While Americans looked for leaders in the 2016 elections, many wanting to ‘throw all the bums out’ of office and start over, some noble statesmen were already holding seats in Congress and rather quietly doing the work of servant leaders. Their floor speeches and press conferences didn’t get much coverage if they weren’t incendiary and hyper-partisan, the mood and language sought and reflected by major media.

It’s surprising now that, given the election outcome and President Trump’s Twitter activity driving media coverage as much as it has, more media didn’t notice the set of questions young, conservative Republican Senator Ben Sasse tweeted directly to candidate Trump in January 2016, only days before the Iowa caucuses would kick off the GOP election season.

Tweeting Trump

Sasse started with this:

Mr @realDonaldTrump: You’ve struck a chord w/American ppl. (My folks email me abt u weekly). I think because you’ve rightly diagnosed (cont)

…much of what’s wrong in DC. You’re very talented&on a huge roll. If I were betting-youre likely next POTUS. Congrats. But

…At the same time, we have questions about how you would govern. Would like to ask you some questions, if you are willing?

The first three questions pressed Trump on policy statements he had made over time on healthcare, guns and the 2nd Amendment, taxes and patriotism.

Among those who noticed were Americans concerned about the proper size and role of government, constitutional law, and the moral grammar of the founding documents, reflecting the Judeo-Christian ethic that grounded the nation, and defined the American experiment and what constituted the common good of its people. Those were Sasse’s core concerns.

However, Ben Sasse wasn’t a well-known senator outside his state of Nebraska, yet. He had only been elected to the Senate in late 2014, was sworn in early in 2015, and brought with him notes sketching out ideas for a book inspired during his four years as a university president, informed by his deep convictions about faith, family and freedoms rightly ordered, and intensified by his time in DC politics.

Not Trump, but a ‘conservative option’

In early 2016, Sasse got noticed more when he became the first US senator to announce that he would not support Trump if he became his party’s candidate. Nor would he vote for the Democratic candidate. He wanted ‘a conservative option, a Constitutionalist’. Asked by MSNBC’s Chuck Todd to define what a conservative is in the 21st century, Sasse jumped on the “great question” with an animated response:

America is the most exceptional nation in the history of the world because the US Constitution is the best political document that’s ever been written, because it says something different than almost any people in any government has believed in human history. Most governments in the past said ‘might makes right’ and the King has all the power and the people are dependent subjects. The American founders said no, God gives us rights by nature and government is just our shared project to secure those rights, not the author or source of our rights.

He didn’t stop there, and Todd was practically ready to jump in to stop him, but Sasse continued.

You make America great again by recovering a constitutional republic where Washington is populated by servant leaders who want to return power to the people and to the communities.

And by then, Todd did stop him, for the moment.

Freedom of conscience

But Sasse entered into the Senate record important ideas and writings of others, contained in his floor speeches, on matters like the merits of proper debate, intellectual honesty, the art of argument, civil rights, freedoms and religious liberty.

Are people of faith just another interest group that should somehow be appeased? I suggest, with all the founders of this nation, that they are not. People of faith, and people of no faith at all, people of conscience, are simply exercising their humanity, and they do not need the government’s permission to do so.

The Commission [on Civil Rights’] report is titled ‘Peaceful Coexistence’. Who wants to disagree with a title like that? But this profession of peaceful coexistence must never quietly euthanize religious liberty…

We can and we should disagree peacefully, peaceably, we should argue and debate, and seek to persuade. We should zealously defend every right to guard conscience and self-expression.

To my progressive friends, I invite you to become liberals again, in your understanding of religious liberty, and its merits. And to my conservative friends, let us cheerfully celebrate all Americans’ freedoms. Let us work to kindly dismantle the pernicious myth that somehow your freedoms are simply a cover for fear, or hate, or some other phobia. These freedoms are too important to relinquish. They are the essence of what we share as Americans.

Insisting on Constitutional government

Sasse regularly delivers these sincere, incisive appeals in Senate speeches, or in remarks made in hearings as a member of several Senate committees. Especially the Judiciary Committee, during the confirmation hearings for Judge Neil Gorsuch, nominated to the Supreme Court. Sasse’s opening statement made the Wall Street Journal’s ‘Notable & Quotable’ column, deservedly so because he used it as a teaching moment, instead of a political grandstanding one. He used it to recall what the primary job of the Supreme Court justice was, and what the Constitution limits.

Which came up in those five questions Sasse tweeted candidate Trump in January 2016.

Q5: I believe 1 of the most damaging things POTUS Obama did is ignore Constitution, act on his own,& bypass Congress(contd)

Next GOP POTUS must roll this back & reaffirm a Constitutional system b4 we lose this special inheritance forever…

President Trump did put Neil Gorsuch in front of that Senate panel to be confirmed, as a Constitutionalist for whom Sasse and other senators expressed respect and admiration. As one court watcher noted during confirmation hearings, the 2016 election “may have saved our system of constitutional self-government from irreparable damage.”

Rebuilding a culture of self-reliance

Senator Ben Sasse is concerned with such damage across the political and cultural landscape. His book, The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance brings the voice of the grownup to the public debate, rancorous as that has been.

Time calls it “a serious book…meant to wrestle honestly with big ideas. The Atlantic also says “Sasse managed to craft a serious new book”:

He believes Americans have lost their sense of personal integrity and discipline. For the country to deal with the troubles ahead–including automation, political disengagement, and the rise of nativist, huckster politicians, he says–people must recover their sense of virtue. The republic depends on it.

He’s got their attention now.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....