Monday, September 10, 2018

Ben Sasse's Passive-Aggressive Conservatism

My home state, which produces corn and passive-aggressive Republican Senators

As loyal readers know, I hail from the prairies of Nebraska. While I left it 20 years ago it is still a place close to my heart, even if it becomes more foreign to me with each passing year. As a born and bred Nebraskan, I have been especially interested in the political career of Ben Sasse, the first Nebraska politician with a national profile since Bob Kerrey.

He sort of came out of nowhere on a cloud of conservative establishment and media hype, an Ivy League technocrat made Senator. The high fathers of the conservative movement positioned Sasse from the get-go as their scion. Unfortunately for him, he achieved this position right before Donald Trump captured the party's base with white nationalism. This has meant the twilight of the faux policy wonkery of "very serious people" conservatism embodied by the likes of Paul Ryan and yes, Ben Sasse. Sasse occasionally expresses alarm about this state of affairs. This week he claimed to think every day about leaving the Republican Party.

Of course, he hasn't.

Sasse wants to rip apart the social safety net, eliminate reproductive rights, and give even more power to the plutocratic overlords. That's basically the core mission of the Republican Party. He may criticize Trump every now and then, but he votes with him. Instead of using his power as a Senator to investigate the president, he attacks the protestors who dare to raise their voices against Trump's nominee to the Supreme Court. Sasse has always been much harsher in criticizing the people fighting Trump than Trump himself.

Take a look at Sasse's voting record and you'll get the real score. He has voted with Trump 86.7% of the time. Where has he deviated? Well, he voted against a relief package for Puerto Rico. He voted against a continuing resolution to fund the government. He also voted for sanctions against Russia. Sasse obviously does not favor the Trump administration's relations with Russia, but he actually wants it to be stingier with helping people in need, too. I get the feeling that this guy who wrote a book about kids these days needing to work to get character looks at old Lewis Hine pictures of barefoot children in textile mills and longs for the "good old days."

I see a lot of this in Sasse's background. Nebraska is a place where personal interactions thrive on passive-aggression. It is impolite to directly confront people or to "toot your own horn." Insults must be veiled in politeness and moralism. I told a much more blunt friend here in the NYC area that if she wanted to send a message to her departing boss that she was not sad to see him go that there was a Nebraska way to do it. Instead of ignoring him or not getting him a gift, she should get him a lame gift and give to him politely, but with little enthusiasm. That way she would maintain the moral high ground, but also make him know that she was not unhappy about his leaving. My people can be quietly cruel, and I include myself in that assessment.

Someone like Sasse dislikes Trump less for his policies than for his vulgarity. He wants Trump to beat down on immigrants (he voted against a bill that to favor immigrants also opposed by Trump) and immiserate the poor, but to do it with his hand over heart and language about "values" and "tough decisions we have to make." He wants him to Tweet Bible verses, not bravado. He wants a president who will decry abortion without assuming he paid for one.

There are plenty of conservatives out there who share Sasse's concern over Trump's ways of speaking who nonetheless endorse 90% of what he does. The one domestic policy they really and truly oppose is Trump's trade protectionism. That also happens to be a priority for the Koch brothers and other plutocrats who fund conservative politics. My bet is that Sasse is trying to get their attention, maybe for a primary campaign against Trump in 2020. I do no think he will run for re-election in Nebraska, because even his tepid criticism of Trump is going to get him getting primaried. If Trump isn't able to serve out this term, he is also putting himself in a prime position to move up in the future. Of course, he won't come out and say that himself. After all, that would be tooting his own horn.

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