Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse is not yet running for President, and his new book, The Vanishing American Adult, is not about politics, policy, or his own life story, all of which someone like him would normally write about if he were thinking about running for President.
“I’m pretty certain the president is never mentioned at any point in this book,” Sasse, a Republican, told me, when I asked him about Donald Trump, as we sat recently outside at a café a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol. “I want to move upstream from politics to have that conversation about all the things that we should want for our kids.”
But that’s where things get complicated. Because jump starting a post-partisan national conversation about what the nation should want for its children is exactly the sort of thing someone who is looking to run for President might do at this point in his career. And the solutions that Sasse proposes are, in many cases, precisely the opposite of the examples set by the current occupant of the Oval Office, not to mention Hillary Clinton, both of whom Sasse has criticized for failing to behave like “you know…an adult.”
For Sasse, emotional and intellectual maturity is a lock pick for the nation’s future, the key to the nation surviving its current economic and technological turmoil. He speaks of an American crises of loneliness and disconnection, and he calls for parents to take back responsibility for their children’s upbringing from schools, and for children to resist consumerism, travel widely, work hard and “become truly literate,” with a suggested reading list that reads like a graduate seminar syllabus. His own personal canon, offered by way of example, contains several unexpected volumes for a conservative Republican: books by Aldous Huxley, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin and Karl Marx, along with the more predictable tomes of Augustine and Alexis de Toqueville.
In fact, Sasse’s book is filled with entire paragraphs that read like thinly veiled rants against Trumpism. Sasse, a fitness nut known for sometimes doing 10,000 pushups a month, may not name check the current president, but Trump hovers over the pages as an unwelcome ghost haunting Sasse’s hip vision for a 21st century Puritan idealism. “‘Luxury is the bane of republics,'” he writes at one point, paraphrasing the 17th Century French philosopher Montesquieu. “At some point we forgot the difference between needs and wants and decided that acquiring things could bring us happiness. It’s not true. Gluttony is a danger we’ve forgotten to guard against. But even more basically, consumption alone cannot make us happy; meaningful production more directly does.”
This is not the sort of advice that U.S. Senators typically give, and Sasse delights in the fact that his publisher has struggled with bookstores over whether to shelve the book in Self-Help or Current Events. This is a serious book, if imperfectly formed, meant to wrestle honestly with big ideas. But then Sasse is not an ordinary sort of Senator. He boasts multiple degrees from Ivy League universities—a bachelors in government from Harvard, a doctorate in history from Yale—and he has spent time working for the Boston Consulting Group and the U.S. Department of Justice. He did a five year stint as the president of Midland University, a small Lutheran school about 40 miles west of Omaha.
He is also the only sitting Senator who has driven Uber on the weekend as a way of researching the new sharing economy. “If you are an Uber driver and somebody pukes in your car, you get $150 bucks,” he helpfully advises. “Which is a pretty great market mechanism to keep Uber from having a disincentive for people to help people not drive drunk.”
He says he began thinking of writing this book years before Trump came onto the scene, and was sketching out notes to himself during his 2014 campaign. One inspiration, he says, is a group of students at Midland he heard about after he started running the place in 2010. Some teenagers from the athletic department were tasked with setting up and decorating the school’s 20-foot Christmas tree in lobby of the basketball arena. When they were done, a school administrator noticed that they had only put ornaments on the bottom eight feet of the tree. “We couldn’t figure out how to get the ornaments on the top,” one of the students helpfully explained.
To fight this sort of helplessness, which he attributes to modern upbringing, Sasse has detailed a program of basic learning that he implores the nation to adopt. At the core of his book is the ultimate anti-Trumpism: Turn off the television, and keep your kids away from phone screens. “I am critical of the digital addictions of consumerism generally, and digital consumerism on top of it,” he told me. “Because I think kids are being deprived by not learning how to work as teens.”
There is almost no television time in his household when he is home. Instead, the family of five—his three children are nicknamed Peach, Crash and Dogman—try to have a full hour a night when everyone stays in the same room, with books and musical instruments, and a goal of doing something productive. He even shipped off his own eldest daughter to a cattle ranch at the age of 14 so she could deliver baby cows. “I wanted her to have to suffer at midnight to 3 a.m. and 6 a.m.,” he explains.
When he started to share her experience on Twitter—his one digital vice—he found that he was overwhelmed with requests from constituents for information about the cattle farm. “It became a social media phenomena. I’d go places and crowds would form,” he says proudly. “They wanted their kids to suffer too. They wanted them to experience work.”
In this way, Sasse’s personal ambitions—he calls himself a cultural and intellectual historian—nicely overlaps with his political ones. If Sasse does move forward with a run for the White House in 2020 or 2024, he will have laid the groundwork to run as something of a lifestyle and career coach for Generation X, not just another politician. He certainly speaks the language of a coming backlash against partisanship. “These political parties aren’t very interesting,” he says. “A lot of people think that maybe they should find their meaning in politics. They’re going to be let down.”
Does that sound like a campaign slogan? If it is, it’s not like anyone the nation has faced before from a major party contender. His 8th grade teacher, Pamela Murphy, has been quoted in Mother Jones saying that Sasse declared in class that he would go to an Ivy League school and become President of the United States. When I ask if he is still on track, Sasse offers a pitch-perfect dodge.
“First of all, I don’t think that Mrs. Murphy is known for her truth telling. Second of all, that kid sounds like a real moron. Third of all, I have no doubt that I as a hyperactive kid probably had a new vocational plan every seven minutes in my upbringing,” he says, as we finish up the interview. “I live on a river in Nebraska, and I have little kids and I have an awesome life, minus the fact that I commute five days a week. I have the only job I want right now which is serving Nebraskans and raising kids on the road.”
That sounds like a yes to me.
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