Trump critic and rising GOP star Ben Sasse is now a Trump apologist. How sadly predictable.

Sasse could have been a thought leader of post-Trumpian conservativism. What is he now?
Image: Ben Sasse Donald Trump
And with that, one of the last Trump critics in the Senate GOP was brought to heel. Adrian Lam / NBC News
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By Charles Sykes

In the end, Ben Sasse got the Trump tweet he gave up so much to get. “Senator Ben Sasse has done a wonderful job representing the people of Nebraska,” President Donald Trump tweeted. “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!”

And with that, one of the last Trump critics in the Senate GOP was brought to heel. “For Sasse, the past several months have represented something akin to surrender in the war for the soul of modern conservatism,” wrote The Washington Post’s James Hohmann.

To be fair, Sasse’s surrender was foreshadowed earlier this year by his vote to uphold Trump’s declaration of a “national emergency” to build his wall. The junior senator from Nebraska also won the president’s favor with his radio silence.

Wrote Hohmann:

More significant than his voting record is the evolution in Sasse’s tone about Trump and his increasingly long periods of silence. He’s gone to apparent pains not to be perceived as a Never Trumper or to become a face of the Republican resistance, mostly by flying below the radar and not speaking out against the president on Fox News. His once prolific personal Twitter account has been dark since May. He rarely engages with reporters seeking comment on the story of the day in the corridors of the Capitol.

On one level this feels depressingly familiar, as one GOP leader after another has succumbed to Trumpism. The saga of the last three years has been part Yeats (“the best lack all conviction while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity”) and part “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” And it is easy to see Sasse’s surrender as both inevitable and predictable: this is, after all, Trump’s party, and colleagues who refused to bend the knee have been defeated — like Mark Sanford — or forced into retirement — like Sen. Jeff Flake and Sen. Bob Corker.

If Sasse had remained anti-Trump, he would have faced a primary challenge and possible defeat; a presidential bid would likely have been a kamikaze mission. So he chose survival; another six years in the Senate that gives him a chance to actually outlast the Trump presidency, whenever it ends.

But still. Sasse’s surrender is worth analyzing because of what he represented — and what he could have become. Until just a few months ago, Sasse was the Great Never-Trump Hope. Sasse had created a carefully crafted image as a thoughtful, principled constitutional conservative who was willing to defy the worst elements of Trumpism.

After Trump proposed his ban on Muslim immigration in 2015, Sasse gave a speech on the Senate floor in which he denounced “demagoguing leaders" and "a megalomaniac strongman ... screaming about travel bans and deportation."

In interviews, he compared Trump to former KKK leader David Duke and described Trump’s rise as a personal breaking point. “This is the party of Abraham Lincoln,” he said. “This is not the party of David Duke, Donald Trump.”

Consistently, he cast the issue as one of fundamental constitutional principles rather than personality. Fundamentally, he said, “this party needs to return to its principles of believing in equality under the law and believing in the greatness of the potential of the American people.” As he said in February of 2016:

The problem is, at the end of the day, most people really want a choice that is about a constitutional recovery. They want to rebuild what's broken in America, not tear it down. And when you listen to Donald Trump, all you really hear is more Donald Trump, more tear it down, and a lot of praise of foreign dictators. I don't think the American people, and I don't think most Republicans really want a strongman.

Even after Trump had secured the nomination, Sasse refused to fall in line. When asked if he would be attending the GOP convention, his office said that the senator would” instead take his kids to watch some dumpster fires across the state, all of which enjoy more popularity than the current front-runners.”

Sasse’s outspokenness continued through the first years of Trump’s presidency. A Politico profile in July 2018 noted that even as the ranks of never-Trumpers in the Republican Party “dwindles to a lonely few, the Nebraska senator has shown little interest in backing down.” Sasse seemed anxious to polish his conservative intellectual credentials by publishing a book just three weeks before the midterm election titled, “Them: Why We Hate Each Other — and How to Heal,” a decidedly non-Trumpian view of culture, politics and the future.

There was even speculation that Sasse might mount an independent challenge to Trump. In an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union” a year ago this month, he told host Jake Tapper that he thought about leaving the GOP “every morning” and said that he thought of himself as “an independent conservative who caucuses with the Republicans.”

When Trump lashed out at the Department of Justice in September of 2018 for indicting two Republican congressmen, Chris Collins of New York and Duncan Hunter of California, Sasse delivered a stinging rebuke: “The United States is not some banana republic with a two-tiered system of justice — one for the majority party and one for the minority party,” Sasse said. “These two men have been charged with crimes because of evidence, not because of who the president was when the investigations began.”

Sasse’s apparent independence continued into 2019. In February, declaring himself a “constitutional conservative,” he urged Trump not to declare a national emergency on the border, warning that it would set a dangerous precedent. “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,” he said. “Over the past decades, the legislative branch has given away too much power and the executive branch has taken too much power.”

But the next month, he stunned observers when he voted to uphold Trump’s order even though 12 other GOP senators broke with Trump on the issue. It was a breathtaking reversal. In many ways, it was no different than the Faustian bargain made by so many of his colleagues and a reflection of the transformation of Republican politics.

Sasse paid a greater price. The former college president with a keen sense of history and constitutional principles could have been the conscience of the senate GOP. He was a rising star who could have been a thought leader of post-Trumpian conservativism.

What is he now?