How Trump Vanquished One-Time Conservative Contenders

Photo Illustration by Erin O'Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Erin O'Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty

News that Ben Sasse would likely be leaving the U.S. Senate to become president of the University of Florida has aroused varied commentary—most of it critical of Sasse. But one take has probably been underrated—Sasse’s exodus is merely the latest example of how Trump has vanquished an entire generation of once-promising young conservative stars from politics.

Think about it. When Donald Trump came down that escalator in 2015, the Republican Party was about to field what was then seen as an impressive and diverse array of future young conservative stars. The names included Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Sen. Marco Rubio, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and Sen. Ted Cruz. (There was also Rand Paul and Chris Christie, among others—though they fall just outside the Gen-X category.) While I might not compare them to the quarterback class of 1983 (​​John Elway, Jim Kelly, and Dan Marino), the field felt pretty stacked at the time.

Take Jindal, for example. He was the first Indian-American governor, he had been a congressman, and he had served as secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals (among other jobs). And he was just 46 years old! Today, he sells aluminum siding in Yazoo City, Mississippi. Okay, I’m kidding. I have no idea what he’s doing—and that’s precisely my point.

Half of them were humiliated and eventually co-opted by Trump (Rubio and Cruz), while the other half were essentially pushed out of electoral politics (Jindal and Walker)—for the time being, at least.

And then, there were other rising stars on the bench who didn’t run for president in 2016. Take Nikki Haley, the then-governor of South Carolina. After endorsing Rubio in the primaries (and attacking Trump), she miraculously managed to not only become Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, but also get out relatively unscathed.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Nikki Haley with then President Donald Trump.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">The Washington Post</div>

Nikki Haley with then President Donald Trump.

The Washington Post

Arguably more amazing was that she then decided to become embroiled in Trump’s mess—after she had already escaped. Haley has spent the last several years oscillating between furrowed-brow criticism of the orange God king and obsequious throne sniffing. As a result, Haley has alienated almost everybody: Never Trumpers can’t trust her—and neither can dyed-in-the-wool MAGA types.

There was also Paul Ryan, then the Speaker of the House and former vice presidential nominee. He has largely been forgotten, but he was once seen as an amazing talent who went around extolling conservative virtues like human flourishing and “the right to rise.” Thanks to Trump, though, Ryan went from policy wonk wunderkind to RINO to has-been in record time.

I could probably also mention Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger—two young conservative leaders who once had promising futures in the GOP. Their votes to impeach Trump and their work on the Jan. 6 committee, however, resulted in a situation where neither of them will be returning to congress next year. Trump’s purging of Cheney is especially significant and symbolic, since she’s the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney and also served (until 2021) as the Chair of the House Republican Conference, making her the third-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives.

And, of course, there was Sasse, who was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 2014. Like Rubio and Ryan, Sasse, a former (and likely future) college president, had a gift for talking about conservative ideas in a way that felt inspiring, optimistic, and inclusive. (There was a time when this skill set was vital for a conservative wanting to win arguments and elections.) Also, like Rubio and Ryan, Sasse had a boyish charm that could translate into a Kennedy-esque conservative. Instead, the Republican base threw in with a grumpy old man.

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Sasse managed to confuse and confound during the Trump era, sometimes supporting him and sometimes criticizing him (including voting for his second impeachment). By choosing this neither fish nor fowl strategy, Sasse (like Haley) ended up pleasing almost nobody. And for all his talk about The Vanishing American Adult, Sasse ended up vanishing from relevance, ironically turning into someone who (gasp!) used his political platform to build his brand instead of to pass legislation.

On his 2018 annual financial disclosure form, Sen. Ben Sasse reported earning over $600,000 from book royalties (his salary that year was just $174,000). This is to say that Sasse’s work as an author earned him three times as much money in 2018 as his work as a U.S. Senator. And now, he is expected to start a job paying him around $1 million a year. Not bad for a guy who largely failed in his mission to influence American politics both temperamentally and philosophically.

From a personal standpoint, though, Sasse always failed forward. Still, I can’t help imagining what could have been… he (to butcher the Marlon Brando line) coulda been somebody. Coulda been a contender.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE).</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">KEVIN DIETSCH</div>

U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE).


Sasse’s abbreviated Senate career (his term doesn’t expire until 2027) represents many other young conservatives who find themselves out of touch with the MAGA zeitgeist. They have to choose whether to fake it till they make it or hit the exits.

Trump didn’t just become president and slide into a role. He changed the face of the conservative movement and the Republican Party—possibly forever. The transformation includes replacing those Reagan-esque rising stars with new names like Dr. Oz, Herschel Walker, and Kari Lake.

One can imagine that a bizarro alternate universe exists where President Rubio and Vice President Haley are barnstorming the nation making sure Republicans hold the Senate in the 2022 midterms.

They coulda been contenders, at least. The GOP coulda had class. Instead, they chose Trump.

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