This year’s first post on Political Orphans described seven prominent, but under-appreciated figures who seemed poised for a breakout year. Here’s a look at what each of them accomplished in 2017.
Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse was one of the first major Republican figures to openly denounce Donald Trump and he never wavered. If anyone in the GOP was going to take a principled stand to rally opposition on the right, it seemed likely to be him. Well, he didn’t.
It’s hard to properly summarize Sasse’s aw-shucks, nice-guy appeal. He appeared in a popular photograph at mid-year chatting with Senators Schumer and Cotton while sitting on a railing in his gym shorts. Approachable and unpretentious, he might appear to be the perfect foil for Trump.
There’s something slightly off about this shtick. It starts out informal and “real,” then quickly turns into a façade hiding just another Republican. His affable tweets about Nebraska football or his kids kind of lure you in, then he repeats Republican talking points as if they were genuine insights, reminding you that you’re the mark in this grift. Ben Sasse is probably the favorite politician of people who use terms like “awesomesauce” and “cool beans,” the kind of just-plain-folks who shy away from the spicier dishes at Applebees because they seem too “edgy.” Under the challenge of a genuine historical moment, Sasse has hid himself behind a veneer of politesse. It turns out that his opposition to Donald Trump was about nothing more than manners. He is the patron saint of people who place their individual ease above every other value.
By lending his credibility to the Republican brand, Sasse has become a key source of cover for the Trump administration and Congressional Republicans. Sasse has made it OK for “nice” people to support a rabidly destructive political party, thereby making it more difficult for courageous opponents to marshal a resistance. Along the way, he has been a guaranteed vote for every insane project of this administration, from packing the bench with incompetent judges to funneling wealth back to billionaires.
Sasse’s routine repeats the tactics of “respectable” figures who undermined civil rights reformers in the Fifties and Sixties. We’ve largely forgotten, but “nice” people consistently opposed Dr. King when he alive, faulting his impolite methods and impatience. They were quick to condemn to the Bull Connors of the world, and just as quick to criticize those who resisted him. Nice, polite, white people all loved Martin Luther King after he was dead. Moral high ground is cheap once someone else has bled to secure it. Sasse likes to stay on secure ground.
After spending this entire year as a reliable bulwark of the Trump administration’s legislative agenda, Sasse did what nice people always do when courageous people take a stand. He had the gall to criticize Sen. Flake for donating to Doug Jones’ Alabama Senate campaign. Sasse had been running his signature bit, pretending to take a stand on Moore without taking any risks. Then Flake made his very public donation to Doug Jones. Sasse responded by not only criticizing Flake, but subtly repeating the most empty, outrageous excuse used by Moore supporters:
This donation is a bad idea.
It’s possible to be against BOTH partial birth abortion AND child molestation. Happily, most Americans are. https://t.co/BjVH2gL69F
— Ben Sasse (@BenSasse) December 6, 2017
Because the opposition to Doug Jones in Alabama was about partial birth abortion. What a dick move.
If nothing else, Sasse has at least taught us a lesson that could save our country in 2018. Niceness in the face of evil is a form of fraud. Tyrants love to be opposed by nice people because they channel potential dissent into a mushy, smiling complacence. In 2017, when we needed him, Ben Sasse was busy being friendly and selling books.
While much of the evangelical movement was throwing its weight behind Donald Trump and Roy Moore, Russell Moore put his ministry on the line to defend his beliefs. Having earned scorn from other Baptist ministers in 2016 for his pointed opposition to Trump, Moore began 2017 with a fight to keep his job as the President of the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy arm. He won that battle without compromising his prophetic voice.
Moore is becoming an American Bonhoeffer, chiding the devout for their compromises with power and keeping a flame of moral conviction burning. He began the year fighting the Trump administration’s Muslim ban and he ended the year rallying evangelical opposition to Roy Moore. In between, he held his ground on matters of conscience against increasingly virulent opposition. Russell Moore was one of the stand-out figures of 2017.
There are girls and women in our churches, right now, wondering where they can turn as they are molested by predators.
I know Jesus’ answer. What about that of the church?
— Russell Moore (@drmoore) November 13, 2017
This was a tough year for voices in the middle. A journalist and author with deep Texas roots and an appreciation for Rick Perry-style Republicanism, Grieder found herself isolated by the GOP’s Trumpian turn.
It looked like this might be a promising year for someone with her talents and interests, but it appears to have been a transition time for her. She left Texas Monthly late last year and didn’t find a reliable new platform until the fall, when she began writing a column for the Houston Chronicle. It was a quiet year.
William Barber II
This was a transition time for Rev. Barber as well. After leading the Moral Mondays movement for four years as the president of the NAACP in North Carolina, Barber stepped down in May. He is preparing to tackle the most ambitious goal of the civil rights movement. In his new role, Barber hopes to revive Dr. King’s unfinished “poor people’s campaign,” uniting low income Americans across racial lines in a national social justice movement. That work should begin to bear fruit next year, when the campaign plans to organize protests nationally.
Minnesota’s senior Senator was overshadowed for much of 2017 by the theatrical brilliance of her colleague Al Franken. That won’t be a problem anymore.
Klobuchar has been pragmatic and reliable, but not very prominent. That may change going into 2018. Both of Minnesota’s Senate seats will be up for election next year. Klobuchar is unlikely to draw a serious challenger, leaving her free to use that campaign as a test for a 2020 presidential run. Though everything seems to be falling her way, 2017 was largely a quiet year for Klobuchar.
Evan McMullin made a name for himself in 2016 as a thorn in Trump’s side, heading a conservative third-party challenge for the White House. He never let his foot off the pedal. McMullin has been a relentless critic of Trump and complicit Republicans. Meanwhile he’s been working to convert the energy of the #NeverTrump movement into a grassroots ground-game with an organization called Stand Up Republic. It’s unclear how far they’ve gotten. Much of this kind of grassroots investment will remain untested until later next year. But it’s been heartening to see conservatives show some spine in resisting this administration.
In some high school or college class, you may have been required to read Faust. Roy probably didn’t. For whatever reason, Roy seems to have decided he could get more accomplished by staying close to Paul Ryan and the GOP than by opposing their antics. It hasn’t been a great bet.
Roy, who brought me on at Forbes as a blogger, broke from the Republican party very visibly last year over Trump and the rise of white nationalism. He seemed positioned to lead a pragmatic, intellectual opposition to the party’s transformation into a Neo-Confederate nightmare.
After the disappointment of the election, he decided to contribute his considerable insights, talents and credibility to the Republican ACA repeal effort. Even if the bill had passed, it’s hard to imagine what Roy might have gained from that move. Not even the best, smartest people can squeeze positive outcomes from their collusion with Trump-era Republicans. Advice from Republican strategist Rick Wilson hangs over any conservative faced with a similar choice: “Everything Trump touches dies.”
The biggest players in 2017 were figures I didn’t see coming. It was a very big year for women in particular. More on that to come.