The last time he and Trump had a public spat, he politely complained to the president — publicly — that he’d prefer to keep their disagreements private. This was after he had released a statement calling Trump’s attempt to defer payroll taxes via an executive order “constitutional slop.”
This doesn’t sound very “private” to me.
And it probably wasn’t intended to be. A common read this afternoon on why this not very “private” phone call leaked is that Sasse wanted it out there to pre-position himself for the post-Trump era, which seems to be approaching rapidly. He got elected as a small-government conservative in 2014, very much within the party’s mainstream. He turned around two years later to find that his base didn’t care much about small government after all, just culture war and own-the-libs “dominance” politics. So … he shut up. From 2017 through the middle of this year, Sasse was a mostly silent figure in the caucus, popping up occasionally to remind voters that the Senate was broken or that China is a threat to the free world or that abortion is wrong (all true, by the way) but otherwise keeping a low profile and trying to ride out the Trumpy storm.
And the president appreciated his silence. Sasse had been a harsh critic of Trump in 2016 but his subsequent good-soldier approach, culminating in a vote for acquittal at Trump’s impeachment trial in February, earned him enough goodwill to receive Trump’s endorsement in his Senate race this year. Sasse won his primary easily — and then immediately took to criticizing Trump publicly again, not just on things like “constitutional slop” but on his flirtation with QAnon. Trump noticed that too.
Now here we are, less than three weeks from an election the president’s likely to lose, and suddenly a sustained critique of Trump by Sasse is trickling into the press. Sure sounds to me like a guy who’s very eager for the tea-party era to return — to the point that he’s been lobbying publicly against Steve Mnuchin’s big-ticket stimulus spending since July — is laying the groundwork early to blame Trump and Trumpism if the bottom falls out of the GOP on November 3.
And then he added: “But the reality is that he careened from curb to curb. First, he ignored COVID. And then he went into full economic shutdown mode. He was the one who said 10 to 14 days of shutdown would fix this. And that was always wrong. I mean, and so I don’t think the way he’s lead through COVID has been reasonable or responsible, or right.”
Sasse also explored Trump’s foreign policy and other issues.
“The way he kisses dictators’ butts. I mean, the way he ignores the Uighurs, our literal concentration camps in Xinjiang. Right now, he hasn’t lifted a finger on behalf of the Hong-Kongers,” he said. “The United States now regularly sells out our allies under his leadership, the way he treats women, spends like a drunken sailor. The ways I criticize President Obama for that kind of spending; I’ve criticized President Trump for as well. He mocks evangelicals behind closed doors. His family has treated the presidency like a business opportunity. He’s flirted with white supremacists.”
Sasse fretted that Trump and his “stupid political obsessions” could drive the country further to the Left. “If young people become permanent Democrats because they’ve just been repulsed by the obsessive nature of our politics, or if women who were willing to still vote with the Republican Party in 2016 decide that they need to turn away from this party permanently in the future,” Sasse said. “I’ve spent lots of the of the last year on a campaign bus, and when you listen to Nebraskans, they don’t really want more rage tweeting as a new form of entertainment,” he said. “I think the overwhelming reason that President Trump won in 2016 was simply because Hillary Clinton was literally the most unpopular candidate in the history of polling.”
All true (except for the part about Trump not lifting a finger to help Hong Kong), but the line that will cut the deepest with you-know-who is the last one. It’s one thing to say he’s soft on racists and that his family is full of opportunistic grifters who would put Hunter Biden to shame. But to say that he owes his glorious victory to his opponent’s weakness, not his own strength? Unforgivable. There’s been no presidential rage-tweeting about this yet as I write this at 5 p.m. ET, but just wait.
Getting out in front of the parade away from Trumpism is a curious move by Sasse for the simple reason that it’s not clear that there *will* be a parade away from Trumpism within the party, even if he’s clobbered by Biden next month. Certainly, righties who’ve bitten their tongues or even slavishly praised Trump for the past four years will find themselves more willing to admit his faults in the aftermath. But they’ll need to be tactful. Trump himself will remain a major player in right-wing politics and media. His son and namesake may run for some office or another, with plenty of populist support. Figures like Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, and Tom Cotton are clearly positioning themselves as pitchmen for “Trumpism without Trump,” believing that what Republican voters really want is Trump policies without all the outrageous lib-owning antics. (I think they’re wrong — the base is agnostic on most policy fights but relishes the lib-owning — but that’s a post for another day.) The one concession that will be made to old-school conservatism will be a renewed focus on curbing spending, but that’ll be cynical and opportunistic. Just as tea partiers stopped pretending to care about deficits once a Republican president was incurring them, they’ll go back to pretending to care once a Democrat is incurring them again. No one believes that sham anymore but it’ll do as a rallying point for the party to unify against Biden.
In any case, it’s not clear how many other Republican pols are ready to join Sasse’s parade instead of continuing the Trumpist drift in the party with a bit more lip service paid to shrinking government. Disgraces like this one, for instance, won’t cease happening the moment Trump has helicoptered away from the White House:
— Kelly Loeffler (@KLoeffler) October 15, 2020
Marjorie Taylor Greene is the Republican House candidate in Georgia who became famous a few months ago when her interest in QAnon was exposed by the press. Greene has since backed away from that under heavy pressure from Republican leadership, but she’s chased plenty of other rabbits chased by cranks over the years. Kelly Loeffler and Doug Collins have been aggressively competing for her endorsement, with Loeffler emerging today as the winner. Why? It’s not despite her affiliation with QAnon; it’s because of her affiliation with QAnon. Her “prior” role as a Q-bot lends her a patina of authentic cultish right-wing populism which Loeffler and Collins both covet as they jockey to finish ahead of each other in Georgia’a Senate “jungle primary” next month. We’re already past the anti-anti-QAnon phase of the GOP, it seems, and into the “pro” era.
That’s what the party is now. Does Ben Sasse know it? Does he not grasp that his many perfectly apt criticisms of Trump in today’s call will make him more enemies than friends, even if Trump is drubbed by Biden?
Maybe he’s gambling that that drubbing will be so severe that righties will recoil from Trump in the aftermath, hoping for a new direction that’ll lead to a better outcome in 2024. But he forgets two things. No matter what the margin of defeat is, Trump will claim he was cheated and many Republicans will believe him. There’ll be no honest reckoning by some with the reasons for defeat because the “defeat” won’t have happened. And beyond that, grassroots politics in modern America operates more like a religious cult than a movement organized to effectuate particular policies. People who are interested in enacting a policy agenda can be persuaded that there’s a better way to get the results they want. People who are in a cult can’t be, because their beliefs aren’t about particular results. It’s about who they are, how they order the world.
Here’s the audio of the call if you want to hear it from the horse’s mouth. The most important thing Sasse might have said in his rant for the party’s near-term prospects was him dinging Trump for “stupid political obsessions,” a problem the president’s inner circle recognizes and has been trying to remedy. Trump is all over the map in his daily message, and often the subjects he obsesses about are sure to seem esoteric to the average voter. How many people if asked in a man-on-the-street interview could cogently explain what Trump’s interest in “unmasking” is about? How many know what Section 230 is, or care, or understand why he’s tweeting about it today? How many can even name Hunter Biden? Trump has some strong electoral assets he can boast of — a great pre-pandemic economy, no new wars, hopes for peace in the Middle East brokered by his team — and instead he obsesses about Fox-bait garbage and media bias. Remember that if/when we get President Biden. Trump had a case for reelection but he preferred to ride talk-radio hobbyhorses.