The no longer quiet alliance between Never Trump conservatives and liberals does not offer an alternative to a choice between the Democratic “resistance” and Republicans.
It’s not as if it was a great secret but last week’s New York Times feature about the open ties between prominent conservative critics of President Donald Trump and liberals made it official. The last stalwarts of the “Never Trump” conservative movement are preparing to do more than merely complain about the object of their disdain; they’re now ready to join forces with liberals to oppose the president both in court and perhaps in future political campaigns.
Contrary to their hopes, this is not a harbinger of a political realignment. While the majority of Republican primary voters in 2016 voted for candidates other than Trump and a significant number of them continued to voice displeasure with their party’s nominee throughout that campaign, the overwhelming majority of GOP voters eventually voted for Trump that November. Even many of those who couldn’t bring themselves to pull the lever for Trump eventually made their peace with him once he was in office. Though his conduct has continued to strike even many of his supporters as unpresidential and deeply inappropriate, his conservative appointments and policies have vindicated the decision of many of his former critics on the right who hoped or believed that he would govern like a Republican even if he couldn’t act like one.
But to the hardcore Never Trump remnant, his policies are irrelevant. That fact that he has been arguably among the most conservative presidents in memory and has done things these figures would have supported if any other Republican had carried them out means nothing to them. In their eyes, Trump’s personality and sensibilities are a threat, as one of them told The New York Times, to “the liberal order” and a destroyer of the “norms of democracy.”
Seen in that apocalyptic context, the issues that governed their political stances no longer matter. The only thing that matters is Trump. If that means making common cause with liberals and Democrats and abandoning their past concerns about the enormous and terrible costs of the revival of modern liberalism that the Obama administration championed and Hillary Clinton would have continued and made worse, then as far as they are concerned, so be it.
Nor, can we argue with the logic of their decision since, if we take their hysteria about Trump seriously, it jives exactly with the similar rhetoric that has been voiced about Trump on the left since he won the election. To those who seriously believe, despite the evidence of the last 16 months (his tweets and angry comments about the special counsel investigating alleged collusion with Russia notwithstanding) that Trump is plotting the end of democracy and that, absent a successful resistance, we are living in the moral equivalent of the last days of the Weimar republic, this stance makes sense.
If the dwindling though loud Never Trump die-hards have come to define their political viewpoint in this manner, they have no choice but to go over to the Democrats, even if that means mimicking liberal opinions they would have once disdained.
What doesn’t make sense is the pretense that what they are doing is actually offering a third path distinct from the Democrats they once opposed and the former friends they now see as morally compromised Vichy Republicans.
The Never Trumpers are not the first to decry the increasing polarization of American politics. They are right that we have arrived at a point when Americans are divided not merely by politics but by culture. We no longer read, listen or watch the same media. And as late night television and the dismal spectacle of the White House Correspondents Dinner has proved, we don’t laugh at the same jokes either.
The rise of social media with more Americans getting their news from their Facebook feeds has made the problem worse as the ability to “de-friend” and delete anyone and anything that doesn’t confirm your pre-existing opinions and biases. Truly, Americans have lost the capacity to listen to each other or credit each other with good motives.
But the idea that a “third way” offers a path to something different is intellectually dishonest.
Past efforts to bridge the gap between the increasingly conservative Republicans and ever more liberal Democrats who dominate on the national stage have never attracted much interest outside of the think tank set and the ranks of unsuccessful politicians who found themselves cast aside by the voters. Groups such as “No Labels” sounded reasonable to such people, but were rejected by voters who wanted an actual choice between two competing ideological approaches to government.
But far from providing sensible moderation, the alliance of Never Trump conservatives and liberals that the Times discusses actually is a way of deepening our political divide. Indeed, by giving credibility to the most hysterical scenarios about the meaning of the Trump administration that are unsupported by the facts, this pact of convenience is rooted in a new form of extremism.
Some of those mentioned in the article as forming the leadership of this new movement have largely embarrassed themselves in the last year as their shrill rejection of Trump caused them to disparage interest in any issue but their anger at the president.
The best example of this is Evan McMullin. He may have presented himself as a credible and principled conservative alternative to Trump during the course of his quixotic minor party candidacy for the presidency in 2016. But since then, he seems to have abandoned conservatism in favor of a bitter vendetta against the president.
The same applies to Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin, another figure mentioned in the Times article. Her anti-Trump stance is consistent but it has caused her to flip-flop on every conceivable issue from climate change to taxes to Iran and even the status of Jerusalem simply in order to consistently oppose Trump. In her case, her lack of shame at the shocking inconsistency of her views has robbed this prolific writer of a shred of credibility. But it has gained her the applause of new friends on the left and a warm welcome on cable news networks where her attacks on Trump give her more attention and respect than she received when she was opposing Barack Obama with the same fervor.
But the main point these people whom we have no choice but to refer to as former conservatives miss is that in our political system the choice is still binary. Other conservatives may not like Trump but they understand that the voters preferred him in no small measure because they were sick of the clubby elitism that characterizes the anti-Trump alliance.
Moreover, they understand that, thanks to Trump’s unlikely victory, the choice isn’t between a conservatism tainted by association with Trump and one that isn’t. Rather the choice is between a Trump-led Republican Party that is championing the same issues that the pre-Trump GOP supported and liberals who want a return to the Obama era of high taxes and appeasement of Iran to mention just two key issues on which many Never Trumpers have abandoned their principles.
It is logical if not reasonable for the Never Trumpers to claim that opposition to the president is more important than a conservative judiciary, lower taxes, withdrawal from the Iran deal or even shoring up the alliance with Israel that Obama did so much to damage. But what is neither logical nor reasonable is the pretense that opposing the administration does anything other than giving aid and comfort to a Democratic Party that is now largely in the hands of its Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren wing.
Trump may be an unattractive and deeply flawed messenger for contemporary conservatism. But loath though they might be to admit it, what’s left of the Never Trump movement needs to come to grips with the fact that the only words that currently describe them are liberals and Democrats.