This Guy Might Run for President Someday
Don’t let him get away with BS.
When I was a kid growing up in rural midwestern America in the early aughts, I would head to my high school on Saturday mornings in the fall to watch game film and lift weights with my football coaches and teammates. I hated it. It was early, I always got yelled at for lifting incorrectly, and the film sessions took forever. But some of my peers liked it, I’m sure, and look back more fondly on the experience than I do.
Everyone had a childhood, some with more pleasant memories and positive role models than others. But here’s the problem: America is losing Ben Sasse’s childhood, and people are dying because of it. At least that’s one takeaway from Sasse’s book on tribalism and a loneliness epidemic titled Them: Why We Hate Each Other—and How to Heal. You see, Sasse, a U.S. Senator from Nebraska, used to go to a gym on Friday nights with his dad—a football coach—and other people in his town. People don’t do that anymore; we’ve lost that “hometown-gym-on-a-Friday-night feeling,” and the story of that loss, to Sasse in Them, is not about nostalgia, but part of “an exploration of why America seems to be tearing apart at the seams.”
No one should care about my teenage Saturday mornings, and no one should care about Ben Sasse’s teenage Friday nights. The problems his book highlights are real, and I get that politicians frame their books with anecdotes meaningful to them. But the “hometown-gym-on-a-Friday-night feeling” is evidence of everything wrong with having people like Ben Fucking Sasse making decisions that affect people’s lives. We need Ben Sasse telling us how to heal and move forward about as much as we need Gwyneth Paltrow’s at-home coffee enema kit.
I’ve never liked Ben Sasse. I think his party’s ethos is that of bullying, and so I find Republicans like him with nice-guy-dad personas who pretend to disavow the mean rhetoric infuriating. But the extent to which I hated Ben Sasse was not really constructive. Why did he make me angrier than any of the others? Why was his posturing and scolding of the president and parents for not raising their kids correctly more loathsome than hypocrisy or sycophancy? People who like farmland and sports, write books, and study history should be the ones who I could respectfully disagree with, so I bought his book. Turns out, Ben Sasse is right about my interest in politics feeding my tribal instincts and making me dumber and less happy. He’s also still a giant fraud.
The Book’s Selective History, Bibliography, and Prescriptions
Them lays out the problems facing the country: life expectancy is going down for white people, Americans don’t have enough friends, occupational turnover is high. This is made worse by the fact that we sort ourselves into partisan “anti-tribes” and there’s a profit motive for media outlets to make us mad at each other. It was way better, to Sasse, when we worked in the same place for decades and sorted based on something other than politics.
But this coming from Ben Sasse is a canard, and it’s how Republicans whitewash history and carefully choose their victims to serve their interests. Sasse is a United States Senator. He’s not a school counselor. He’s not a pastor. He’s not even the town football coach. His book about the importance of family and community rings hollow in the face of his actual policy preferences and framing of issues like marriage equality.
As Osita Nwanevu writes in his review of Them in The New Yorker,
Sasse simply elides the possibility that some Americans might find more happiness in greater mobility—L.G.B.T. people from conservative towns, for example, who might find leaving their familiar communities to be not only desirable, but a matter of survival. He’s no more interested in reflecting upon the contradictions between his opposition to same-sex marriage and his putative goal of promoting stabilizing bonds and the formation of families.
The problem that “more politics can’t fix” in Them is draped in the politics and rhetorical tactics of Ben Sasse. He ostensibly goes after both sides in Part II of his book but chooses his targets carefully. What’s bad about the left? Liberals. What’s bad about the right? Sean Hannity.
He cites Charles Murray’s work while detailing America’s problems. In many circles, Charles Murray’s work is seen as nakedly racist. A protest of his appearance at a liberal college turned ugly. In other circles, he’s a hero and influences conservative public policy. What he’s not, for any side, is apolitical, and Sasse citing his work in a book about politics and legislation not solving problems is nonsense. If you’re a liberal college student, and you grab a professor by the hair at a protest, you’re an asshole. If you’re a conservative Senator, and you call Charles Murray’s work “monumental” in your book with “how to heal” in the subtitle, you’re also an asshole.
Sasse has a PhD in American history but presents the hypocrisies of a past he so desperately wants back as minor caveats: “The 1950s and 1960s were hardly a golden age of course. Segregation was the norm, infant mortality was relatively high, and strong local communities sometimes entailed suffocating conformity.” He cites Robert Putnam’s work on the collapse of community and how trends towards more diversity actually “divide communities and undermine the sense of collective trust among neighbors.” What’s the remedy for this to Senator Sasse? Get an education, get a job, and get married. Sasse has nothing to say about the persistence of the pernicious forces he mentions: segregation, healthcare outcomes inequity, and conformity.
For people not from the overwhelmingly white rural midwest of Sasse’s and my youths, these are not blips in the story of America’s greatness. Sasse’s caveats had real victims. In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes to his son about the selective comfort in the story Americans tell themselves about the country’s history and its promise: “[F]or so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option, because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies.” Ben Sasse has no time for this history and present, citing Tocqueville on “the heart and soul of America” and actually writing that “[i]n America, we are all minorities.” To be fair, he says this in the context of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, but the fact that he chose these words and published them is telling.
“Children at the top have more opportunities than children at the bottom,” Sasse writes. “And—in a stark departure from the middle half of the last century—it’s increasingly difficult to move up.” In the face of this problem, his writing suggests that kids weed soybean fields and keep off their electronics. Indeed, if only we all had a sage dad like Ben Sasse with keen observations about our current world like this one: “New, often free, blogging software allows anyone to become a publisher. YouTube allows anyone to become a filmmaker.” Wow, Senator, tell us about these search engine things, too.
Whereas his obfuscations on American history are infuriating, some of his points about culture and prescriptions for remedy are downright laughable. On limiting tech use, he writes, “Adults are getting in on the [phone-free] experience, too. Chris Rock, Alicia Keys, Ariana Grande, and many other performers regularly require concertgoers to hand over their phones before taking their seats.” Yeah, dude, performers with proprietary content are banning phones just like you are making your kids stay off their phones on Sunday.
BS from B.S.
It’s worth focusing some on Sasse’s sleight of hand in his framing of himself publicly and in this book. Sasse has kind of made a name for himself as an original and persistent conservative Trump critic. In Them, he writes about his 2014 Senate campaign that “[n]either party seemed to have a plan for the future, so I ran against both of them.” He has since even said that he’s considered leaving the Republican Party. But he’s way more interested in owning the libs and appeasing backlash and grievance politics than his book’s premise or his posturing would suggest.
He tells a story about a constituent who wrote to him in 2016 saying that he hated Trump but felt that a Clinton administration would include “hunting Christians in the street for sport.” Why did a Nebraska man think this? Sasse suggests that it has to do with intolerance. Against Christians, that is. He brings up a report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights that argued terms like “religious liberty” had become “code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Christian supremacy or any form of intolerance.” Sasse says the report ignores America’s history of religious liberty including “a Muslim-American who triumphed over retailer Abercrombie & Fitch when one of its stores refused to hire her, citing her hijab as counter to its ‘look policy’ for employees.”
This is Trumpism with footnotes. It frames a man’s anxiety in a changing America in the context of victimhood and then suggests that resentful, white, Christian, and male are identities to safeguard in line with a rosy story of American liberty and protections from discrimination.
Sasse spends a bunch of time trying to explain why that angry guy would turn to a man like Trump. The man’s America is under assault and, to Sasse, this had led him to an “anti-tribe” in the same way that people on the left coalesce around what they oppose politically. We’re all suffering from the same evil to Ben Sasse: the Commission on Civil Rights and the guy from Nebraska.
Except we’re not, and Sasse should not get away with this bullshit. If that man didn’t want to vote for Hillary Clinton, he didn’t have to vote for her. But along with choosing her opponent, the man bitches to his senator about the choices before reasoning that his Christian faith and concerns for the Supreme Court are of primary importance and lead him to vote for the racist, philandering, moron Republican nominee. Sasse is too busy being triggered by the phrase “Christian supremacy” in the report he cites to actually see it at work, abetting evils in his own backyard.
The real heroes and villains in Them are pretty clear when you remove the thin veil of ‘why can’t we all just get along.’ He writes of why young conservatives would invite someone like Milo Yiannopoulos to their campus and calls these students “some of the most thoughtfully energetic people in America.”
Trump is conspicuously absent from almost all of the book, but in one of the few times Trump does come up, Sasse tells readers that birtherism, “the wacky theory had, in fact, originated on the left.” I agree with Sasse’s point in this passage that Trump is more symptom than disease and that he merely “exploited [outrage] better than anybody else.” But publishing in the fall of 2018, well into the Trump presidency, Sasse very deliberately chooses to bring up the 2008 Democratic Primary and very deliberately chooses the benign word “wacky.” Don’t let Ben Sasse get away with this bullshit.
After channeling Andy Rooney in Part I and courageously saying Twitter and cable news are maybe bad in Part II, Sasse has platitudes and tips on how to live your life more like Ben Sasse lives his in Part III. He quotes Dr. King’s criticism in the 1960s of “new militarism” that risked a “distrusting of all white people” in “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and writes, “King was dedicated to the American ‘we.’” In this section, he conveniently leaves out the parts of the same letter where King excoriates the “white moderate” and feels “satisfaction from being considered an extremist” because “[w]as not Jesus an extremist for love?...Was Abraham Lincoln not an extremist?”
Instead, reflecting on King, Sasse writes, “Deep, enduring change does not come through legislation or elections.” It’s too bad Sasse wasn’t around yet to tell Dr. King he was wrong and wasting his time focusing on issues of voting rights and laws for workers.
Him: And How to Heal
Clearly, I am anti-tribal in my views on American society and government. I’m way more incensed by the GOP and Jerry Falwell Jr. than I ever am inspired by something from the DNC or Matt Damon. I don’t have a healthy news diet and should replace some of my screeds on this blog and to my friends and family with my other interests and hobbies. That will be a goal for me this year. But if you are like me and think that the United States and world are going in the wrong direction, I implore you to not let people like Ben Sasse continue to get away with bullshit.
I personally chose a career in education and have worked in schools in the United States and abroad. After working in education himself, Ben Sasse chose to pursue a career in electoral politics. He doesn’t get to be an unrelentingly conservative and baldly partisan member of the U.S. Senate and then be the ointment for healing division. Sasse writes, “Politics is supposed to be downstream from culture, but our anti-tribal zealots are pretending that politics can provide us with meaning. It won’t work.”
It won’t work for Ben Sasse’s career and policy goals, that is. If everyday life and the politicians who make decisions that affect people’s everyday lives are connected, Ben Sasse is a con man and his party, bound together by exurban moms and dads for tax cuts and xenophobic, white identity resentment, is wrapped in a lie. I was very guilty of not taking Trumpism seriously in its nascent stages with figures like Sarah Palin. It’s very possible that the next iteration of the planet-destroying, regressive economics bully coalition will be headed up by someone like Ben Sasse, and so it’s time to start seeing and calling out that inevitable rebranding.
You should absolutely get meaning from things that aren’t politics. Politics has and always will be rotten and nasty. It also recently cost me $14.99 and a bunch of time. But elections have consequences, and people in office have power over other human beings’ decisions, outcomes, and lives. Towards the end of his book, Sasse writes, “I want my neighbors to know that, even if we disagree on every policy question from A to Z, [my wife] and I will scoop their son up if he scrapes his knee.”
What kind of sociopath wouldn’t help a neighborhood child who was hurt? I trust that Ben Sasse is good to the people whose houses are near his, but he also represents and speaks for a pretty big fucking neighborhood where, for some kids, scraped knees and cable news are the least of their concerns.