“People here have legitimate concerns and are afraid,” Flake told me as he waited in the wings. Still, he hoped the audience would be able to distinguish him from the president, whom he spent last year’s election season steadfastly refusing to endorse—making him one of the few Never Trump Republicans in Congress who never caved.
But when it came time for Flake to take the stage, he was met with a fierce swell of hisses and boos. “Thank you!” he said over and over again, without irony. “Thank you!” When the crowd quieted, he took a stab at self-deprecation. “Senators are great at filibustering, but I don’t want to do that. I want to get right to questions.” With that, the flogging began.
The audience battered the senator with one hostile question after another, then interrupted each of his answers. When Flake tried to defend Republicans’ decision to block Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court confirmation, a man near the front barked “Bullshit!” while the rest of the crowd chanted “Shame on you!” When a constituent mentioned the shooting death of an 8-year-old boy in a question about gun laws, Flake began, “As a father, I can’t imagine—” and was promptly met with impatient shouts of “Answer the question!” At one point, a man with a buzz cut walked up and flipped him off with both hands before casually ambling back to his seat.
Throughout the ordeal, Flake remained almost suspiciously good-natured. He waited patiently for each noisy round of jeering to pass, then smiled and invited the next question. After a while, his preternatural niceness began to irritate some people. “I hope behind that smile that you’re doing some serious soul-searching,” one man reprimanded.
As the night wore on, even some of Flake’s detractors expressed grudging respect for his stamina. By the time the town hall wrapped up, he had been going for two and a half hours—blowing well past the scheduled end time. But he noticed a small group of constituents congregated in front of the stage, so he stuck around to chat.
These lingerers were not all, or even mostly, fans, but as Flake talked with them, the vitriol that had permeated the evening seemed to dissipate. Several people thanked him for staying; a couple of them requested his office’s help navigating a tricky bureaucratic issue. One constituent—a friendly guy who would later reveal himself to me as an MSNBC connoisseur—leaned in to deliver Flake a parting message. “Even if you disagree with us on legislation and everything, when the president says these insane things, if … [you] can just stand up and go, ‘We don’t all believe that’—that’s all we’re asking. Just stand up.”
Flake nodded affably. “I appreciate that,” he said, smiling. “I’ve tried to do so.”
Not quite satisfied, the constituent took another run at him. “You’ve got to be a little more …” he began, but adjectives failed him. As the senator moved on to the next handshake, the man’s words hung in the air: A little more what? Brash? Loud? A little more like Donald Trump? Is there no longer a place in politics for someone like Jeff Flake?