The #NeverTrump movement has been facing some tough times lately. Republicans who were once seen as the future of the party have now been cast aside as traitors as, one by one, they have come out in support of Donald Trump. The promise of an “impressive” third-party candidate who has a “strong team and a real chance” quickly fizzled. Many Never Trumpers openly praised Hillary Clinton’s latest speech—with some obviously wishing they had written it themselves.
How did things get so bad? Looking at the movement from the outside, it seems to have been plagued with problems since its inception. Let’s look at the four biggest ones.
1. Donald Trump Derangement Syndrome
Like liberals who contracted Bush Derangement Syndrome (BDS), those in the #NeverTrump movement have contracted a different strain of the same virus.
Putting on his psychiatrist’s hat, Charles Krauthammer famously defined BDS as “the acute onset of paranoia in otherwise normal people in reaction to the policies, the presidency—nay—the very existence of George W. Bush.” Liberals hurled the most vicious epithets against President Bush. They called him a “murderous” war criminal, a fascist who was hell-bent on establishing theocracy, and, of course, Bushitler, that old favorite of “peace mom” Cindy Sheehan and the members of Code Pink.
At its core, BDS was an unstable fusion of two competing claims: Bush was simultaneously the dumbest president of all time and the smartest president of all time. He didn’t know 2+2=4, but he perpetrated the greatest con job of all time as he fooled the world into believing that Iraq posed a grave danger to the United States. (The more extreme version of this scenario had Bush himself as the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks.)
The corollary to BDS is TDS (Trump Derangement Syndrome). Using Krauthammer’s definition, TDS can be defined as the acute onset of paranoia in otherwise normal people in reaction to the policies, the campaign—nay, the very existence of Donald J. Trump. Trump has been called a fascist a la Benito Mussolini, a “thin-skinned tyrant,” the modern equivalent of the segregationist George Wallace, and a man who poses an “extinction-level event potentially for our republic.” And that’s just from his detractors on the Right.
Like BDS, there are two contradictory views at the core of TDS: Trump is both a rigid liberal ideologue and a loose cannon who has no principles. Club for Growth President David McIntosh called Trump “at worst, a liberal Democrat and, at best, ideologically confused.” Quin Hilyer of National Review Online concurred with the sentiments of an anti-Trump political ad when it noted “how much of a loose cannon he is.”
But Trump cannot be both a man of the Left and a political pragmatist with no fixed principles. In their confusion, these critics are trying to throw any rhetorical device they can at the man without even bothering to see if it sticks. Trump’s detractors instead resemble more and more the liberals—gasp!—who went over the top in their attacks on George W. Bush.
2. A Failure to Understand Donald Trump
The confusion over how to see Trump reveals another problem: the failure to understand him as he understands himself.
A common argument with those in the #NeverTrump crowd is that conservatives should not trust Trump to follow through with the promises he is making on the campaign trail. Trump’s presentation of himself as pro-life, pro traditional marriage, and willing to appoint justices to the Supreme Court in the mold of Antonin Scalia is a sham.
As a recent commentator has argued, Trump’s history of a “strong commitment to undermining freedom of speech and constitutional property rights” negates any promises he is currently making. Specifically, Trump’s supposed inconsistency of his political positions over the years, past use of eminent domain, and talk of suing for libel media corporations who spread rumors about him means he can’t be trusted.
For those who value rigid consistency over the span of decades, Trump has actually been fairly consistent in his general stances on trade policy and foreign policy (as Winston Churchill knew, actual policy should differ as circumstances dictate). While probably too broad, Trump’s understanding of eminent domain is based on a different understanding of the meaning of “public use” in the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment. It is simply untrue that he is rejecting constitutional constraints altogether.
Furthermore, his stance on libel laws is not out of the mainstream of the American political tradition. As scholar Thomas G. West has argued, the Founders would have viewed the modern policy of not enforcing personal libel laws as contributing to “personal injury through retaliation or a serious failure to protect citizens against a significant form of personal injury.”
Although these specific arguments against Trump fail upon brief examination, it could still be possible that Trump’s penchant for flexibility could lead to hasty decision-making or 180-degree turns in policy. But a more charitable interpretation that is based on Trump’s past statements is perhaps more plausible.
Trump is a businessman who understands he must follow through with deals he makes. As he wrote in his bestseller, “The Art of the Deal,” “You can’t con people, at least not for long. You can create excitement, you can do wonderful promotion and get all kinds of press, and you can throw in a little hyperbole. But if you can’t deliver the goods, people will eventually catch on.”
How would it benefit Trump to immediately turn on those who helped elect him? This seems to go against every business instinct he possesses. With his decades of business experience, it is much more likely he will do what he says with respect to the Supreme Court and work to implement the general ideas he has stated on the campaign trail. Certainly the policy advisors he has surrounded himself with seem to indicate that this is exactly what will happen.
3. The Constitution Has a Place for Donald Trump
Trump’s self-understanding butts up against another popular argument that Never Trumpers have deployed time and time again. These detractors argue he represents the Founders’ worst nightmare. His unwillingness to bow down to current pieties of free trade, free markets, and limited government—which are of course derived straight from the Founders themselves—combined with his vulgar and crass language would have made Washington, Hamilton, and Jefferson view Trump as King George III’s apprentice.
Arguing in this vein, Matt Purple recently asserted at National Review Online that Trump is “certainly the sort of strongman our Founders feared would hijack the system they created.” Contra Purple, the Founders designed the Constitution with a view that a man like Trump could be in a position of power.
While government should inculcate virtue indirectly in its citizens through passing good laws, it should not count on those in power being pictures of perfect virtue. Instead, man’s natural qualities, such as his ambition, should be harnessed and directed toward the public good. As James Madison wrote in the Federalist, the “interest of the man” was to be connected with “the constitutional rights of the place.” Seen in this light, the auxiliary precautions Madison spoke of—e.g., separation of powers, federalism, legislative checks and balances—not only prevent tyranny but channel man’s self-interest toward contributing to the common good of the nation.
Plus, men who say their virtue entitles them to rule should not be trusted anyway. The Founders did not even trust the most virtuous men to hold all of the keys to the kingdom. As Machiavelli counseled in “The Prince,” “He who lets go of what is done for what should be done learns his ruin among so many who are not good. For a man who wants to make a profession of good in all regards must come to ruin among so many who are not good.” Understanding this obvious insight into man’s fallen nature, the Founders made sure to construct a government that could actually function given reality as it is, not as some wish it would be.
To act as though Trump represents some untold threat to constitutional government is blind to the very fact that government today largely operates outside of the bounds of the Constitution. The war Progressives and their heirs are waging upon the Constitution makes arguments that Trump would drag us to some new depth of constitutional anarchy ring quite hollow.
Instead, a man of massive ambition like Trump who wants the best for our country is exactly what the Founders were counting on.
4. The Utopianism of #PrinciplesFirst
Some in the #NeverTrump movement are especially fond of touting their moral superiority over anyone who will end up voting for Trump in the fall. Armed with the additional tag of #PrinciplesFirst, these moral warriors are roaming the countryside, looking to slay the dragons of conservative apostates, RINOS, and liberals.
Like the radical abolitionists of old, however, these renegades are putting the purity of their own conscience above working to avert the danger they see. Frederick Douglass’s famous break with his mentor, William Lloyd Garrison, was caused, in part, by this exact problem.
In a speech on the history of the anti-slavery movement, Douglass noted that the Garrisonian position of “no union with slaveholders” provided “no intelligible principle of action” for working to end slavery. By rejecting prudence in politics, the radical abolitionist position “leads to false doctrines, and mischievous results.” Although Douglass noted that Garrison’s anti-slavery position “started with the purpose to imbue the heart of the nation with sentiment favorable to the abolition of slavery,” it “ends by seeking to free the North from all responsibility of slavery.”
By working to sever the connection with slaveholders, these radical abolitionists instead put the sanctity of their own consciences above the goal of ridding the nation of slavery. Slaveholders, of course, heartily concurred in this plan of disunion. As Douglass argued elsewhere, “The most devoted advocates of slavery, those who make the interests of slavery their constant study, seek a dissolution of the Union as their final plan for preserving slavery from Abolition.”
Conservatives who care about conserving civil society for future generations should heed Douglass’s diagnosis of the failure of the radical abolitionists. In being conscientious objectors from the 2016 election, members of the #NeverTrump movement seem more interested in preserving their fidelity to their principles than trying to influence Trump and his supporters. With the reality that either Hillary Clinton or Trump will be president, anything being done now will either help one candidate or the other.
Besides, how useful are such principles if they make one refrain from participating in politics the moment things become difficult? This observation points to a problem with the principles themselves. The principles that #NeverTrump members cling to are in most cases not really principles at all. They have elevated applications of principle or parts of a more general principle to being canons of natural law. But what was good policy in 1980 is not necessarily good policy today.
Further, by writing out of their movement anyone who is not a true believer in their principles, they are making their cause more and more irrelevant with each passing day. Berating those who think differently and calling into question the intellectual and moral capacity of most Americans is not exactly a winning strategy.
If they want to be a relevant part of American politics again, Never Trumpers should take some time to think through these problems. Instead of running a caricatured version of Reagan’s 1980 campaign over and over again, they should instead focus on crafting policies that will actually help people today. Only by connecting principles to the common good of the nation will we be able to secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity.