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NeverTrump Is Over. So What Does It Do Next?


NeverTrump is over.

I don’t mean the idea was invalid or has been discredited. Certainly not by the election results, partly because it’s clear Donald Trump squeaked by without a majority against a particularly unpopular and unloved opponent. Heck, he didn’t even get a plurality, since Hillary Clinton edged him out slightly in the popular vote. But NeverTrump was never about whether Trump could win the election, it was about whether he deserved our support.

That is no longer the question. Trump is no longer the nominee but is now the president-elect, whether we like it or not. Unlike the febrile children on the Left, we’re not going to protest the outcome. The whole point of being NeverTrump is a desire to preserve the rule of law, which includes accepting the decision of the voters (and the Electoral College).

The question now is what to do when Trump is sworn in as president. I suggest skipping the five stages of grief and going straight to the five stages of NeverTrump.

1) Take What We Can Get

One of the reasons I opposed Trump is that as a man with no consistent ideological grounding, he is inherently unpredictable. He has no record in public office to judge from, but he does have a record in business. There he is known for saying whatever he needs to say to close a deal, then doing whatever he wants. But I supposed this has an upside. Although he may not do some of the good things he said he would do, he probably won’t do a bunch of the bad things he said he would do.

And who knows? He might come through on a couple of key items advocates of liberty really want.

There are four things we have some hope he will do—with the support of Congress—in his first 100 days: repeal Obamacare, make a good nomination for the Supreme Court, reject the Paris climate deal, and bury the Iran deal.

Getting rid of the Paris and Iran deals would be nice, but of limited impact. Yes, it would be good to appease Iran less, but I doubt Trump is going to take active measures to roll back Iranian power. After all, he has openly welcomed the growing influence in the Middle East of Iran’s ally, Russia.

As for the Paris climate deal, it was never an actual treaty that imposed binding obligations on the United States. What is more promising in this regard is Trump’s appointment of a “climate skeptic,” Myron Ebell, to head his EPA transition team. This is a very good, very promising appointment. They say that “personnel is policy,” and I suspect it will be even more true under Trump. All the evidence is that he has little knowledge of or interest in the details of public policy. This will probably mean that some big reforms falter for lack of presidential attention and follow-through. But it may also mean that his appointees will be free to set their own priorities without much interference from above.

But the big tests of the Trump administration are Obamacare and the Supreme Court.

Seven years after its passage, Obamacare has been exactly the disaster its critics predicted, and it has had just enough time to begin collapsing under its own weight. But that’s not the only reason it needs to be repealed. The whole Democratic calculation behind Obamacare, the reason they were willing to sacrifice their congressional majority to pass it, was the belief that once installed it would be around forever and health care would come to be taken for granted as yet another service provided by government.

If Obamacare is repealed—and not replaced by something similar, which is still an open question—that kind of calculation would be seriously undermined. Democrats would have sacrificed Congress and the presidency for nothing, and it will make them much more cautious in the future about ramming big pieces of legislation down the public’s throat. This alone would be big progress.

A decent nominee to the Supreme Court, the kind Trump has pledged to appoint, would be a permanent addition to the political infrastructure of the Right. The impact of this is a little overestimated. A five-justice conservative majority on the Supreme Court has so far not been the brake on growing government power that we might have expected. They didn’t overturn Obamacare, didn’t stop abuse of eminent domain, have done little to prevent the violation of the religious liberty of gay marriage dissidents, and didn’t stop the EPA’s power grab on global warming regulations. The rulings of a liberal Supreme Court would not have been radically different. This is part of the reason I did not regard Supreme Court appointments as the be-all and end-all of this election.

But a few key rulings have been important, such as upholding the First Amendment in the Citizens United case and breathing life back into the Second Amendment in the Heller and McDonald rulings. Moreover, Trump won’t be choosing the replacement for just any Supreme Court justice. He will be replacing the intellectually influential Antonin Scalia, and we can hope that with a friendly Republican majority in the Senate, he will have the leeway to appoint a justice of similar stature, if he chooses to do so.

But what happens on these two issues is not just a matter for Trump to decide. Both depend on the Republican Congress, which reminds us of our real hope for the next four years.

2) Remember: the Republican Congress Won Some Elections, Too

Trump may be the winner of this presidential election. But the bigger, longer-term winner of the last eight years is the Republican Party in the statehouses and in Congress. They managed to take back control of the House in 2010, take back the Senate in 2014, and hold on to most of those gains under difficult circumstances this year.

Now is the big moment for that Republican Congress. After 2010, House Republicans explained that they had limited power to achieve their agenda because Republicans didn’t control the Senate. After 2014, House and Senate Republicans explained that their power was still limited because they faced a recalcitrant president. There was a lot of truth in this, by the way, but now they are out of excuses. They have everything they wished for: majorities in both houses and the presidency. So they have to deliver on at least a few big promises.

That means we should look to congressional Republicans to keep the party on track ideologically. We should look to them to make sure Obamacare is repealed and not just “amended,” as Trump has suggested, and to make sure it doesn’t get replaced by anything like what Trump has endorsed in the past, which would just be Obamacare under a different name.

The same thing goes for the Supreme Court. The Republican Congress needs to keep in mind the Harriet Miers precedent, in which a Republican Senate rejected George W. Bush’s nominee because they did not regard her as sufficiently substantial and intellectually powerful. Bush was forced to withdraw her and put forward Samuel Alito, instead. They should be prepared to mount another such rebellion if necessary.

That irony is that part of what fueled Trump’s rise in the Republican primaries was frustration among the Republican base at the party’s failure to make good on promises like repealing Obamacare. Yet to actually fulfill those promises, the Republican Congress may have to oppose Trump. If that happens, NeverTrump alumni need to support them—and point out the irony.

3) Don’t Make Partisan Excuses for Trump

Trump is going to be attacked unremittingly by the Left, often for stupid, made-up reasons. As a result, people on the Right are going to develop a natural reflex to defend him and to assume that all such attacks are invalid.

Actually, I shouldn’t put that in the future tense. This is what made his victory possible in the first place, both in the primaries and in the general election. Whenever Trump did or said something that was truly, legitimately awful, many on the Right would refuse to acknowledge it because it was reported in the media and “the media lies.” So they would claim that this wasn’t what he said “in context” and go on to explain to me what Trump “really” meant, just in case I happened to believe my lying ears.

I’m already seeing this particular disease spreading, and NeverTrump alumni should make it our job to resist it. We need to keep reminding everyone that winning the latest 24-hour news cycle is not worth losing sight of what you stand for.

We will need to repeat this especially loudly because we can expect the Trump White House to be obsessed with winning the latest news cycle at all costs.

4) Be the Loyal Opposition

At some point, Trump is going to do something or propose something that is truly awful. It’s not a matter of “if,” it’s a matter of when. Take your pick: restrictive new libel laws, draconian restrictions on international trade, an alliance with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, single-payer health care. These are all things Trump has thought were good ideas in the past. Or maybe it will be some totally new awful idea that hasn’t even popped into his head yet.

When that happens, we need to be prepared to be the “loyal opposition” to our own party leadership. Let me explain what I mean here by the word “loyal.” It’s not about being loyal to a party or to a temporary political leader. It’s about being loyal to our country and its interests, even if that means opposing our current party leadership.

None of this should be a stretch for us. For all the big talk about Trump being the “anti-establishment” candidate, most of the NeverTrumpers I know have actual records of opposing the establishment. We’re the ones who cheered, for example, when frustrated primary voters put the skids under Eric Cantor. Holding Trump to account will come naturally.

5) Be the Mustard Seed

For me, at least, NeverTrump was never just about a single person. It was about basic ideas—and whether we should have any. So I took Trump’s win in the primaries as the sign of a larger ideological failure.

I have complained before that what is missing in Trump’s approach is the usual dual appeal politicians make, in which they mix emotional and populist appeals with intellectual arguments and policy details. Trump relies almost exclusively on the first and is contemptuously dismissive of the second. But that’s not the big problem. The big problem is that many people on the Right were just fine with that, including some who should have known better.

If those who care about these important ideas are a smaller number than we had hoped, then our efforts just become that much more important.

What the usual dual politics concealed from us was the number of people on the Right for whom the emotional/populist appeals took precedence over the ideological/policy arguments. Or to put it bluntly, the number of people who, when they said they cared about small government and the Constitution, were lying to themselves. We know this, because when a candidate came along who didn’t really care about those things, but who appealed to voters for some other reason—e.g., “but he fights!”—they went along enthusiastically.

It is a great disappointment to learn this. America was not founded on nationalism. (If it had been, it never would have been founded at all, because our national identity was “British.”) America was founded on the basis of profound and indispensable ideas about liberty, individual rights, and limited government.

While it’s depressing to see how many people on the Left don’t understand or care about those ideas any more—consider the University of Virginia students who think it’s hateful to quote their university’s founder—it’s even more depressing to see how many people on the Right don’t understand or care, either. But giving up is not an option. If those who care about these important ideas are a smaller number than we had hoped, then our efforts just become that much more important. So we need to refocus on the task of educating people about the ideas of liberty.

One thing I’ve always admired about Christians (but which many have not displayed this year) is their willingness to be the “mustard seed.” It’s from one of the parables: the idea is that mustard seeds are tiny but can grow into a large and flourishing plant. Similarly, the early church was small and struggling to survive in a hostile culture, but its faith was so powerful (according to the parable) that it was destined to grow and thrive.

In this case, it is the truth of American ideals that is the powerful mustard seed of liberty. It’s our job to preserve that seed and nurture it, even when nobody else cares. Especially when nobody else cares. The next four years will see ups and downs, most of which will be forgotten a decade from now. The cause of American liberty is much larger and endures. Our response to the Trump years should be to keep our focus on that larger cause.

Follow Robert on Twitter.