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Flake: Racist language doesn’t make Trump racist

By: - August 16, 2019 11:01 am

Former U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake poses for a photo with J. Deal Begay Jr., vice-chairman of the Cocopah Indian Tribe, at a 2016 Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry event. Photo by Gage Skidmore | Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Former U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake says President Donald Trump is guilty of making racist statements, but critics “go too far” when they use those statements to castigate Trump as a racist.

In a wide-ranging interview with Deseret News, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Utah newspaper owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Flake was asked about Trump’s recent attacks against “The Squad,” a group of four Democratic women of color serving their first terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. 

Trump called for the women to “go back” where they came from, even though three of them are natural-born citizens, and was subsequently heavily criticized for implying that the women aren’t truly American. 

Deseret News reporter Matthew Brown asked Flake about those comments and why Republicans find it difficult to call them racist. Flake acknowledged that telling people of color to “go back where you came from” is undeniably racist, and one that Hispanics in Arizona have heard “again and again their whole lives, even if they’re sixth, seventh, eighth generation Arizonans.”

He said Republicans should have spoken out against Trump for employing that racist trope, because failing to do so allows racist invective to become “normalized.”

But even though Trump’s words were clearly racist, Flake said it’s not right to call Trump a racist: “But that doesn’t give me or anybody license to say, ‘Well, because of that statement, the president is a racist.’ I think you go too far.” 

Elsewhere in the interview, Flake said a Trump win in 2020 “spells doom long-term for the Republican Party,” likening it to winning a battle before losing the war: “You can drill down on the base, and it may work in an election here or there, but at some point you run out of angry people.”

A contributing factor in that, he added, is that young voters and suburban women are being alienated.

“I think that millennials have been walking away from the Republican Party for a while, along with some suburban women. Now they’re in a dead sprint,” Flake said.

Flake said he won’t vote for Trump in 2020, and although he would consider voting for a third-party candidate as he did in 2016, he said he’s more likely to vote for “a responsible Democrat.” He said his favored candidates among the Democrats are Michael Bennet, whom he worked closely with in the U.S. Senate; Cory Booker, who he says “has downplayed a lot of his bipartisanship”; Amy Klobuchar, another senator he worked with on several issues; and Joe Biden.

Of Biden, Flake said he has appreciated the former vice president’s talk about working across the aisle.

“That’s not what primary voters want to hear. But it’s what the country needs to hear because it’s true. I wish we had a Republican candidate who would say the same,” he said.

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Jim Small
Jim Small

Jim Small is a native Arizonan and has covered state government, policy and politics since 2004, with a focus on investigative and in-depth policy reporting, first as a reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times, then as editor of the paper and its prestigious sister publications. He has also served as the editor and executive director of the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting.