The Vanishing American Adult, Sen. Ben Sasse's slick new paean to hard work and old-fashioned middle-class American family values, is the most boring book I've ever read.
The Nebraska Republican is, if not absolutely insufferable, the least sufferable person in the Senate. (Keep in mind that this is a body that has historically welcomed the energies of Benjamin "Pitchfork" Tillman, in which creatures like Chuck Schumer and Ted Cruz are today permitted not only to contribute but to flourish.) Sasse is one of those "intellectual" conservatives for whom the answer to whether banks should be allowed to increase overdraft fees is to be found in the pages of Tocqueville.
In the last year and a half, Sasse has made a career branding himself as "the last honest man in the GOP," which is journalism code for someone who makes a lot of hay about Trump's character while inventing Principled Conservative reasons for gleefully implementing the worst parts of the administration's agenda. Were President Trump to consider governing like Trump the candidate and propose, say, a single-payer health-care program to be financed by higher taxes on the wealthy, Sasse would dust off his Madison quotes and fire off a few tweets about the erosion of our democratic heritage. Because Trump is actually just governing like a non-tweed-wearing version of Sasse himself, right down to his bombing of Syria, Sasse is allowed to continue his world-weary posturing. But really he is just a glorified tone-policer. Don't believe me? Try to find a single criticism of the president from Sasse that is substantive rather than stylistic (appropriately cautious-sounding procedural hang-ups about the nonsense Flynn scandal don't count).
For now, of course, Sasse is praised, described as "thoughtful" and "intellectually curious," fawned over in the pages of Mother Jones and Politico. But where does he think this is going to get him? Does he really believe that if the shoe were on the other foot his pseudo-intellectual version of outsider conservatism would win over union voters in Michigan, that the wearers of pink hats would not have the long knives out for the misogynist President Sasse?
But back to the book. I spend a lot of time with books that most people would find hard going at best. My favorite genre of literature is ecclesiastical history: Cardinal Newman's Arians of the Fourth Century has hardly left my bedside in three years. I once read the entire Chambers Dictionary from cover to cover. So when I pan Sasse's book as the most boring I've read, I'd like to think that I'm speaking from a position of some authority.
Embarrassingly for a self-described "historian" (the kind who did his Yale dissertation on Reagan) and would-be pedant, the second sentence contains a solecism: "Perplexed" followed by an infinitive is not idiomatic English. (One can be "perplexed" by something, not perplexed to it.) A few pages later we are treated to a harangue of some poor students at his former university who failed to erect a Christmas tree according to his specifications. The number of decorations at the top of the tree was insufficient. "'Was there not a ladder in the gym?' the vice president queried. 'Was maintenance unwilling to bring one?'"
The question is not whether anyone in fact actually talks like this (the verb inversion suggests that he has spent more time reading 19th-century novels than listening to conversations), but why anyone would think you could reach people by doing it. The anecdote, which according to Sasse was the inspiration for the book, sets the tone for 300 subsequent pages of tut-tutting, bad-faith admonition, and undisguised punching down. Despite his best efforts (he tells us more than once that his is not a "Get off my lawn"-type book), Sasse cannot avoid sounding like a tight-ass shift manager who makes a point of staring dolefully at his watch and passive-aggressively reminding you that you are back one minute late from your smoke break. With what cache of funds does he expect high-school students in a place like Flint to engage in "meaningful travel" as a substitute for popular culture? Does he want to persuade the TV watchers and junk-food addicts, the uneducated youth whose existence the book occasioned, or win plaudits from Washington Post bloggers?
I should say that condescending evangelical Christians who pride themselves on being debt free and pursuing meaningful hobbies probably have their hearts in the right place. The fact that millions of Americans are wasting their lives watching garbage on television and pornography and eating junk food is tragic. But has it never occurred to high-horse Republicans that three decades of neoliberal atomization, of untrammeled free speech and unregulated free markets, while very good for the partners at Boston Consulting Group, the first place this "historian" worked after becoming a bachelor of arts at Harvard, have been devastating for millions of Americans without the financial and intellectual resources available to them? If the poor have vicious habits, whose fault is it — theirs or the people who made fortunes encouraging and refining these habits with the help of international consulting firms?
All of which is to say that at the very least Republicans like Sasse need to start learning how to talk to normal people who are not Constitution fetishists or even middle class. Hint: The best response to a disgusting joke about the n-word is not to tweet about how you are a "1st Amendment Absolutist." The next time he sits down to compose one of his lachrymose open letters to his decadent countrymen in the hope of making sense of why we have President Trump, the junior senator from Nebraska should consider looking in the mirror.
Editor's note: This article originally slightly mischaracterized Sasse's educational background. It has since been corrected. We regret the error.