Conservatives have a strange and fraught relationship with modernity. On one hand, they relish fantasies of endless economic growth fueled by mass production and unrestrained consumption. When asked to defend laissez-faire capitalism, they point to the iPhone, McDonald’s and the Ford Model T, capitalism’s highest achievements. Any critique is met with an accusation of hypocrisy that uses these as a cudgel — how can you hate capitalism while using an iPhone? Capitalism means technological advancement, infinitely expanding consumer choices, and instant gratification, which makes it far preferable to life in North Korea, the only possible alternative. On the other hand, conservatives loathe what modernity has wrought. The automobile and the airplane destroyed the tight-knit local community. The addition of women to the workforce chipped away at the traditional nuclear family of the 1950s. The doctrine of consumerism led us to constantly crave the new, novel, and exciting, words that cannot be used to describe the Bible. Worst of all, modernity gave us electronic gadgets that distract children from their fathers' lectures. A good conservative believes all these things at once, but cannot and will not reconcile their contradictions. When he attempts to put together a statement of belief, as Sen. Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska, has done in his book The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis--and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance, the result is wholly incoherent.
The Vanishing American Adult is designed to appeal to the newest trend among conservatives: Millennial-bashing. Anger at younger generations, and at Millennials in particular, is nothing new. The stereotypes about Millennials — that they’re lazy, self-entitled, quick to take offense — have been floating around for a decade. But, thanks to a rash of increasingly hysterical op-eds and high-profile college protests, this latent anger has morphed into a primary fixation. Much of movement conservatism is now inseparable from grievances about the young. The holy trinity of millennial-mockery (safe spaces, trigger warnings, and “snowflakes”) has come to dominate the conservative vocabulary, beating out old standbys like “freedom” and “Benghazi.” Sasse is acutely aware of this, which is why the first sentence of The Vanishing American Adult’s description reads as such: “In an era of safe spaces, trigger warnings, and an unprecedented election, the country's youth are in crisis.”
Before Sasse, 45, became famous for being present when Bill Maher said the n-word on television, he was most notable for being one of the GOP’s biggest hypocrites. After winning his 2014 Senate campaign on an anti-Obamacare platform, his status as a junior senator representing a patch of wilderness evidently garnered him inadequate press coverage. His solution was to cast himself as a staunch anti-Trumper. He published an open letter denouncing Trump during the 2016 Republican primary, the first of many attention-grabbing stunts. Sasse called Trump a “megalomaniac strongman” and expressed concerns about his womanizing and flip-flopping on gun rights. Under the assumption that Trump would lose the general election, the National Review and Mother Jones alike anointed him as the man who would rebuild the party after the “Trumpocalypse.”
Conservatives hate modernity because it gave us electronic gadgets that distract children from their fathers' lectures.
This all looks very dumb in hindsight — under Trump, the so-called “moderates” have less power within the party than ever, and Sasse’s voting record, both pre- and post-Trump, is exactly in line with the president’s policy proposals. He railed against Obamacare, even though Nebraska has an unusually high rate of enrollment in ACA exchanges. He shares the bulk of Trump’s views on immigration, including a fixation on increasing border security and a refusal to consider amnesty for longtime undocumented residents. He’s anti-gay marriage, anti-abortion, a climate-change denier and a bathroom warrior. And in a display of utter shamelessness, Sasse voted for 19 out of 20 Trump cabinet nominees. Who did he oppose? Was it Jeff Sessions, the neo-Confederate caricature who wants to dramatically increase our record-high rate of incarceration? Was it Betsy DeVos, the school privatizer whose only qualification is that her brother was CEO of Blackwater? Of course not. It was Robert Lighthizer, now the U.S. Trade Representative, whom Sasse deemed insufficiently friendly toward NAFTA.
So it perhaps comes as no surprise that the attention-hungry Sasse sets out to analyze why America’s teens and 20-somethings have gone so astray. Given the arbitrary nature of the Boomer/Gen X/Millennial divides and the difficulty of empirically comparing their respective psychological profiles, his evidence is largely anecdotal. When he does provide hard data, it does little to strengthen his case. Many of the statistics he presents only signify generational “crisis” to a Nebraska evangelical. Some of the more encouraging trends he recoils from are that young people “identify less with the faith and organized religion of their parents and grandparents and more with an amorphous spirituality” and that they show “a resurgence of interest in socialism.” The book is full of this sort of unintentional optimism — at one point, he earnestly writes that “For men with less than a four-year college degree, ‘leisure time’ completely dominates the hours they’re not working.”
Sasse does bring up some legitimately worrying trends, like the increase in reported stress levels among teens and the alarming number of Millennials living with their parents well into adulthood. He just barely acknowledges that there may be an economic reason for these changes, but it seldom comes up. When it does, he mentions it as a postscript to the greater issues of “decreasing initiative” and “lack of self-reliance.” The phrase “student loans” appears just once in 320 pages. “Recession” appears twice, first to say that despite it, “we still have more material surplus than any other people any place in all of history,” and then in the context of mocking writer Talia Jane for demanding higher wages from Yelp.
Sasse’s guidelines for successful child rearing are interesting. He recommends that children kill deer and have “the blood of their casualty dabbed on their foreheads and cheeks,” which is a great way to contract a number of animal-borne diseases, not to mention very weird. His wife “regularly quotes Margaret Thatcher” to their three children. He praises the 19th-century Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle, a fervent defender of slavery, as an authority on “the work ethic that dominated nineteenth-century America.” Many passages in the book read like Grandpa Simpson dialogue: “No one should regard the eradication of polio as anything but a glorious blessing, but we should also be able to recall that many older folks we know grew their character by fighting through their polio,” Sasse writes. In the absence of a quick-fix disease epidemic, Sasse subscribes to the belief that self-denial, especially for its own sake, is the cornerstone of virtue. In one of many puzzling childhood reminiscences, he writes: “When I was a kid, we had air conditioning in our house, but we never used it. My dad explained that it was a luxury, and it was a nice blessing that the house came with it, but we weren’t rich, and so we wouldn’t be paying for the extra electricity.” That the Sasse family knowingly shelled out extra money for a luxury and then decided to forego it purely as a display of virtue illustrates the confused worldview of the suburban evangelical — one part conspicuous consumption, one part stoicism, the two mixed together so haphazardly that neither is able to retain its internal logic.
The phrase “student loans” appears just once in Sasse's book.
It comes as no surprise that Sasse, who has degrees from both Harvard and Yale, largely sounds confused and out of his element when extolling the virtues of hard manual labor and material deprivation. In the book’s afterword, he chooses to do this through the voice of Teddy Roosevelt, who travels through time to give an imagined commencement address at a modern-day university. An excerpt: “Hey, you! — in the third row, with the dyed hair, on your smartyphone — are you hearing me? Put your gadgets down and look around you! Wake up!” Give me a fucking break.
When he's not trying to build a case for child labor, Sasse sounds more like a new-age philosopher than a Tea Party senator. His prescriptions for modern youth are, for the most part, distinctively un-Republican. He invites readers to limit their possessions and reject consumerism. He has a soft spot for nature, and he writes at length about the benefits of the cross-country road trip. At one point, he argues for a greater embrace of birth and death with an anecdote about witnessing a friend’s birth with his wife as a “trial run” for their own. “The obstetrics nurses were — to put it mildly — surprised to see the four of us arrive in the delivery room arm in arm,” he writes. He describes this as “a great evening.” This mishmash of ideologies — part Thoreau, part Kerouac, part Mommy Blogger — bears no resemblance to Sasse’s actual voting record, which is hostile to the environment and seeks to further enrich the purveyors of mindless entertainment and conspicuous consumption.
It’s hard not to view the sudden uptick in Millennial-bashing as a form of psychological projection. Every negative personality trait conservatives identify in Millennials is also present in Trump, the oldest president upon inauguration and the overwhelming favorite of older voters. Privileged upbringing? Check. Inability to handle criticism? Check. Too much “screen time”? Rejection of the traditional nuclear family? Compulsive oversharing on social media? All of it applies to the leader of the Republican Party as much as it does to those in the catacombs of Instagram. Conservatives both on and off the Trump Train are uneasy about this glaringly obvious counterargument, but for the time being they have no choice but to double down. Sasse was pressed on this in a recent interview with Politico, but he quickly changed the subject. It’s understandable that he wouldn’t want to go there. For Sasse to confront the fundamental truth that his own party is the primary vector of the selfishness, alienation, and moral decay he abhors would require him to care about other people besides himself.