On Thursday, the Washington Examiner published excerpts from a recording of a phone conversation between Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, who is running for reelection in a safely red seat, and some of his constituents. The Examiner packaged the story as a scandalous leak because Sasse, a Republican, criticized Republican President Donald Trump during the call.
But as further context emerged—and as multiple major media outlets picked up their own copies of the audio and ran with the story—it became clear that Sasse’s attack was premeditated: The remarks were made at length in response to a question about Trump during an open-lines town hall on Wednesday, not off the cuff during a conversation that the senator might have expected to remain private. Sasse, who has long seen himself as the Republican Party’s intellectual conscience, is purposely distancing himself from a president who seems increasingly unlikely to win reelection.
What should we make of this? Are we witnessing the late emergence of a fed-up centrist dissident in the style of John McCain or Jeff Flake, as mainstream-press headlines suggested? Has Sasse finally recognized that Trump is a potential threat to the American people’s project of mutual self-government?
Not at all! The more cynical conclusion is partly correct: This is a belated spin job by someone who wants integrity to be part of his constantly expanding personal brand but didn’t want to challenge Trump in a way that would have mattered. But the reason why he didn’t challenge Trump is more complicated than a purely cynical lens might suggest—i.e., that he was scared of losing his fancy job as a senator—and you don’t have to be able to see into Sasse’s soul or give him undeserved credit to show how.
Sasse’s biggest problem with Trump is not that the president has imposed a destructive, anti-democratic agenda, but that his impulsiveness, selfishness, and strategic incompetence have created obstacles to the more complete imposition of the hard-line conservative agenda Sasse supports. That’s Sasse’s take, not mine; his full remarks are in a strange way honest and illuminating, and this is what they convey. Here is the first part of his answer:
There are obviously a number of issue areas where President Trump and I have policy alignment now. Or maybe a better way to put it is, where the president has now adopted traditionally Republican positions that he used to reject for the majority of his life when he was funding Democratic candidates. So, for example, one of the places where he’s changed, as we were just mentioning to the last questioner, is I think he’s nominated truly great judges, and I worked with him on that. In fact, I went on the Judiciary Committee after he was elected, explicitly to advocate for the kind of originalists and constitutionalists that he had put on his list, and that he had agreed to nominate.
The judges Trump has nominated—and this is a value-neutral statement—have frequently been partisan operatives who lack traditional qualifications. On the whole, they have acted to lock in unpopular Republican Party positions on issues like abortion rights and access to health care. A number of them have issued decisions that have shielded the Trump administration from being investigated or held accountable for illegal behavior, and others are now issuing crucial rulings in support of the Republican effort to make voting in the election as confusing and difficult as possible. According to Sasse, this is the best thing Trump has done, and it has justified the many failures he illuminates in the section of the call that’s being perceived as scathing criticism:
It isn’t just that he fails to lead our allies, it’s that the United States now regularly sells out our allies under his leadership. The way he treats women, and spends like a drunken sailor, the ways I criticized President Obama for that kind of spending, I criticize President Trump for it as well. He mocks evangelicals behind closed doors. His family has treated the presidency like a business opportunity. He’s flirted with white supremacists. I mean, the places where we differed on COVID. He, at the beginning of the COVID crisis, he refused to treat it seriously for months, he treated it like a news cycle by news cycle PR crisis rather than a multi-year public health challenge, which is what it is.
It is actually true that Sasse has been critical of Trump before this. But his criticism has been restrained and targeted. Why? Part of it may be because he wanted to get reelected without having a primary challenge. But as he will tell you, it’s also because he resents the way Trump damages the right wing by association. Hence his pains to recast the most aggressively partisan Republican president in his own lifetime, whose approval among party members has consistently been through the roof, as an interloper who “adopted traditional Republican positions that he used to reject.” His ideal situation is not one in which the Trump presidency is publicly and decisively repudiated, but one in which Donald Trump recedes and disappears quietly, and is never mentioned in the context of Republican politics at all.
My dissents from President Trump are not only about policy, but it’s also a prudential question, or a political question, about whether or not he’s ultimately driving the country further to the left. Because that’s what I think is ultimately going to happen because of Donald Trump. … And so I think it’s always been imprudent for my party, again, as I mentioned, calling it the party of Lincoln and Reagan. Those are the heights of American history. It has always been imprudent for our party to try to tie itself to a Trumpian brand.
Sasse is clear, in the call, about what he sees as the catastrophic possibility—the threat to the United States—that Trump’s behavior portends. It isn’t that Trump will get reelected and continue using the federal government as an instrument of violent, corrupt white nationalism. It’s that Democrats will take control of the Senate and pack the courts with woke college students (note: they would not necessarily need a supermajority to end the filibuster):
Senate Democrats, if they get to a supermajority, that they can end the filibuster, I’m worried that some of the most terrible nuttiness that we see happening on campus will get imported into our jurisprudence. And that would be a terrible remaking of America. And so, from where I sit, as one of the most conservative guys in the U.S. Senate, I’m now looking at the possibility of a Republican bloodbath in the Senate. And that’s why I’ve never been on the Trump Train.
Does Venezuela come up? You bet!
But I just think if we don’t retain the Senate, there’s a very good chance that 10 years from now we’re going to have a Venezuela-like, dozens of members of the Supreme Court. You can imagine, 30, 40 people on the Supreme Court at some point.
Sasse believes that a Senate run by Chuck Schumer under the presidency of Joe Biden—both of whom are, often to their own detriment, excruciatingly committed bipartisan institutionalists—will put the U.S. on the road to being Venezuela. His words, not mine!
Sasse occupied a crucial position in the Trump-era Republican Party as someone who was respected by movement insiders and outsiders alike. Like New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, Sasse gets liberals to treat his message seriously by demonstrating that he is well-read and perceptive about the ways in which U.S. society fails to meet its citizens’ basic needs . Also like Douthat, the society he envisions in its place would be radically different and more primitive than the one that most Americans want.
Sasse believes—and has shown, with his votes and his words—that the government should have almost no role in guaranteeing citizens a basic quality of life, because the job is better done by “the Rotary Club and the PTA, the synagogues and the churches, the small businesses and local town meetings.” In 2016, he said he wrote in Mike Pence’s name on his presidential ballot because he felt that Pence—the fundamentalist governor of a very red state who was best known, then, for wanting to criminalize abortion and reenable legal discrimination against LGBTQ individuals—would be a better president than Trump.
After Trump won the election anyway, Sasse’s nominal commitment to the values of civil society would have made him a natural fit in the skeptical Senate Republican caucus that at times included Maine’s Susan Collins, Arizona’s Flake, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, and Utah’s Mitt Romney. In Republican majorities consisting of 52 and 53 senators , Sasse’s vote was a critical one, and, in politics, every defection makes another defection more likely.
Instead, he chose to support the even the most nonideological depredations of the McConnell/Trump era—confirming Cabinet officials who had no qualifications for their jobs, attempting to repealing the Affordable Care Act without holding hearings on the bill that would replace it, preventing Democrats from calling witnesses during Trump’s impeachment trial, voting for Trump’s acquittal even as Romney found him guilty of abuse of office, allowing Trump to issue clemency to associates who committed crimes for his benefit, and so forth. His reward was, yes, the perpetuation of his powerful position as a senator. But we should not let the admittedly compelling idea of a would-be hero who was just a little too much of a fraidy-pants to redeem himself distract us from the ways that the Trump administration advanced Sasse’s preexisting, stated commitments to goals like eliminating the ACA, reducing the tax rates paid by corporations and wealthy individuals, and installing a Supreme Court majority that would overturn Roe v. Wade.
One of Ben Sasse’s ambitions is to be a celebrated public intellectual, but another is to dismantle the secular, centralized government that the United States has been building since the early 20th century or so. He supported Trump’s presidency in such a way as to balance these ambitions, and it is a credit to his talents and charm that anyone thinks this new public rebalancing act isn’t part of the same calculation he meant to make all along.
Support Slate’s politics coverage
Slate is covering the stories that matter to you. Join Slate Plus to support our work. You’ll get unlimited articles and a suite of great benefits.