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Return of the Never Trumpers

If the Trump experiment ends in failure, where will it leave those conservatives who told you so?

Late February saw two very different conservative get togethers in Washington. It was a time before Covid-19 had killed anyone in the US, or sunk its economy; before Joe Biden’s South Carolina comeback sank far-left Democratic primary frontrunner Bernie Sanders.

The MGM National Harbor hotel and casino played host to CPAC — these days a raucous Trumpworld carnival of red caps and Fox blondes. By all accounts, the mood was bullish. Impeachment was in the rear-view mirror, Trump’s approval rating intact. “America vs. Socialism” read the banner that welcomed attendees as conservatives licked their lips in anticipation of a general election opponent who described himself as a democratic socialist. With the economy growing healthily, some dared to wonder whether the plan to “Keep America Great” and deliver a second Trump term might prove less complicated than they first expected.

Meanwhile, the dusty National Press Club was the venue for a decidedly less razzmatazz event. The Summit for Principled Conservatism was a gathering of the vanguard of the Never Trump movement, those conservatives who opposed Trump as a Republican primary candidate and had continued to oppose him as a Republican president. In the time before Trump, most of them were CPAC regulars. Now they hardly recognised the movement they helped to build. Even the event’s title was an admission of defeat: implied in the emphasis of principles was a concession that theirs was not the most electorally appealing brand of conservatism in town.

The contrast between the two events could hardly have been more striking, and the evidence of Trump’s total takeover of the American right looked irrefutable.

Four months on, the world looks very different. With more than 120,000 Americans dead in a pandemic that is far from over, even as the President talks about it in the past tense, and the administration’s economic track record in tatters, Trump is slouching towards defeat in November. But if the Trump experiment ends in failure, where will it leave those conservatives who told you so?

That question bounces around in one’s mind while reading Never Trump: The Revolt of the Conservative Elites, a new book by political scientists Robert P. Saldin and Steven M. Teles.

Saldin and Teles know how Washington is wired, so can explain the sometimes principled, sometimes prosaic reasons why different blocs of conservatives reacted to Trump in the way they did

Part of the book is an ethnography of the Never Trumpers, evenhandedly describing who they are, why they broke one way when so many close colleagues went the other, and how the various factions fit together. Saldin, a professor at the University of Montana, and Teles, a professor at Johns Hopkins and a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center (a think tank that is itself part of Never Trump world), have interviewed many of the movement’s key players. They know how Washington is wired, so can explain the sometimes principled, sometimes prosaic reasons why different blocs of conservatives reacted to Trump in the way they did.

Republicans in the national security elite, for example, were almost all opposed to Trump during the 2016 primary and held firm after he became the candidate. Part of that is down to a substantive objection to Trump, whose ascent was a direct repudiation of their world view. But it is also a product of the fact that foreign policy wonks aren’t dependent on the GOP. They are almost all collected in downtown DC, work closely with Democrats and “share a common belief that responsible foreign policy requires insulating decision making from their own party’s ‘crazies’”. Political operatives and campaign advisers are culturally much more tribal, and cannot afford to fall out with the party and expect to stay in business. Most have gone along with the Trump project. Those operatives that have been steadfastly Never Trump are more likely to be older, having made plenty of money already and with a public platform of their own that allows them independence from the Republican party.

The second thing Saldin and Teles do is tell the doomed story of the Republican establishment’s attempt to scupper first Trump’s primary bid and then his campaign against Hillary Clinton. As time wears on, the ranks of Never Trumpers thin considerably. Party higher ups fall into line and what had started as a broad coalition determined to stop a hostile takeover of their party ends as a fringe group pushing public figures of dwindling prominence to run as an independent alternative. Condaleeza Rice, Mitt Romney and Jim Mattis say no. So does Republican Congressman Ben Sasse. The best the Never Trumpers could manage was Evan McMullin, an unknown Mormon ex-CIA House staffer who mustered 728,000 votes on Election Day, finishing fifth behind the major-party candidates, Libertarian Gary Johnson and the Green Party’s Jill Stein.

After Trump’s unexpected victory, the Never Trumpers drifted in different directions. Some see the President as a mortal threat to the Republic, and intone gravely about creeping authoritarianism. Others think Trump is a vulgar fool, an embarrassment and a disaster for the long-term fortunes of the Republican party, but are less convinced that his Presidency is doing irreparable damage to America. To some, the set of ideas you might call Trumpism — a restrictionist approach to immigration, a hostility to free trade, a limited view of America’s role on the world stage — are a fundamental betrayal of Republican values. Others share some of Trump’s criticisms of what had been an inflexible and increasingly tin-eared GOP establishment.


For some anti-Trump conservatives, the last four years have been personally trying, as well as professionally and politically difficult. Isolated because of her opposition to Trump, the conservative writer Mona Charen tells the authors that her friends worry she is being captured by the left. “It’s not that I’m being taken over by the left. It’s that I’m just as disgusted with the right. And so it affected my life in lots of ways and some of my dearest friends, some of the people that we socialised with the most, we haven’t seen much of at all… It’s painful.”

Charlie Sykes, the editor-in-chief of the stoutly Never Trump website The Bulwark, compares his situation in the early years of the Trump presidency to “the astronauts floating off from the capsule in space”. Now, though, he says he enjoys the freedom that comes with not being a paid-up member of one side of America’s hyper partisan politics.

Others have found Trump’s rise clarifying. “Trump has been a great surfacer of character,” says New York Times columnist Bret Stephens. “A certain perversity of character is required to take a liking to this guy or to make excuses for him.” Stephens insists that his Never Trump stance has not changed his views more generally. Washington Post columnist George Will agrees, but says that Trump’s racialised rhetoric caused him to cut ties with the party.

David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter and the author of Trumpocalypse, takes the opposite view, arguing that his opposition to the President has only strengthened his determination to stay and fight: “Okay, so be an independent, sure. But as I learn from political scientists, it’s like the joke about Northern Ireland. Are you a Catholic independent, or are you a Protestant independent? … You don’t build center parties from the center out, you build center parties from one party in.”

Saldin and Teles’s book succeeds on its own terms. They think that the Never Trump movement is worth taking seriously and observing closely and they have done exactly that, producing a nuanced, detailed and even-handed document of conservative resistance to Trump.

A popular objection to the endeavour will likely be “who cares?” For all the merits of the central Never Trump claim about Trump’s fitness for office, some of the diehard members of the right’s anti-Trump resistance have at times been a tiresome presence on the political scene, fighting to save American democracy one melodramatic tweet at a time, repeating ad nauseam the same arguments about the President’s very obvious shortcomings, indulging in over-excited conspiracism and refusing to acknowledge the Republican missteps that opened the door to Trump’s rise. Why should we listen to dying gasps of an outdated elite, some will ask.

Saldin and Teles concede the possibility that the GOP’s populist revolution marches on, leaving the Never Trumpers in the dust but conclude by entertaining “a parallel, contrarian story” about the Republican Party. Starting with the observation that, historically, American parties have rarely been homogenous and are often deeply divided, they point out that the last few decades have bucked that trend. Perhaps the Trump revolution will eventually be seen as the beginning of the end of that anomaly. “That kind of internal coherence is unlikely to persist in either party,” they write, arguing that the Republicans are heading to a more factionally divided future:

Going forward, the dominant faction of the GOP is almost certain to be populist and nationalist and have little space for most of the people who stood against Trump. Yet the populists will not have the party all to themselves. They are going to be forced to share it with what we call a liberal-conservative faction, in recognition of their grounding in classical liberal principles of free markets, pluralism and constitutionalism… The core voters of this liberal-conservative faction will be the educated middle class, business and more upwardly mobile parts of ethnic minority groups.

The party’s liberal-conservative wing won’t be dominant, but Saldin and Teles argue that “it could be powerful enough that the majority faction will have to negotiate with it”. In this factional future, the Never Trumpers “go from a position as the professional and ideological elite of a more or less unified Republican Party, to performing similar functions for a considerably smaller and more geographically compact faction within the party.”

With Trump seeming singly incapable of providing the United States with the leadership it needs at a fraught moment and, if his overhyped and under-attended comeback rally this weekend is any indicator, struggling even to gin up the campaign-trail enthusiasm that propelled him to victory in 2016, it is little wonder the polls report him ten points behind Biden. The more he stumbles, the less silly the Never Trumpers look. And the easier it becomes to at least contemplate a Republican Party after Trump: forever changed by a president unlike any other, but with room for the Never Trumpers to return from exile.

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