He never liked Trump. He still doesn’t like Trump. And now that he’s promoting his new book, “The Vanishing American Adult,” the freshman Nebraska senator doesn’t want to talk about whether the 45th president of the United States counts as an adult, according to the principles he lays out across 300 pages. Sasse would rather not be talking about Trump, but when pressed, he says the president is a symptom of exactly what he thinks is wrong with America.
Trump “comes out of a reality TV world,” Sasse told me in the latest episode of POLITICO’s Off Message podcast. “And I have lots of anxiety about whether or not that kind of world is really what we want for our kids.”
Sasse, a former university president, is beloved by both the conservative intelligentsia and by bitter Democrats who agree that he’s something like the last honest man in the GOP. He has a practiced, unassuming air about everything except his intelligence, which he doesn’t try to backslap away, in person or in print (back in the days when he says he never thought about going into politics, he picked up a Ph.D. in American history from Yale, with a lauded dissertation about the rise of secularism). He’s one of the few senators who arrived without ever holding public office before, but he’s picked up most of the tricks, like talking past questions he doesn’t want to answer and picking up little bits of biography at the start of a conversation that he’ll then work in later to personalize it.
These days, he’s a microcosm of many Republicans in the age of Trump—still holding close to his beliefs (whether school choice or international trade deals), wary of how the man in the Oval Office will rewrite the party’s genetic code, trying to keep some distance without making a big show of it.
Unlike many in Congress, though, Sasse is willing to voice his criticisms of Trump out loud … sort of. When really pressed, when he can’t divert the conversation another way, when he can’t avoid saying what he really thinks. (“He and I obviously have a very different view of the world,” is one of the understated deflections he landed on at one point.)
Almost as big a problem for Sasse is what the leader of his party means for Republicanism.
Asked what the GOP stands for, he says, “I don’t know.”
Naturally, all of this has people wondering about Sasse’s own future. He’s up for re-election in 2020, and the speculation ranges from being one term and done to jumping into a White House run of his own. I asked him about both, and he didn’t say no to either—instead, he threw out a prefabricated joke about how “the noxious weed control board of Dodge County, Nebraska is likely my political future. I have the two callings that I want right now.”
But in the meantime, Sasse fought his publisher not to have his photo or the word “senator” on the cover of his book, which is where he wants the focus. As a father of three and now the author of a manifesto diagnosing a culture and politics of national existential crisis so deep that, as he writes at one point, “our kids are not ready for the world they are soon going to inherit,” he can’t help looking at the message coming from the top.
Sasse’s formula for true adulthood is four main steps: overcome “peer culture,” or associating just with people of similar ages; work hard; limit consumption of television or other passive media in favor of producing art or music or anything else; travel widely to understand how various people understand the difference between what they need and what they want; and become literate by reading widely and deeply.
Compare that to a president who does not spend much time outside his usual circles and has not prioritized diversity in his Cabinet and West Wing staff, who’s known for liking large parts of his day unstructured and is well-known for watching hours of cable news, whose nine-day foreign trip was one of the longest stretches he’s gone without sleeping a night at one of his own properties and who prefers his information be presented verbally or in one-page bullet point memos.
“There’s a risk in our media-driven, and particularly digital media-driven culture; TV-based, broadcast-based, and image-based culture of this digital moment,” Sasse says. “There is a danger that we create shorter and shorter attention spans, more and more unbridled passions, less and less self-control and self-restraint. I don’t think that our Founders would believe that America could long prosper if the people were not readers.”
I asked him how, in a word, he’d describe Trump. All he came up with: “current president.”
But Trump isn’t his only problem. Asked for one word to describe the Republican Party, he again came up with two: “question mark.”
Sasse says his book is 100 percent not about politics and 99 percent not about policy, but that’s only true in the Republicans vs. Democrats, pass this bill or that bill kind of way. Entire sections of the book are about John Dewey and Peter Pan, and the closest he comes to mentioning the president is titling a chapter, “Make America An Idea Again.”
But “The Vanishing American Adult” is a damning critique of U.S. cultural decline nonetheless, and in that sense it’s an intensely political book. There’s more than enough bipartisan blame to go around for the rot at the core of American exceptionalism, Sasse believes, and he’s urging a revolution in how people think about themselves, their children and their country. Years before Trump arrived, he says, Washington was making that harder every step of the way.
On top of that, Sasse says, Trump and every other politician who’s promised that the factory or other old economy jobs are coming back has made things worse.
“Quit lying to the voters. Tell the truth about where we are in economic history, and admit that technology and ultimately automation that goes all the way to machine learning and artificial intelligence is going to accelerate economic change in the world,” he said in the interview.
Sasse thinks the Democratic Party is “fighting 1960s battles,” but he argues his own party “is absolutely nuts” to allow Democrats to own issues like income inequality and flatlining wages.
Even if people disagree with him that Washington needs to catch up to the times on other issues, Sasse says, they should at least see how desperate the situation is when it comes to homeland defense.
“We’re completely unprepared for the pace of change that’s coming as cyber disrupts warfare,” Sasse warns. His conversations as a member of the Armed Services Committee have made him sure that Russia was trying to influence last year’s elections, and he wants a full investigation to determine how much they succeeded, and how much of it might have been directly on Trump’s behalf instead of just to stir chaos.
What’s coming is worse, he believes, and he doesn’t see any evidence the government is moving to prepare itself.
“We need to be looking to 2018 and 2020 for what comes next because they are going to fuzzy up the distinction between military and civilian targets,” Sasse says. “We don’t have any of the right mental frameworks for how to debate this yet.”
Sasse got the idea for “The Vanishing American Adult” before he was ever running for Senate, when he was the president of Midland University in Nebraska. He didn’t get an agent or start writing until last year, once the nominees were already all but set.
He envisioned promoting his vision for the country at a very different time for America, when he wouldn’t have to spend as much time discussing you know who.
I ask Sasse whether the book tour would be easier if he didn’t have to keep talking about Trump all the time. “I’m not,” he says, “going to argue with that.”