Sen. Sasse Gets Trumpified

Well, that didn't take long. Ben Sasse, Nebraska's energetic, open-minded, publically engaged Republican senator has been Trumpified. 

Citizens expected him, as an outspoken and popular #NeverTrump-er who was relatively uncorrupted by power, to be part of the intraparty resistance to the new president's ethos, tactics, and character traits. Surely he would have respect for the norms of the Constitution and engage his critics with reason, not mockery. This is, after all, a senator who gives encomia to the Constitution on Twitter and casually banters with his constituents and naysayers about politics and college football.

Sasse was at least critical of last week's executive order. But this week, with the Supreme Court nomination of Neil Gorsuch, he has showed how quickly the new executive's behavior can be imitated. 

Last night and this morning, Sasse gleefully mocked both protestors and Sen. Minority Leader Schumer. 

His objection to the protestor's "fill in the blank" sign -- a blank posterboard with STOP _____ , waiting to be filled in with the nominee's name -- makes perfect sense. It is not reasonable to oppose a nominee to the Supreme Court without knowing who it is yet. The problems with Sasse's behavior are, first, that the "fill in the blank" preemptive opposition tactic was not invented by these protestors but by the Senate Republicans themselves last year. Straight-talking Sen. Sasse is becoming another mouthpiece for partisan power-grabbing, willfully blind to his own party's rejection of Constitutional norms.

Second, and just as worrisome, the fact that he publicly mocked peaceful protestors -- which he did again on radio this morning -- is an eerie warning that he's been Trumpified. The new president has shown that he loves to "punch down," something the old Sen. Sasse would not have done. But executives have a way of modeling behavior that those seeking advancement find difficult not to emulate. 

He even made sure to mock Sen. Schumer, whom he says will make Gorsuch into some kind of clownish, diabolical figure. 

It's been only a few days, of course, since the new president mocked Sen. Schumer for "fake tears" over the executive order banning refugees. It didn't take long for Sasse to follow suit.

If disregard for the Constitution, mocking colleagues, and making fun of peaceful protestors are the ways to get ahead now, here comes the junior senator from Nebraska. Put me in, coach. 

These changes in Sen. Sasse are the latest sign that the new president is not an aberration within the Republican party. This is Trump's party, and has been at least since the unprecedented refusal to even hold hearings on the nomination of Merrick Garland. 

We'll miss the old Sen. Sasse, but maybe his old-fashioned conservative principles and respectful demeanor were always a bit too good to be true. 

Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University and on the staff of its Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. He is the author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard. He is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Culture
Books
Collections