The Sunday Magazine·Q&A

Former Republican senator: Trump's hold on GOP a threat to the party — and to democracy

With the recent ousting of Republican Liz Cheney, Donald Trump’s hold over the Republicans is still strong. Former Republican senator for Arizona Jeff Flake refuses to toe the line that the 2020 election was stolen from the former president.

Jeff Flake calls on Republicans to give up 'the big lie' that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump

'You can't win a Republican primary without, at a minimum, keeping silent about 'the big lie,' but in most cases, buying into it,' said former U.S. congressman and senator Jeff Flake. (United States Senate)

Republicans are continually being pressured to believe that the 2020 U.S. presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump if they want to stay in the good books of the GOP's base of support, according to a former congressman and senator.

More recently, Republican Liz Cheney was ousted from her third ranking membership of the House of Representatives by other members of her party, after continuing to criticize Trump's false claims that the election was rigged in favour of the Democratic candidate Joe Biden.

Representative Liz Cheney speaks to reporters after House Republicans voted to oust her from her leadership post as chair of the House Republican Conference, because of her repeated criticism of former president Donald Trump's false claims of election fraud. (J. Scott Applewhite/The Associated Press)

Meanwhile, many states with Republican-dominated legislatures have been pushing new electoral laws that would make it harder for some groups — notably Black Americans — to vote, while making it easier for partisan officials to overturn election results. 

Jeff Flake is a former Republican congressman and senator from Arizona, and one of Trump's most vocal critics. 

He spoke to The Sunday Magazine's Piya Chattopadhyay about the threat that Trump's hold on the GOP poses to the party's future — and to democracy itself.

This is part of their conversation. 

You recently wrote that "the greatest offence a Republican in the United States can commit right now is honesty." What are you saying with that?

Right now, you have to buy into what's called "the big lie," that Donald Trump somehow won the last election. If you know differently, and virtually all of my former colleagues do, then you have to keep quiet about it.

What does that say to you? That you have to actually lie to be a Republican today or you're not worth your salt?

It puts us in a horrible position, frankly, as a party. I mean, if the heart of who you are is basically buying into something that you know is untrue.

And keep in mind that there isn't one elected official in Washington that really believes that Donald Trump won the last election. So, yeah, it puts us in a very difficult spot moving ahead, because obviously it puts in question all of your other beliefs as well.

A week ago, Facebook confirmed it would be keeping Trump banned from its platform for a further 2 years, citing a risk to the public safety. (Joe Skipper/Reuters)

Liz Cheney was ousted from her Republican Party leadership position in the House. She was one of the most vocal Republican critics of Trump. What did that vote tell you about where your party in its current relationship with Donald Trump is? Because, as you say, you can't outwardly be honest, but this was a secret ballot.

There was initially another vote on Liz Cheney a few weeks prior where she was kept in her position. That gave some of us some hope, at least, knowing that ... Republicans in the House of Representatives knew that in order to be relevant in the future, we have to be a more inclusive, broader party. And that includes, you know, having people like Liz Cheney in leadership. 

So the initial vote was to keep her in. But then when such focus was put on it, and the president put a lot of focus on that vote, then it went the other way. And, even though it was a secret ballot, it actually was simply a voice vote and she was gone. So that just shows the trouble we're in and it's not likely to get better anytime soon.

In January, you were censured by the Arizona Republican Party for supporting Joe Biden in last November's election. 

Essentially, you told voters, "Hey, don't vote for the Republican candidate, Donald Trump." What did it mean to you personally to be censured by your party?

I said at the time, if the price for being in good with the party, the state party, was to buy into "the big lie" or to be acceptable to Donald Trump, then that's a price too high to pay. 

Obviously, it's not fun being censured by your party, but at that price I wasn't willing to pay it. And I know a lot of other Republicans around the country feel the same way.

Supporters of Trump scale the west wall of the the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. The attack shocked many Americans who thought such a violent assault by their fellow countrymen wasn't possible. (Jose Luis Magana/The Associated Press)

At the same time, though, Jeff Flake, as you were criticising President Trump, you continued to vote along party lines the majority of time. I think it's around 84 per cent of the time. How do you reconcile those two things?

I'm a conservative Republican. I'm a conservative first. 

Some people, for example, said, "hey, when once you break with Trump, then shouldn't you also eschew some of the policies that he agrees with, that the party has pushed for years?" 

For example, I have voted to repeal Obamacare some 30 times. And then, when I broke with the president, some people said, "you ought to oppose efforts to repeal Obamacare because you disagree with the president." No, that would make me a hypocrite. That would make me actually go against principles that I had held. 

Now, there were the main tenants of Trumpism, if you will, this kind of xenophobia, the Muslim ban, anti-immigration, anti-free trade, those things, I never, never agreed with and never voted with the president on. 

But core limited government, economic freedom, individual responsibility principles I continued to vote for.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden addresses the protests taking place in and around the U.S. Capitol at a news conference at his transition headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware on Jan. 6. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

What's your assessment five months since that unbelievable event at the U.S. Capitol?

One thing, former president Trump was very effective at was conditioning the Republican base to the idea that, if he lost, it would be because there was fraud involved and that anything other than a Trump victory would be fraudulent. And so the Republican base in that subset of a subset of Republican voters was conditioned to believe this. 

Now, elected officials, Republicans could have disabused people of this and they didn't, not sufficiently. So when it came after the election, and after January 6, the Republican base already believed that really the former president didn't lose the election and it was too late by that time for Republican elected officials to be on the right side of the narrative. 

So they just bought into it and have either stayed silent or agreed and have basically forwarded the president's talking points.

How concerned are you that that doubt, or that exploitation of that will be a factor in future elections, that voting outcomes will be up for debate always?

Yes, I'm very concerned about it. I mean, in Arizona, my home state, we're going through a sham of an audit conducted by an outside group that's highly partisan, counting the votes from 2020. 

They're hoping that this will be a template for other states to bring back November of 2020 and recount. I'm very concerned about what this does in terms of faith in the process and I shudder to think of what will happen if we have a closer election next time — and what will happen afterwards.

Written by Oliver Thompson. Interview produced by Chris Wodsku. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.