Ben Sasse: The Sassiest Boy in America

My home state of Nebraska has punched above its weight when it comes to producing well-known politicians. William Jennings Bryan, the “Prairie Populist” who helped turn the political tide against laissez-faire with his presidential run in 1896, got his start as a House representative from Nebraska. The state was later represented in the Senate from 1913 to 1943 by the “fighting liberal” George Norris, a major progressive voice and later knight for the New Deal.

After Norris’s heyday something awful happened to the state’s politics, and our senators were notable less for progressive populism and for more for their laughable clumsiness. In 1970 when Richard Nixon was trying to nominate a thoroughly mediocre judge for the Supreme Court whose main qualification was being a conservative white Southerner in a play to Tricky Dick’s “Southern Strategy,” Senator Roman Hruska defended the nominee with these immortal words: “Even if he were mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they, and a little chance?”

The mediocrities of the world always seemed to have a place in Nebraska’s Senate delegation. In the passage of Obamacare the thoroughly mediocre conservative Democrat Ben Nelson managed to make headlines by getting concessions for his home state, something conservatives derisively called the “Cornhusker kickback.” It was the only noteworthy thing he did in Congress. Back in the 1990s Jim Exon, another conservative Democrat, sponsored a law to ban the transmission of “indecent” material across the internet. As even Ted Cruz’s Twitter faves reveals, the Supreme Court struck that law down.

Today Nebraska has a Senator who garners a stunning amount of headline space, a man praised by the national press as a Very Serious Man despite firmly belonging in the recent Nebraska tradition of prominent mediocrities. I am talking, of course, about Ben Sasse. He came on the national scene in 2013, floating down from the heavens on a cloud of hype from a conservative media desperate to promote a fresh face to distract from the wizened troglodytes running the show in the Republican party.

As a Nebraskan now living in the Northeast, I was shocked that there were people outside of my home state aware of a Nebraska politician who had yet to establish himself on the state level. Nebraska Democrat Scott Kleeb (from my home Congressional district) got a New Yorker piece written about him, but he was a big deal in Nebraska first before he got national media attention. Sasse’s name was all over the place, being promoted by all kinds of prominent conservatives. I wondered who this man was, and when I saw his “Move The Capitol” ad, my heart sank. This man was in fact every sanctimonious Young Republican prat who I had the displeasure to know in my adolescence and college years.

In the ad Sasse proposes moving the nation’s Capitol to Nebraska. He doesn’t mean this literally, but says that they need “Nebraska values” in Washington, as if Nebraskans are possessed of a special level of virtue that others in other parts of America lack. As someone who grew up in Nebraska, has lived throughout this varied and multifaceted country, and now works in that supposed den of iniquity known as Manhattan, I can say this claim is complete bullshit. Just as New Yorkers are not any more intelligent than people in Nebraska (despite their pretensions), Nebraskans are not more morally virtuous than New Yorkers (despite their considerable self-regard.)

According to the media narrative about Sasse when he arrived on the scene, he embodied the conservative narrative of the Republican Party as “the party of ideas.” He was an erudite product of the nation’s finest universities, not just another grasping politician. Since the rise of Trump he has traded on a reputation of being a brave “Never Trump” Republican, willing to buck his party’s leader for a higher good. As one would imagine, this has earned him glowing coverage in the New York Times. Look a little deeper, however, and you will find that Sasse has voted with Trump 85.6% of the time.

One need look no further than Sasse’s hometown to see his hypocrisy at work. Nowadays the Senator likes to position himself as a conservative Republican on economic and social issues but critical of Trumpian white nationalism. Sasse hails from the small city of Fremont, home of 26,000 souls located about thirty miles northwest of Omaha. After going to Harvard and Yale and working in Washington, Sasse came back in 2010 to run Midland University, a small Lutheran college in town.

Fremont’s biggest employer is a Hormel meat processing plant that has attracted Mexican and Central American immigrant workers to the area. The town has responded by targeting these groups for discrimination with a “show your papers” law. The law requires renters to present proof of legal immigration status to be able to live in the city, and has been affirmed in local referendums. The town pays Kansas politician and racist Trump buddy Kris Kobach $10,000 a year to defend their ordinance.

What did Ben Sasse have to say about this? Well, he was pretty open in his support for the “show your papers” ordinance. Of course, he had to show his support in the most sanctimonious, indirect, Sasse-ian way, claiming that “The reason Fremont is having to wrestle with illegal immigration problems is just because we have a federal government that is fundamentally abdicating its basic responsibilities to secure the border.” Basically this amounted to saying “I won’t directly endorse this but I guess it had to happen because of the evil federal government.” This is the move older siblings make when they grab their younger sibling’s arm and smack them with it and taunt “stop hitting yourself!”

Because all this has to do with an ordinance in a small Nebraska town, Sasse has not been taken to task for it. However, there are other moments since getting elected to the Senate where he has let his mask of civility drop to reveal the typical conservative beneath the Eddie Haskell routine. When people took to the streets to protest in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election he floated the idea that these people were “paid protestors.” It was a claim bereft of evidence and bathed in the sort of conspiratorial thinking that’s supposed to be anathema to respectable conservatives. Sasse’s Trumpian take was soon burning up the Facebook walls of friends and family back in the Cornhusker state, and thrown at me in those heady days.

Trump’s use of white nationalism and his attacks on democracy are what, in the narrative of Never Trumpers, supposedly makes him different from the idealized version of a responsible, tolerant Republican Party. That party died with Charles Sumner, a man today’s Republicans would attack as an SJW. Sasse bashes immigrants and demonizes his opponents like his party leader does. The only real problem he and others of his ilk really have with Trump is that he doesn’t deliver his racism and bile with a smile.

This is not mere hypocrisy. Republicans are well aware that putting a happy face on ruthlessness works. The only hard-Right president they’ve ever had who has maintained a popular image with the general public is Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s Hollywood charm and the senility of his last years in office have obscured his fundamental nastiness. Speaking of Hollywood, back in the Red Scare Reagan ratted on colleagues and helped destroy their careers. This was a man who supported murderous and genocidal regimes in Central America. He kicked off his general election campaign in Neshoba County, Mississippi in 1980 — site of the murder of Cheney, Goodman, and Schwerner in 1964 — with a rousing call for “states rights.”

They tried this act again with Dubya, but he was too stupid and bungling to pull it off. Part of the problem was that most of the nastiness was outsourced to Cheney, meaning that the tumbledown son at the top could only do so much. Sasse, of course, is pretty cagey. You have to be when you’re a Yale PhD who plays country dumb when it suits you. With him I take it personally because I too grew up in rural Nebraska and went on to get a PhD in history, but I gleaned very different lessons than the ones he did.

The best example of this comes in Sasse’s discussion of detasseling. For those who don’t know, detasseling is a common summer job for young people in parts of the rural Midwest. When corn is grown for seed it needs to be cross-pollinated, so the tassels must be torn out of the corn stalks.

In Nebraska in the 1980s and 1990s this work was typically done in a feverish month-long summer season where crews of teenagers went out to the fields before sunrise in school busses every single day. This was my summer work from age thirteen to seventeen, although after my first couple of summers I got to be one of the “checkers” instead of doing “first pull.” According to one of the teachers who ran our crew and wanted to commend us on our promotion, “first pull is dog’s work.” Checking meant less tassel-pulling, but a whole lot of walking under the summer sun.

It was hard work full of days of scorching Nebraska heat alternating with fearsome Great Plains thunderstorms. One time my crew’s bus got stuck in a ditch on a muddy road. Another time the mad dash back to the busses when lightning started striking resulted in both of my shoes getting sucked up by the mud at the bottom of a flooded field. Nevertheless, the money was good and it paid for both my Nintendo and my first stereo.

Then again, I was fortunate enough to live in a family where my wages weren’t needed to support my parents, and to be able to get an education that would allow me to work more fulfilling and higher paying jobs than farm labor. That message also came home to me during my summers in college, when I did factory jobs. In that work I rubbed shoulders with adults who were not getting some cash for college textbooks, but trying to earn their daily bread.

In Sasse’s op-ed about detasseling, he laments that young people today (eyeroll) in rural Nebraska lack character because they are less likely to be doing work. His evidence, oddly enough, comes from his time at Midland University. Evidently he is unaware of the legions of students out there working their way through college. Then again, he seems less concerned about work as the thing that pays the bills and more as an expression of virtue.

Sasse’s take-away from his grueling summer jobs is the need for teenagers to “grow up” and build character. Mine, especially my time in the factory, taught me something very different. I learned that a lot of people work way too hard for too little money. I learned not to look down on people because they did jobs that did not require a degree. I learned that there’s no such thing as “unskilled labor.” That experience only increased my sense that all workers should be treated with dignity and respect.

Sasse, on the other hand, sees this all in Reaganite terms. The youth of today, according to him, are to be seen with a sort of patronizing contempt. People who struggle need to work harder and learn the right values. The wealthy who violate moral precepts on a constant basis in their business and personal lives are mysteriously unmentioned.

People who work their fingers to the bone but stay stuck on the low-wage treadmill simply don’t exist for him. Hard labor is instead a proving ground for well-off children to build the virtues they need to climb the ladder, not a thing that millions of people must do to keep themselves and their families alive. If they do, they must be losers. Let them eat school vouchers. The saga of huckster JD Vance selling his contempt for the working class at every Barnes and Noble across the country and masking it as concern shows that this kind of attitude brings success and accolades from Very Serious People.

But of course, Sasse expresses his disdain with a smile! He shows up to University of Nebraska football games, handing out Runza sandwiches, which is just about the most obnoxiously Nebraska thing you can do in a state that worships college football and fatty food with equal fervor. (For those of you who aren’t Nebraskans, this is the equivalent of a Philadelphia politician showing up to an Eagles game and handing out free cheesesteaks.) He is playing a double game where he is feted by the bigwigs of the conservative movement when he’s in Washington, but when he’s back home he feigns being just another one of the aw-shucks mediocrities praised so heartily by Roman Hruska.

I only wish that Sasse had learned more from his summers detasseling. Too many people in my home state still work too hard for too little, and they deserve someone who represents them who actually knows that. Instead, his brand of Nebraska sanctimony is poised to be a national trend promoted by a Republican party desperate to hide its nastiness under a smiley-faced mask. The Republican Party after Trump will be the same deplorable brew of resentment, bigotry, contempt and greed even if the so-called “Never Trumpers” are the ones in charge of it. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.