Right on time, Senator Ben Sasse has done it again, and by “it” I mean the one thing he’s good at: generating positive media coverage for himself. In a telephone town hall with his constituents this week, Sasse excoriated President Trump, saying he has “flirted with white supremacists” and “kisse[d] dictators’ butts.” Step aside, The Troops: We have a new Bravest Man in America, and it is the Republican senator who criticized the president long after he accepted that president’s endorsement, after four years of voting with him at almost every step, and after weeks of the president tumbling in the polls.
There might be no better example of the emptiness of the Never Trump Republican creed, at least among those actually elected to office, than Ben Sasse. The Nebraska senator has his own particular shtick going, quite different from what you get from a Jeff Flake or a Mitt Romney, though it’s similarly rooted in a kind of humble, America’s Heartland–style dedication to values like dignity and hard work, as well as the classic Constitution Guy exalting of “civics.” It works well for him: Journalists appear endlessly impressed by Sasse’s elite education and his supposed role as a “good-faith guy” in the party, in contrast to bad-faith guys like Trump or Ted Cruz.
But as Malcolm Harris wrote for this magazine in 2017, Sasse is at the same time a completely orthodox Republican, who “wants to force women to bring their pregnancies to term, put Christ back in the classroom, and cut taxes to make sure that’s all the government can do.” He votes with Trump 86 percent of the time. He voted against impeaching Trump, the most obviously crime-doing president in history, claiming it would damage the “civic health” of the country. Among his criticisms of Trump this week were that his administration has spent too much; Sasse voted for the Trump tax cuts that exploded the deficit. I guess these minor details are just too hard for a good-faith guy to track.
Regardless, Sasse’s antipathy for Trump is an on-again-off-again affair, and whether it’s on or off seems to coincide suspiciously with Sasse’s own electoral needs. As The Washington Post’s James Hohmann ably documented, Sasse made a big show of rebuking Trump in 2016, comparing him to David Duke and vowing to write in Mike Pence’s name on the ballot. But come September 2019, Sasse was a reliable Trumpist. He praised the president’s judicial picks and voted to uphold his national emergency declaration to divert military money to the border wall. As Hohmann noted at the time, “More significant than his voting record is the evolution in Sasse’s tone about Trump and his increasingly long periods of silence.” It seems possible that Sasse, who had announced his reelection campaign in August, was staying mum on Trump with a strategic payoff in mind. And sure enough, on September 10, the president tweeted: “Ben has my Complete and Total Endorsement!” With that plaudit secured, it was inevitable that Sasse, once he had dispatched his Republican primary opponent earlier this year, would resume inveighing against the president’s excesses.
The ever-outsize interest in criticisms of Trump by Republicans like Sasse and his particular brand of faux-concern for civics and civility get to the heart of a noteworthy feature of the discourse in the Trump era: the idea that Trump’s flaws are, by several orders of magnitude, more severe or illiberal or even distinct than those of other Republicans. It’s as if the Republicans who try to send women who miscarry to jail or kick poor children off Medicaid are in a different category, those with whom liberals simply disagree.
Trump’s open corruption, his encouragement of violent racists, absolutely make him a top candidate for worst president ever, though his Republican predecessor gives him very stiff competition, at least on raw death tolls. But many of his worst decisions are only a little worse than we might have experienced under a different Republican president. The liberal mantra that This Is Not Normal may be correct, but it has a flip side: Previous examples of incredible Republican amorality and misrule were by this definition normal—and yearning for those times seems to render the wrong judgment of the pre-Trump era, as well as the potential post-Trump future. It would be to Ben Sasse’s advantage if you thought of Trump as just an aberrance between these two business-as-usual periods.
Take immigration policy, one area where Trump has been especially vicious and aggressively evil. Perhaps a different Republican president might not have pursued an explicit program of separating families at the border; Sasse made waves in 2018 for criticizing this policy. But in the same breath, Sasse used standard Republican talking points about the “catch-and-release” policy and asylum-seekers’ deployment of “magic words,” a way of getting racists mad that refugees aren’t locked up permanently if they have a “credible fear” of returning to their home country. The attack on this standard has been a key pillar of immigration policy under Trump; acting like it’s some secret code that immigrants use to get into this country might not be as bad as openly ginning up fears that Mexicans are rapists, but it’s a difference of degree, not kind. It leads to the same place, where asylum-seekers are turned away. And as my colleague Osita Nwanevu noted in 2018, Sasse opposes sanctuary cities and voted for increasing penalties for immigrants who repeatedly try to enter America. Ben Sasse is not the worst Republican on immigration, but being a Republican on immigration at all is extremely bad.
This is the central lie of the Sasse persona, whether that lie emanates from Sasse himself or the media coverage surrounding him: that a whole host of values like dignity and a public service mindset would fix the problem of the Republican Party being implacably and inherently horrific and inhumane. Against our current predicament, in which a demented and Covid-19-shedding billionaire threatens to abandon democracy to win the election at any cost, Sasse offers a fanfic counterfactual, in which everyone is honest about their disagreements and, even if this arrangement produces no material benefit to everyone, we can at least bask in the normalcy. This fevered dream is nonsense. What really needs to happen is for the Republican Party to be destroyed, from the brutish tyrants like Trump to the QAnon flirts; from the ideologues like Ted Cruz to the high-minded hucksters like Ben Sasse and Mitt Romney.
This GOP seeks to bring the unpopular and dangerous goals of a wealthy elite to fruition against the wishes of the majority of Americans with an explicit program of minority rule, built on voter suppression, gerrymandering, and a Supreme Court stacked in its favor. What it wants is bad, and what Ben Sasse wants is bad, and no amount of “good-faith” political disagreement will change that. I want people to be able to live on the West Coast of this country over the next century without being burned alive in a wildfire every six minutes; Ben Sasse has no interest in and no ideas for making that future happen. It’s certainly more appealing to think that Sasse really means what he says, or even agrees with it, than to think that he is cynically using a set of lofty-sounding ideals as a cover for voting for a set of policies not dissimilar from Trump’s own. Perhaps it’s just nice to tell yourself that there are Good Republicans like Sasse or Flake or Romney, since we’re all stuck with the party for the foreseeable future. But if you do, you are just begging to be conned by these grinning haircuts, whose major objection to Donald Trump is simply that he’s currently blowing it for the rest of the GOP.