Defeated conservatives like to believe they are beautiful losers. The remnants of the Never Trump movement are convinced they were right in standing (as they see it) for principles, character, and competence against a Republican nominee lacking all three. They may be politically exiled and impotent, but they are preserving an unsullied conservatism.
A new book from Oxford University Press, Never Trump: The Revolt of the Conservative Elites, provides an extensive account of the leaders of this movement. The authors, Robert Saldin and Steven Teles, are sympathetic to their subjects, whom they quote at length, and this book does not pretend to be an unbiased history.
This perspective may rankle some readers, but this book’s thorough, if one-sided, history is still valuable. The account of the farcical efforts to recruit an anti-Trump conservative for an independent presidential run is worth the price of admission by itself.
Although GOP primary voters who preferred other candidates mostly fell in line behind Trump and against Hillary Clinton once Trump clinched the nomination, many prominent conservatives persisted in opposing Trump and remain important in the media or elsewhere, despite their political insignificance. As the president seeks reelection, the remaining Never Trump voices will not have many votes, but, through overrepresentation in media and elite institutions, they will have megaphones.
Different Factions, Different Incentives
Of course, there have been defectors large (like Erick Erickson) and small (like me) who have come to support the president, usually citing his conservative accomplishments (judicial appointments in particular) and Democrats’ leftward lurch. Others, such as Max Boot, have gone the other way, rejecting conservatism entirely and denouncing their old ideas as well as their former compatriots. But some, such as the crew of The Bulwark, hold fast, insisting they are the preservers of true conservatism, and hoping to reclaim their status as conservative leaders once Trump is gone—an inevitability they hope to hasten.
The continued fight over Never Trump is a battle for control of conservatism and the Republican Party after Trump. The subjects of this book may be yesterday’s men, but they hope to regain power tomorrow. They are not, however, unified in what they would do with it. People declared themselves Never Trump for a variety of reasons. As the authors of this book describe in detail, Never Trump was a coalition of overlapping movements, rather than a unified front.
But while opposition to Trump came from almost every faction of the GOP, it was not evenly distributed. For instance, the Republican foreign policy establishment was a bastion of the Never Trump movement. Trump had railed against the GOP foreign policy consensus, and members of the DC-based foreign policy “blob” tended to be moderate on domestic issues as well as comfortable with their Democratic counterparts who would staff a Clinton administration. But, as the book explains, their opposition meant little, for “Trump had discovered that the foreign policy establishment—unlike, say, the top echelon of social conservatism—simply doesn’t command armies of voters.”
Different factions of the party have different principles, and Trump did not threaten them all as he did the foreign policy establishment. For instance, the conservative legal movement did not generate as much Never Trump agitation as the foreign policy establishment did, perhaps because the former has gained unprecedented power and influence under Trump.
Taking a principled stand against Trump makes sense if he has kicked your faction and principles to the curb. It is less appealing if he has embraced your principles and it actively implementing them by filling the courts with originalist judges.
Right-wing economists and Republican political operatives and were also unlikely to go Never Trump, although for different reasons. The book claims right-leaning economists were temperamentally inclined to watch from the sidelines, rather than actively work against Trump, in part because “they generally had lower expectations of politicians in the first place.”
In contrast to this laissez-faire attitude, political operatives had more immediate incentive: few could afford their party’s ill-will. But their choices were motivated by more than money and career advancement. The political consultants who resisted Trump “all came out of the moderate wing.” There were committed to an alternative vision for the GOP—moderate on social issues and welcoming on immigration.
Principles Become Protest
Calls for principled conservative opposition to Trump thus raised the question: whose principles? The task of the Never Trump intelligentsia was to provide an answer. Defining the limits of mainstream conservatism and keeping the cranks, creeps, and grifters at bay was understood as an essential part of their mission.
After all, the gatekeeping role of conservative elites is part of the movement’s mythos, beginning with Bill Buckley and National Review giving the boot to the John Birch Society. Never Trump writers and intellectuals believed they had a similar task before them in response to what they viewed as Trump’s hijacking of their party. They thought they were standing on principle; their critics thought they were abandoning the only real chance of implementing their principles.
Of course, the diverse parts of the conservative movement never can agree on common principles, and even when principles were shared, priorities varied—to say nothing of the differences induced by personality, experience and circumstances. For example, Jewish conservatives were especially likely to be Never Trump. Fringe anti-Semites have used this to fuel conspiracy theories, but as the authors note, it is more readily explained by American Jewish culture.
For others, the personal became the political. For instance, the Never Trump views of David French and Jonah Goldberg were reinforced by the viciousness of Trump-supporting Twitter trolls. Comfort with the status quo likewise contributed to some declaring themselves Never Trump, while conservatives who were more critical of elites and their institutions may have been more willing to wage war against them by electing Trump.
Another factor was the assumption that Trump would lose, and that keeping clear of him would provide better positioning for the ensuing fights in the conservative movement and GOP. “Never Trump was conceived of as a kind of party in exile which, free from the stench of Trump’s failure, could rebuild the party in his wake,” observe Saldin and Teles.
This was part of the impetus behind an independent presidential bid, even as its prospects dwindled. Attempts to recruit serious candidates like Condi Rice, Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse, and Jim Mattis were rebuffed, but the effort kept on, setting its sights lower and lower until settling on Evan McMullin as a purely protest vote.
Principles had turned into protest. As for those principles, the more moderate members of the conservative movement (especially as regards social issues) may have been more likely to be Never Trump, but there was no single issue dividing Never Trump from those who supported him—except for character.
Arguing that Trump was unfit for office, with his bad character also compromising his temperament and competence, was, and remains, the last refuge of Never Trump. In some cases this seems to have been a post-hoc rationalization, deployed even by Never Trump figures with their own sordid histories (let he who has never dumped his wife for a young research assistant cast the first stone). But others sincerely believe it is morally impermissible to ever vote for a bad man to be president.
Thus, many who vehemently reject the idea of elections as a binary choice are eager to reduce questions of character to a binary choice. In their view, one either cares about character or not, and rejecting Trump is the only way to prove it.
Questions of Character
But it is possible to believe that character is important for politicians while also believing that in some circumstances it nice to have, rather than need to have. To take a local example, many conservatives who cheered the forced resignation of Missouri’s ex-governor Eric Greitens will still vote for Trump over Joe Biden.
These conservatives judge questions of character prudentially, weighing the consequences of their response to a morally compromised candidate. They concluded that supporting Trump is still better than giving the Democrats the presidency — especially when Democrats put forth Hillary Clinton as a candidate in 2016 who, despite herculean media efforts to whitewash the Clintons’ past, had deep character flaws that rivaled Trump’s.
The comparative moral questions surrounding Democrats’ radical and punitive policies, to say nothing of their current flawed candidate, are still the story as Trump’s seeks reelection. Politically, Never Trump is over. For all of the sound and fury, and despite a disproportionate presence in the national media and elite institutions, Never Trump ranks “have seen considerable attrition,” Saldin and Teles note.
Members of the conservative elite revolted against the GOP, only to find that few were following them. Nor has this changed. The president may lose reelection, but he has secured conservative voters by delivering on their priorities.
Despite sympathy for their subjects, the authors of this book do not expect Never Trumpers to retake control of the Republican Party, even if Trump loses this fall. They do think that the rise of a populist GOP and a radicalized, socialist-friendly Democratic Party may create regional opportunities for the sort of business-friendly, socially-moderate Republican Party that many Never Trump figures favor. They envision a neoconservative-neoliberal center trying to hold off the populist right and the socialist left.
But the remnants of Never Trump will have a better chance of renewed relevance if they heed some of the hard truths contained in this book. Although the authors are sympathetic and subtle in analyzing their subjects, they also describe a GOP establishment and a conservative movement that had become arrogant, insular, and unresponsive to the concerns of their constituents.
Sooner or later, Trump will be out of office. Whether the remaining Never Trumpers will then have anything to offer the conservative movement and Republican Party is up to them.