Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) has been in the news a lot lately due to a telephone town hall with constituents where he provided a critique of Donald Trump for his many leadership failures. Some consider this a breakthrough for conservatives desperate to see a return to conservative values, but Sasse’s criticism is too little, too late.
Ben Sasse rode the TEA Party wave to victory in 2014 by defeating Mitch McConnell and the GOP establishment to win the Nebraska Republican Party primary for the US Senate. Later, when he won the general election by defeating Democrat David Domina 64% to 31%, he joined the new Republican majority in the Senate — a majority created thanks to the hard work of the conservative base of the party.
For a while, it looked like Sasse might be the Senate counterpart to Justin Amash in the House. Like Amash, Sasse often put conservative principles ahead of party, even if it meant criticizing Trump or his fellow Republicans.
In September 2018, it looked like Sasse was considering doing something Amash has done by leaving the GOP. In a State of the Union interview on CNN, Sasse revealed to host Jake Tapper that he “thinks about leaving the GOP every morning” and that he considered himself an “independent conservative who caucuses with the Republicans.”
As I pointed out when Sen. Ben Sasse was enshrined into the Gutless On Principles Hall of Shame in September 2019, he has been a mixed bag in the “independent conservative” department, particularly where Donald Trump is concerned.
For example, during the 2016 primaries, Sasse posted “An Open Letter to Trump Supporters” on his Facebook page where he pointed out the hypocrisy of the Republican party for supporting Donald Trump. At the end of his letter, after providing a long list of grievances, he concluded, “I can’t support Donald Trump.”
In October 2017, the Nebraska senator openly challenged Trump for his frequent attacks on the so-called “Fake News” media, accusing him of “recanting of the Oath [he] took … to preserve, protect, and defend the First Amendment.”
Sasse’s independent conservatism came to an end in March 2019. After opposing Trump’s national emergency declaration on the border a month earlier, saying that such an order would make it “almost impossible to go back to a Constitutional system of checks and balances,” Sasse voted to uphold Trump’s order, proving that he is willing to abandon the Constitution and conservative principles when politically expedient.
Sasse’s sellout paid off; Trump eventually gave him his “Complete and Total Endorsement” for re-election in 2020. And as we all know, only those who lay prostrate before King Trump earn such an endorsement.
Senator Ben Sasse has done a wonderful job representing the people of Nebraska. He is great with our Vets, the Military, and your very important Second Amendment. Strong on Crime and the Border, Ben has my Complete and Total Endorsement!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 11, 2019
How did Ben Sasse respond to Trump’s late endorsement? During the Senate’s impeachment trial of Donald Trump when there was an opportunity to replace him with a rock-solid conservative, Sasse not only voted to acquit, he voted against calling witnesses or gathering evidence.
Quid pro quo, anyone?
With Trump and the GOP facing another Blue Tsunami in November, some in the Republican Party are trying to sever ties with Trump in an obvious attempt to save their jobs or position themselves for 2024 — in Sasse’s case, probably both.
Forbes.com provides us with a few of the highlights from Sasse’s diatribe against Donald Trump during his town-hall meeting:
Asked by a constituent about his relationship with Trump, Sasse highlighted what they have in common briefly launching into an extended criticism of Trump, according to audio of the call obtained by the Washington Examiner.
Sasse, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, alleged Trump “kisses dictators’ butts” and “sells out our allies,” even going so far as to say he has “flirted with white supremacists.”
Trump “ignored” coronavirus and then “went into full economic shutdown mode” while proposing sub-par mitigation measures, Sasse claimed, summing up his pandemic leadership as not being “reasonable or responsible or right.”
Sasse repeated accusations made by many never-Trump Republicans that Trump doesn’t embody traditional conservative values in his lack of concern for the deficit and his private ridicule of evangelicals, also echoing vocal concerns from some of his GOP Senate colleagues that Trump may have hurt Republicans in Congress electorally.
Sasse’s spokesperson James Wegmann confirmed the comments to Forbes while asserting in a statement that Sasse is only focused on maintaining GOP control of the Senate, which he said is far more important than control of the White House. (emphasis mine)
Suddenly, Trump isn’t too happy with Sen. Sasse.
…Nomination to run for a second term. Then he went back to his rather stupid and obnoxious ways. Must feel he can’t lose to a Dem. Little Ben is a liability to the Republican Party, and an embarrassment to the Great State of Nebraska. Other than that, he’s just a wonderful guy!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 17, 2020
Sasse couldn’t be more obvious. And as Charlie Sykes points out in a New York Daily News opinion piece, it’s too late for a radical reinvention of the Trump GOP. He wrote, in part:
For better or worse, they are stuck with the die they cast long ago, to let themselves become Trumpian lickspittles. The bill for their Faustian bargain has come due.
Over the last four years, they ignored one chance after another to take an off-ramp from Trump. And while they might now boast about driving on his highway at 55 rather than 65, they’re driving on it nonetheless….
Frightened by the prospect of a presidential tweet, they ignored his crude xenophobia, his exploitation of racial divisions, his personal corruption, and his fascination with authoritarian thugs.
They could have said “stop” at any point. They could have raised their voices and used their votes to rebuff him. But they didn’t.
They told themselves that judges or tax cuts made it all worthwhile. They told themselves that this is what the GOP base wanted.
So they didn’t push back as a torrent of falsehoods flowed from the White House, or even when he targeted their own Senate colleagues with insults.
Sykes then set his focus directly on Sasse:
Last fall, Trump critic Sasse, who many conservatives considered a bright light of the Senate, made his peace with Trump in exchange for the president’s support for his re-election.
“For Sasse,” wrote The Washington Post’s James Hohmann, “the past several months have represented something akin to surrender in the war for the soul of modern conservatism.”
If only Sasse’s surrender were an outlier. For Republicans, that has been the story of the last four years.
The bar has been set so low that many claim Donald Trump is a conservative, so the conservative relativism we’re witnessing within the Trumpist GOP isn’t all that surprising — neither is Ben Sasse’s too little, too late critique of Donald Trump.
David Leach is the owner of the Strident Conservative. He holds people of every political stripe accountable for their failure to uphold conservative values, and he promotes those values instead of political parties.