Fresh off of voting to uphold Trump’s national emergency, Ben Sasse spent the weekend touring historic flooding in Nebraska and getting dunked on by Twitter trolls and former fans.
If Sasse thought his tweet game (which, in the past, has included photos of him handing out subs at Huskers games and driving for Uber) would change the subject from his caving to political pressure, he was sorely mistaken.
In my opinion, what has been revealed is actually a character issue. Trump, who set out arguing that Buckleyite conservatism was effete and elite, has, in effect, demonstrated this to be largely true. Sasse is the latest example.
This may sound primal, but Trump has also revealed that there is a strong machismo bias at work in our politics today. Appeasement, the saying goes, is like feeding a crocodile and hoping he will eat you last. In this case, Sasse has managed to alienate his old friends, yet it is unclear whether he has actually appeased Trump’s base.
For now, at least, it seems more like he has been chumming the waters.
Responses to Sasse’s tweeted photos of flooding in Nebraska included rejoinders such as, “Sandbagging you know quite a bit about, Senator,” an *actual emergency*, and “That looks like what you did to the Constitution after your vote Mr. Senator.” There were also jokes about building levees and bridges (instead of a wall).
Every once in a while, someone would respond earnestly. But then, a flood of mocking tweets would rebound in devastating fashion. “Any relation to Jeff Flake?” one angry tweet asked. Others described him as “folksy Ted Cruz” or “The Marco Rubio of Jeff Flakes.” These responses were not meant as compliments.
Who can blame Trump-skeptical conservatives for being stunned and angry with him? Just one month ago, Sasse warned that, “… as a Constitutional conservative I don’t want a future Democratic President unilaterally rewriting gun laws or climate policy. If we get used to presidents just declaring an emergency any time they can’t get what they want from Congress, it will be almost impossible to go back to a Constitutional system of checks and balances. Over the past decades, the legislative branch has given away too much power and the executive branch has taken too much power.”
If you had asked me a week ago who should lead the conservative movement if Trumpism was discredited, Sasse would have been on my shortlist. But in one fell swoop, Sasse was revealed as weak and phony. He undermined his brand and alienated his base. It proves he doesn’t comprehend Trump’s core lessons about toughness, authenticity, branding, and tending to one’s own base.
Sasse can talk about the Constitution and quote Tocqueville till the cows come home. But what does it matter if his deeds—when the pressure is on—do not comport with his aspirational rhetoric?
Speaking of aspirational rhetoric, almost immediately after the vote on the resolution disapproving of Trump’s emergency declaration passed, Beto O’Rourke announced for president.
Having lost his way into the presidential race, Beto (who, out of the gate, basically apologized for “white privilege”) seems to think he can apologize his way to the nomination.
He can’t. And unless he wants to make the same sort of mistakes as Sasse, Beto (who shares the boyish good looks, Gen-X sensibilities, and the “Jesus meets JFK” image of Sasse) had better realize the outsized role that a tough image plays in Trump-era politics.
Whether you’re letting your identity be redefined by Trump’s base (Sasse) or apologizing to the identity politics caucus (Beto), you are undermining the sort of authentic leadership qualities people look for in a president.
Bill Clinton was correct when he said that "When people are insecure, they'd rather have somebody who is strong and wrong than someone who's weak and right.” Donald Trump certainly agrees. In the wake of the Jeanine Pirro controversy (Pirro’s show did not air this weekend), Trump urged Fox News to “stay strong and fight back with vigor” and to “[s]top working sooooo hard on being politically correct, which will only bring you down.”
In the post-modern world, toughness and authenticity may be the only character issues we still care about. Anyone who wants to win the presidency would do well to start paying attention.