” the bald man said, his voice raspy but his words quick. “I’m an anarchist, so I don’t believe in the state at all. But if my buddy’s going to be a statist, I’m all for it.”

His name was Sean Allen Morley. He’d been a professional wrestler under many names, including the Big Valbowski and Glamour Boy Sean, but he was best known as Val Venis. His character started as a bad guy, he said, “but people loved him, so they made him a good guy.” He’d known Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson when he was wrestling, but, he said, “I haven’t talked to him in a long, long time.”

Morley wrestled in Mexico, on the Lucha Libre circuit, and in Japan, and finally with the World Wrestling Federation in Europe and the United States. Having achieved his dream of becoming a professional wrestler, Morley said, he now wants to open a chain of cannabis-and-coffee shops. Now I noticed that his shirt said 4:19. Until then I’d assumed it denoted a passage from the Bible.

“I think all politics should go away,” said Morley. “I believe all men are created equal, so how the fuck we got to a place where we have rulers and subjects is beyond me.”

I asked what he thought of Trump.

“I think Trump is a cold-blooded murderer,” he said. “Straight up. He’s dropped bombs. Just like Obama, just like Clinton and both Bushes. They dropped bombs on innocent children overseas. That’s not collateral damage. That’s murder.”

Morley objects to taxes, and to regulation, and generally any government interference in the lives of citizens. For someone trying to open a chain of cannabis shops, the fact that recreational marijuana is illegal in Arizona must be a particularly onerous reminder of the existence of laws and those who make them.

For a while, in the heat and amid the yelling of the protesters and a few feet away from the man dressed as a nun, Morley and I debated the merits of the state. He was quick-witted and good-humored, and his brain was utterly self-formed and free of received wisdom. We talked for a while about the history of hemp and the value of agencies like the EPA and FDA, and the conversation veered all over — into Henry Ford and Prohibition and the three industries (cotton, oil, lumber) that Morley is convinced killed the hemp industry in the early 20th century. Finally, we landed on the IRS. He hates the IRS.

“Every single thing government does, how is it funded?” he asked. “How are taxes collected? By coercion and ultimately by force.”

I tried to convince Morley that taxes were necessary to the functioning of our lives — that we needed roads and schools and clean water—and to provide for a common defense, to be sure that the food we ate was safe.

Morley was utterly unconvinced. “But fun to talk to you,” he said. He walked off with his “Rock for President” sign.

Just after Trump was elected, I was in Louisville and happened to meet Matthew Barzun, the ambassador to England during the Obama administration. Before his appointment in London, Barzun lived in Louisville, and we were at a benefit for Kentucky public school teachers.

Given the election results, the mood in the room was apocalyptic but tempered by bourbon, which had been dispensed with liberality. Jim James of the band My Morning Jacket had just sung an a cappella rendition of “All We Need Is Love.”

“You know what I think we need?” said Barzun. “I think we need ambassadors to the middle of the country. People who can come back from D.C. and explain what happens there and why. And vice versa. We need more domestic diplomacy.”

On the phone after Phoenix, I told Flake about James’ inherent distrust of politicians and recounted what Barzun said.

“I think that’s a good point,” said Flake. “I speak to a lot of groups, young people that come through. That’s my plea — for them to go home, interns that have come into the office or have experienced Washington, go home and tell people that not everybody in Washington is out for themselves. That institutions are strong, they’re strong enough to correct, and to be optimistic. I also tell people to change the channel every once in a while. Whatever you’re watching, just get out of your own news feed for a while and realize that people have opinions that may be different from yours, but that doesn’t make them evil. Politics is the art of persuasion, the art of compromise — it’s not raw force or anger.”

Because Flake had survived an attempted mass murder on a baseball field two months prior, and because his colleague Gabby Giffords was permanently physically marred by a gunman, and because Flake lives in a state with millions of guns and virtually no laws controlling their use, and because he has five kids and by all accounts is a genuinely decent man, I asked him if he ever thinks it’s time to get out of politics, given the climate and the fact that the dangers are so self-evidently real and immediate.

“No, I love what I do,” Flake said. “It’s an honor to represent the state of Arizona, now more than ever. I think it’s important to show you can get reelected without screaming and yelling and ascribing the worst motives to your opponent. I think we’ve got to have that. But it’s not worth it if you’re just going to mark time. You have to be accomplishing something. If you are, then it’s extremely rewarding. But you have to do something other than just mark time.”

At the end of the night in Phoenix, when there were more cops on the streets than pedestrians, when the yellow fog that had descended on the city had cleared, I was walking on East Jefferson Street, very sad and very tired, when I saw a Carl’s Jr. It was still open, and I was very hungry.

The staff inside, all of them young people of color, was skeletal but friendly. As I waited for my food, I looked around the restaurant. There were only two tables occupied: one by a pair of young protesters, and one by an elderly white man wearing a Trump shirt and a denim vest festooned with pins supporting Trump and various conservative interests. With him, sitting and eating blithely, was a young Latina girl, no more than 10, who seemed to be his grandchild.

Two young white men burst through the door. They were about 20 years old and wearing white Trump T-shirts turned inside out. “Are you guys open?” one of them asked the Carl’s Jr. staff. The young Latino man working the cash register said they were closed. He was professional and polite about it, but it was odd, given he’d taken my order a few minutes earlier.

“Please, sir?” one of the young white men said. “Some fries even? Water?” The young man in the inside-out Trump shirt explained that the police barriers that had been set up around the city had blocked his car, and he and his friend couldn’t get out. “We’ll eat anything you got,” he said.

The Carl’s Jr. employee gave the man a cup of water. “Thank you. Thank you, sir!” he said. The young white man took a sip and looked around. Behind him was a large-screen TV showing the rally on CNN, with Don Lemon commenting on Trump’s speech.

The young white man looked at me, pointed to the screen and rolled his eyes. “You believe this?” he asked me. Then his face registered that I wasn’t a Trump supporter. “Oh, you’re not…”

He laughed. I asked him why he and his friend were wearing their Trump shirts inside out.

“You know,” he said, pointing out the window into the Phoenix night and whatever disquiet was still out there, “just to avoid the hassle.” I noted that he and his friend were both still wearing red Make America Great Again hats. It would seem to be a dead giveaway.

He laughed again. The Carl’s Jr. employee brought him and his friend a bag of fries. “Thank you, thank you, sir!” he said, and the Carl’s Jr. staff went about cleaning the kitchen before closing.

We ate while standing in the restaurant, near the front door, and I talked to the two young men, who were unfailingly polite and eager to debate the merits of Trump and what the country needed and deserved. I told them how incongruous I found it, that they could be so good-mannered and open to debate, when the man they were supporting — and this they admitted readily — was rude, unkind, erratic, and disunifying.

“But at least he’s honest,” one of the young men said.

He indeed said this. I didn’t know where to start.

We talked for about 10 minutes more, and finally we all shook hands, told each other to be safe out there, and went on our respective ways. Outside in the cooling night, it occurred to me that these bright young men, like James, were drawn to Trump not for what he was saying, but how he said it. It did not matter so much what he said. Or if he lied. Or if he inflamed animosities or bullied opponents. What mattered was that his unstudied, unrehearsed way of expressing himself was itself evidence of honesty. They equate unfiltered expression with truth.

Thus a politician who speaks carefully, who measures his or her words — or worse, who reads from a prepared speech — is being a politician, i.e., someone who does not tell the truth. Conversely, someone who speaks off the cuff, who has no script, who tweets without any consultation from staff, is inherently more honest.

These young men, and millions of other Trump supporters, do not care so much about what is or is not the truth. They care only that their elected leaders speak to them candidly, even when they’re lying.

Outside the Carl’s Jr. was a startling tableau. At the light-rail station that runs along East Jefferson Street, there were a few hundred people sitting and standing on the elevated platform, waiting for the train. It was about 10 p.m., long after the rally had ended and after the unnecessary drama the police had created. The streets were dark and empty, but then there was this mass of humans, sitting under canopied lights.

The people waiting for the train were every age and color, Trump supporters and opponents, everyone still dressed in the clothes they’d been wearing all day — shorts, T-shirts, sneakers, sandals. Behind the platform, nine cops stood, warily watching for trouble.

Image for post
Image for post
Photo: Getty

On the platform stood a white man in a camouflage baseball hat and a blue Trump T-shirt, holding an upside-down Trump placard. Next to him sat an African-American woman wearing a T-shirt bearing the message “Good Vibes Only.” The man and woman were inches from each other, and their body language was so casual and at ease that they might as well have been siblings.

They and the hundreds of others waited peacefully for the train. The police had little to do. Like just about everyone gathered in Phoenix that day and night, the people waiting on the platform could express their opinions without violence or even drama. It was evident yet again that the limitless sea that is the American people is overwhelmingly reasonable and willing to disagree from a place of goodwill and calm fellowship. They do not want conflict and rancor, but their president, who is not reasonable and not willing to disagree from a place of goodwill and calm fellowship, gives them only that. And this inflames the outliers and puts the vast reasonable middle, which is most of us, in danger. There will be more rallies, more protests, more guns, and more people will be hurt.

But for now, the hundreds of Arizonans sat and stood on the train platform, everyone seeming exhausted and wanting to go home. They looked down the rail’s parallel lines, waiting in the dark for the train to come.

Download a free digital mini-book of this reporting here.

Written by

Writer. Founder of McSweeney’s and co-founder of 826 National.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store