It is often asked around Washington, what will the Republican Party become once it stops being the plaything of Donald Trump? This day seems to be arriving more quickly than we might have thought not long ago, especially after President Trump’s wretched response to the Charlottesville rally, which at long last led some Republicans to begin to wonder about his moral fitness to be president.
This followed less shocking but nevertheless striking reversals for Trump, notably the Senate Republicans’ failure to repeal Obamacare. As a result, the president’s approval rating among Republicans has slipped in some polls below 80 percent. That’s not quite the danger zone yet, but it’s low for an incumbent president. It’s the number to watch for the simple reason that it’s the only one congressional Republicans care about. Republicans in Congress have carved their districts in such a way that they needn’t worry much about Democratic or even independent voters. In fact, many of them live in greater fear of losing a primary to a pro-Trump challenger from their right, should they waver in their support for his policies, than they do about losing a general election. But if Trump’s approval rating among Republicans falls considerably—to the point that Republican House members feel they have to worry more about losing a general-election race to an anti-Trump Democrat than losing a primary contest to a Trump loyalist—they’ll start deserting him.
Some event could propel the desertion forward. Charlottesville alone won’t quite do it, especially after Trump fired chief strategist Steve Bannon, which to some degree controlled the damage among establishment Republicans. But many potential flash points remain. A large number of Republican senators have cautioned, for example, that for Trump to order the firing of special prosecutor Robert Mueller would “certainly be an extraordinarily unwise move,” as Maine’s Susan Collins put it in June.1 On August 3, two bills—with bipartisan support—were introduced in the Senate, one to allow Mueller to challenge his firing in court and one to demand that Justice Department officials involved in any such firing be forced to testify. So the ground has been shifting rather dramatically.
The president, of course, remains obdurate and dangerously unpredictable. There are numerous eventualities about which the chatterers of Washington chat. Needless to say, in the reality that Trump has created, none is too outlandish to be taken seriously. I mentioned recently to a journalist friend that I could foresee the House impeaching the president and the Senate voting to convict, but Trump simply refusing to leave the White House. He countered with a hypothetical in which Trump does accept his removal from office but turns around and runs in the Republican primary against President Pence in 2020—and wins.
Other Republicans, naturally, are preparing for Trump’s demise. Imagine the following scenario: in 2018, the Democrats recapture the House. (That’s far from an impossibility; they’d need to pick up twenty-four seats to gain control, and the average loss for a president in the midterm election of his first term since Jimmy Carter’s time is twenty-eight.) Mueller, who somehow was not fired, issues a report that offers proof that the Trump campaign did coordinate certain matters with the Kremlin and beyond that paints an undeniably lurid picture of the president’s financial indebtedness to certain Russians. (It is believed that Mueller has, or will have, Trump’s tax returns.)
In other words, the evidence of collusion with Russia is enough to compel a third or more of Senate Republicans to agree to the grim duty of removing him from office. Mike Pence, according to this sequence of events, would become president in, say, the fall of 2019. As the incumbent, he would surely seek the Republican nomination in 2020. But he may have been too damaged by his association with Trump—dozens or hundreds of beaming affirmations by Pence of Trump’s greatness and integrity, all on video—that he won’t have time to get the stink off him. He will face challengers. For an incumbent president to be denied renomination by his party is unusual in our history; it’s happened just five times. But as we’ve seen, almost everything about the current moment is unusual.
Most of the best-known Republicans in Congress are either getting too old or are too compromised by their accommodations to Trump to be candidates. John McCain is about to turn eighty-one and has, we now know, a severe form of cancer. His dramatic vote against the Republican “skinny repeal” health care bill, just before the August recess, was no doubt cast with his legacy in mind. Mitch McConnell, the majority leader of the Senate, has now broken with Trump; in any case, he also is too old, and too much a creature of the Senate, to be a presidential contender. Lindsey Graham, at sixty-two, is younger than the other two, and he’s a Trump critic more often than not. But he has been around Washington a long time as well. A generational shift is underway.
And so, if you listen closely, you can hear the sound of some younger Republicans in the Senate positioning themselves to be the hero who rides in and picks up the pieces. The Republican most critical of Trump has probably been Arizona’s junior senator, Jeff Flake, fifty-four, who called on Trump to quit the race last fall after the notorious Access Hollywood tape emerged and who this year spoke disapprovingly of Trump’s firing of former FBI director James Comey. Recently, Politico reported that Trump has said privately that he would commit $10 million of his own money to a credible Republican willing to mount a primary challenge to Flake next year.2
That challenger appears to be an ardently pro-Trump former state senator named Kelli Ward. After Charlottesville, Flake tweeted: “We can’t claim to be the party of Lincoln if we equivocate in condemning white supremacy.” Ward tweeted: “I agree—stop the hate, violence, & rhetoric on both sides.” A Trump kind of gal. Flake isn’t generally put on insiders’ lists of potential presidential candidates, although he seems to be trying to change that. He just released a book of his own, which he had the chutzpah to call Conscience of a Conservative, echoing the famous Barry Goldwater title. In it, he reproves his party for creating Trump and urges his colleagues to stand up to the man. If Flake survives his reelection bid, we’ll surely see him trying to look presidential.
In the group that is already short-listed for 2020, which will likely include Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio and House Speaker Paul Ryan, the figure who has engaged in the most insistent anti-Trump positioning—and may be the least tainted by Washington politics—is former university president and first-term Nebraska senator Ben Sasse. He refused early on to endorse Trump and wrote a long, solemn open letter to Trump supporters on his Facebook page last year explaining his opposition. “Do you believe,” he asked the then candidate’s backers, “the beating heart of Mr. Trump’s candidacy has been a defense of the Constitution?” Some Republicans, in an effort to thwart Trump, pressed him to jump into the race last year, but he demurred.
Back in January, he was the first Republican senator to criticize the new administration’s travel ban. He also does something no other Republican senator has been clever enough to do—he fights the president on his preferred terrain, Twitter. When Trump sent out a now infamous tweet in June describing MSNBC morning co-host Mika Brzezinski as “bleeding badly from a face-lift,” Sasse was quick to tweet back: “Please just stop. This isn’t normal and it’s beneath the dignity of your office.”
Journalists read Twitter avidly, and such are the standards in Washington these days that a tweet like that from a Republican counts as courage. And so Sasse gets press coverage, typified by this Time headline from May: “How Senator Ben Sasse Became the Anti-Trump.” Even the liberal magazine Mother Jones has sung from this hymnal, with a profile last fall under the headline “If the Republican Party Can Be Saved From Its Trumpocalypse, This Senator Could Be the Key.” That’s a quick ascent for someone who’s been a senator for just two and a half years. What’s he got?
It turns out that Sasse is the kind of Republican whom Washington prognosticators delight in. He’s from the heartland, but he has a hefty educational pedigree—Harvard undergrad and Yale doctorate in American history. He even spent a year at Oxford, and he earned a master’s degree from St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, which may not be Harvard or Yale but is known for a blue-chip curriculum in the Great Books. He has spent time among liberals in their natural environment.
He has also worked as a bureaucrat, and not in the manly Pentagon but as an assistant secretary in the Department of Health and Human Services in George W. Bush’s administration. And he became a university president, at Midland University, about a hundred miles from where he grew up in Plainview, Nebraska. He is forty-five years old. He is by all accounts personable. He is handsome, but in a certain undemanding way, like the leading man’s best buddy in a 1930s screwball comedy.
He is also extremely right-wing. His Yale dissertation was about the backlash to the Supreme Court’s school prayer decisions of the early 1960s, which banned prayer in public school classrooms. The conservative Weekly Standard described it as “a sophisticated and brilliant dissection of how a lot of the standard liberal narratives about American political realignment in the last fifty years are woefully incomplete at best and self-serving fictions to attack religious conservatives at worst.”3 Sasse’s time in Health and Human Services helped him understand Obamacare in ways that his colleagues couldn’t, and this enabled him to play a particularly active part in seeking its dismemberment. During the 2014 race I e-mailed a prominent Tea Party activist to ask, roughly, which Senate races that year were most important to him; who would he most like to see as a senator? Sasse topped his list.
As his work on school prayer suggests, Sasse is a religious conservative. He opposes same-sex marriage, and his campaign website said in 2014 that government “cannot force citizens to violate their religious beliefs under any circumstances.” He’s a free trader. He was one of the first senators to suggest this summer, when it became clear that repealing and replacing Obamacare wasn’t going to be so easy, that the Republicans should proceed with repeal only. His one recent departure from party orthodoxy came when he questioned the large tax cuts for the rich built into the Senate health care bill, but he’s not against lower taxes—they’re just not as high a priority for him as social issues and cutting federal spending.
For all his criticism of Trump, Sasse has rarely voted against the president. The website FiveThirtyEight gives him a “Trump score” of 93.6 percent, which is 3.6 percent more than they might have predicted based on Trump’s victory margin in Nebraska (25 percent). Of fifty-one votes tracked by FiveThirtyEight through August 1, Sasse opposed Trump’s position just three times, twice on sanctions on Russia and other nations, and once on the nomination of Trump’s US trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, who was confirmed overwhelmingly and didn’t need Sasse’s vote. Sasse is a particularly ardent admirer of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who was occasionally confused and clearly out of her depth at her confirmation hearing.
Sasse’s book is a sure sign that he is contemplating the presidency, but this is not a normal senator’s book. For starters, he is not pictured on the cover, staring meaningfully off into a better future that he alone has the fortitude to create. Second, it’s not a policy book; it’s not built around chapters on jobs and taxes and values, and it doesn’t even mention Trump. It’s a meditation on where America took a wrong turn. While this is a common-enough politicians’ subgenre, the twist here is that the social unit that Sasse calls upon to repair this torn fabric is not the government but the family.
Thus he hits a smart exacta. A thoughtful rumination that includes mentions of philosophers, theologians, and political scientists, from Rousseau and Martin Luther to Richard Hofstadter and Allan Bloom, appeals to the Washington swells; the lamentation about our dissipating resolve as a people, and his argument about the wellspring of our redemption, will warm the hearts of conservatives.
In The Vanishing American Adult, Sasse portrays a nation that has hurtled itself in a grave direction. He worries that our texting, sexting, video-game obsessed children will not be able to uphold and advance American greatness when they come of age, and he places the blame on parents:
I believe our entire nation is in the midst of a collective coming-of-age crisis without parallel in our history. We are living in an America of perpetual adolescence. Our kids simply don’t know what an adult is anymore—or how to become one. Many don’t see a reason even to try. Perhaps more problematic, the older generations have forgotten that we need to plan to teach them. It’s our fault more than it is theirs.
He goes on to explain that he was met with this epiphany during his tenure at Midland University, when a group of students was asked to set up a twenty-foot Christmas tree in the basketball arena. They put the tree up, but they decorated only the bottom seven or eight feet. A school official appeared and asked them why they hadn’t secured a ladder to dress the rest of the tree. They replied that this thought hadn’t occurred to them:
This startled me. It worried me for the kids. Was this a problem unique to Midland’s culture?… I simply couldn’t reconcile the decision to leave while the work was still incomplete with how my parents had taught me to think about assignments. I couldn’t conceptualize growing up without the compulsion—first external compulsion, but over time, the more important internal and self-directed kind of compulsion—to attempt and to finish hard things, even when I didn’t want to.
One agrees that it is kind of hard to imagine why students would settle for decorating one third of a Christmas tree. One is not, however, hard-pressed to conjure explanations that fall well short of an alarming lack of national resolve. They might not have cared very much. They might have been anxious to get back to more pleasurable pursuits. And why weren’t they provided with all the needed supplies in the first place?
“Our kids,” Sasse writes, “no longer know how to produce.” And there is a sense in which he may be on to something. One reads frequently that today’s young people—born while Ken Starr was pursuing Bill Clinton, toddlers on September 11, grade-schoolers at the time of the great meltdown of 2008—don’t work as much as previous generations. Or that they keep their noses pressed to their smart phones (they were also grade-schoolers when the iPhone was unveiled), or that new technology has created a generation that will never, say, balance a checkbook or have to visit library stacks to gather information. We also read that working-class kids in rural America aren’t showing as much initiative as in the old days, since attractive jobs and opportunities have left many of the places where they live.
This sweeping assertion, however, doesn’t really square with evidence that the opposite problem is also pervasive. We hear endless stories of Tiger Moms who start planning their children’s assaults on Princeton and Wesleyan from the time they are twelve years old. In some counties—counties Hillary Clinton is likely to have carried last fall, by the way, which included just two of Nebraska’s ninety-three—a more prevalent concern is not that children are underachieving but that they are overachieving to the point of needing medication to manage their anxieties.
Sasse devotes a page or two to all this, but for the most part this overstressed America isn’t on his radar screen. What does get under his skin is the way the American school—under the guidance of John Dewey, who is the book’s dark eminence—“ceased to be an instrument supporting parents and became instead a substitute for parents.” One can see in these passages why Sasse is such a fan of DeVos. The vision of DeVos and her allies—a more authoritarian approach to education, more home-schooling, stricter discipline in charter schools—provides the solution for the problem Sasse apprehends and describes of an undisciplined, aimless teenage population. Clinton-voting parents of kids desperate to get a 98 instead of a 97 on that AP calculus exam see a very different set of problems—and solutions.
At the same time Sasse laments the rise of “softer parenting,” which is traceable to the influence of Benjamin Spock. He and his wife have homeschooled two of their three children and strive to teach them lessons like the “moral sense that air conditioning is a ‘nice-to-have’ luxury, not a ‘need-to-have’ requirement.”
This argument may seem hectoring, but the book has the opposite effect on the reader. Sasse’s tone is sincere and affable, and here and there he even pauses to cross-examine his own convictions. He comes across as intelligent and widely read, but he’s not a show-off. He ladles praise on several left-of-center thinkers, such as Paula Fass, the important historian of childhood in America, and the critic Neil Postman, whom Sasse adores. He may be a man who abhors more or less every social development in this country since Elvis Presley, but he does it in the nicest possible way.
The Vanishing American Adult is not per se a political book, but its author is a politician, so of course it is a political book. Its core assertion about “perpetual adolescence” is contradicted by mountains of actual data, which tell us that the United States is the most overworked nation in the world, with more households per capita in which two parents work than almost any other country, with longer hours worked, with shorter vacations (and no mandated paid vacation time, unlike every other advanced country in the world), with no paid parental leave, and more.
It’s an annoying attribute not just of Sasse’s book but of all such books by conservatives that structural economic effects are never to blame for anything. It’s always values-related; something “we” are guilty of having come to accept, usually foisted on us by liberals. But it might also be the case that the hardworking children Sasse remembers were hardworking because they had something to work hard for: they were growing up in an expanding economy with a real chance for upward mobility. Recreating those conditions may require a values shift; but it also certainly requires considerable public investment. To acknowledge economic causes, however, would be to admit that economic solutions exist, yet imposing those would mean government and taxes, and of course that cannot be considered under any circumstances.
Putting all that evidence aside, however, as Republicans so frequently and skillfully do, the message will touch conservative readers deeply, especially those most affronted by the perpetual adolescent currently living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Which brings us back to consideration of what a post-Trump Republican Party might look like.
Some matters are impossible to predict, depending on events. Still, I think this much is clear: There will be much talk of a return to normalcy. The press will help advance the narrative that the Grand Old Party has reversed course after a calamity, or—so we hope—a near calamity.
But what, for this party, is “normal”? It’s a party of increasingly hard-right positions across the board. Sasse gets 100 percent ratings from the Club for Growth, the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, the American Conservative Union, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, and other vote-rating groups on the right, and those that don’t give him a perfect score come close. His top two donors, by far, are the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The latter group does not, as the name might suggest, give its imprimatur to pretty much any conservative out there doing battle against a liberal. It endorses only the rightest of the right. In 2014, for example, it supported only seven Republican candidates, four of them Tea Party challengers to Republican incumbents, all far to the right. Sasse was one of the seven.
And yet he does not present himself as an ideologue. In mid-August, he posted a longish message on his Facebook page in response to Charlottesville. It raised sixteen points of concern about the ruptured civic fabric, expressing fear of more violence and urging “each of us” to “pause and teach our kids again about universal human dignity and about love of neighbor.” This is pablum. And it’s stunningly passive. You’d never know this was written by a United States senator who has some power to guide his constituents away from the resentments that he describes them nursing.
But he likes Neil Postman and can quote Augustine—and temperamentally he will be about as opposite from Donald Trump as a person can be. Plus he’s not on his third wife, and he seems a wholesome and extremely pious family man who will be able to talk about how he made his daughter spend a summer castrating bulls so she’d know what hard work was. After Trump, a kind face to sell, or conceal, that party’s policies may be what the Republican Party will decide it needs.
—August 29, 2017