Does the Never Trump Movement Matter?

Most conservatives eventually embraced Trump. Here’s why a few didn’t.

It’s become a commonplace that few on the right, whether lawmakers or intellectuals, are willing to utter a peep of disagreement, let alone dissent, about Donald Trump’s serial constitutional outrages and destructive policies. Instead, as the Republican Senate cowers abjectly before Trump, conservative journalists and thinkers have been vying with each other to construct a scaffolding of respectability around the Trump administration. Perhaps the most vivid sign of these efforts came recently with the publication of National Review editor Rich Lowry’s book, The Case for Nationalism. 

Never Trump: The Revolt of the Conservative Elites
by Robert P. Saldin and Steven M. Teles
Oxford University Press, 304 pp.

Once upon a time Lowry was a severe critic of Trump. In January 2016, for example, the cover of NR (as it is known to the faithful) declared, in mock gold: “Against Trump.” It stated, “If Trump were to become the president, the Republican nominee, or even a failed candidate with strong conservative support, what would that say about conservatives? The movement that ground down the Soviet Union and took the shine, at least temporarily, off socialism would have fallen in behind a huckster.” 

But that was then. Huckster, shmuckster. Winning, as Carlos Lozada observed in a blistering review of Lowry’s book in The Washington Post, “has a way of tempering such concerns.” And so Lowry has become a Trump votary, exhorting Republicans to embrace the former Manhattan real estate developer and “thoughtfully integrate his nationalism into the party’s orthodoxy.” 

His transformation epitomizes the return of the GOP to its earlier incarnation. In the 1950s, for example, conservatives such as William F. Buckley Jr. and his brother-in-law L. Brent Bozell Jr. were staunch defenders of Joseph McCarthy, a stance, incidentally, from which Buckley never retreated. They bashed the liberal elite ensconced in the universities and Hollywood. Buckley’s own maiden book, God and Man at Yale, pioneered the genre of university-bashing books that continues to emanate with some regularity from the right. Altogether too much seductive piffle has been written about a vanished conservative intellectual golden age that antedated Trump. If anything, numerous links can be detected between past and present, something that the recent documentary Where’s My Roy Cohn? makes abundantly clear as it traces the mentor-disciple relationship between Cohn and Trump.

As a variety of conservatives adapt their outward political coloration to support Trump, however, a small remnant has steadfastly adhered to its initial rejection of him. At the outset, it mostly consisted of stolid foreign policy establishment figures like Eliot A. Cohen, a former adviser to Condoleezza Rice and professor at Johns Hopkins University, who regard Trump as a betrayer of venerable Republican principles as well as a mendacious liar and rank opportunist. In successive open letters that garnered a lot of publicity, the Never Trumpers voiced their disapprobation in no uncertain terms, thereby inadvertently creating what amounted to an enemies list for Trump after he assumed office. They proudly saw themselves as a mandarin class that would quietly serve the public weal, one that would ensure that America never adopted the isolationism and nativism of the right. 

It is this faction that draws the intense scrutiny of Robert P. Saldin and Steven M. Teles in their very informative new book, Never Trump. Saldin is a professor of political science at the University of Montana. Teles teaches at Johns Hopkins University and is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C., a center-right think tank that has itself become a redoubt of resistance to the Trump administration (he is also on the editorial advisory board of this magazine). They have conducted numerous interviews with Never Trump leaders and drawn on wide reading of conservative journals to trace the origins and course of the Never Trump movement. They attach great importance to Trump-resisting conservatives, citing the political scientist Daniel Ziblatt’s scholarship on how center-right intellectuals and politicians were key to consolidating democracy in 20th-century Europe by isolating the forces of authoritarian right-wing populism. Similarly, the authors argue, the Never Trump wing will someday most likely be viewed as “the first foray into a new era of American politics.” 

But will it?

Given that the GOP foreign policy mandarins regarded themselves and their mission as essential to protecting American national security, a clash between them and Trump was probably inevitable. Saldin and Teles explain that the GOP already had an institutional structure for foreign policy that had manifested itself in 2012 as something called the “Romney Readiness Project,” an effort to plan for a transition. According to Saldin and Teles, “[T]here was a conviction that all of this work shouldn’t be cast aside and a feeling that it would be wise to keep the group together in some kind of institutionalized form in order to articulate the consensus foreign policy within the Republican Party and to lay the foundation for 2016.” The result was the establishment of the John Hay Initiative, which was named after the scholar-diplomat who was Abraham Lincoln’s private secretary and the secretary of state under both William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. It formed a Who’s Who of Republican foreign policy experts and advised a wide variety of candidates, including Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham, and John Kasich, but not Rand Paul or Trump. The Hay Initiative was supposed to form a firewall around the old verities.

It had never occurred to complacent GOP elites that they would be not be battling the Democratic Party over foreign policy for being too soft, but instead fighting Trump himself. The battle was soon joined. Trump espoused a farrago of views that resuscitated an older, pre–World War II Republican tradition of opposition to immigration, free trade, intervention abroad, and global institutions. During the 2016 campaign Trump denounced the George W. Bush administration for leading the country into the disastrous Iraq War. And in a direct shot at the GOP foreign policy class, he promised to look for “new people, because many of the old people frankly don’t know what they’re doing, even though they may look awfully good writing in The New York Times or being watched on television.”

One reason Trump was able to consolidate control was that most of the party’s political operatives harbored few moral objections to the real estate mogul. They were a clinical lot. Operatives like winners. Trump was winning. So he won them over.

In response, Saldin and Teles note, the foreign policy mavens “became the purest strain of NeverTrumpism.” But they were never able to gain much traction. The main reason was that they had no real constituency among the rank and file in the GOP itself. Whether by instinctive cunning or sheer luck, Trump discovered that the establishment types could be “dismissed without electoral consequence.”

Another reason Trump was able to consolidate control was that most of the party’s political operatives, unlike foreign policy intellectuals, harbored few moral objections to the real estate mogul. They were a more clinical lot. Operatives like winners. Trump was winning. So he won them over. According to Saldin and Teles, “[A]s the plausibility of Trump’s candidacy grew over time, political operatives recalibrated. While their ranks had once been full of anti-Trumpers, when it became clear who was going to be the Republican nominee, oppositional political operatives became scarce; once he became president, NeverTrump operatives had become an endangered species.”

Saldin and Teles contend that the conservative legal establishment bought in even more heavily to Trump, who went out of his way to woo it. During the campaign, he announced a list of potential Supreme Court nominees drawn up by the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society—a promise he made good on as president. Lawyers play a key role in the GOP, providing a constitutional language that serves as the backbone of the party, whether the issue is health care, abortion, religious freedom, or environmental regulation. But in the area of judicial selection, say Saldin and Teles, “they have attained a professional jurisdiction that has eclipsed the once-prominent place of Republican elected officials.” Consequently, the authors observe, “prominent conservative lawyers who did openly criticize Trump all agree that the most important reason their colleagues chose to stay on the sidelines was the prospect of a transformed judiciary.” 

Until Trump, the GOP had been relatively united—or so it seemed—around a defined set of ideas. The governing legend has been that “fusionism”—a union of social conservatism and economic libertarianism—is the essential glue that holds together the party’s disparate constituencies. According to Saldin and Teles, “[I]t is that perception of the Republican Party as a conservative party—one defined by its connection to a set of ideas and the intellectuals who generated them—that made the rise of Donald Trump so traumatic for conservative public intellectuals.” Trump substituted economic and ethnic nationalism for all of that.

In ascribing a policing function to these conservative intellectuals, Saldin and Teles may overrate their overall importance. The truth is that most of the publications on the right did not drive the movement but retroactively supplied a patina of legitimacy to long-standing conservative grievances and aims, whether it was justifying boosting military spending by inflating the Soviet threat, or by inventing or refurbishing arguments about the dangers posed by big government in the form of the New Deal or the Great Society. This is why Lowry and other conservatives are now busily concocting new rationales to defend the nationalist impulses that they previously abhorred.

Indeed, some of the book’s most affecting passages consist of interviews with Never Trumpers sharing their sense of betrayal. “To buy into Trump, you have to believe that the essence of what the Republican Party stood for—personal responsibility, embracing of legal immigration, character counts, strong on Russia—you have to believe that all of that was just a marketing slogan,” Stuart Stevens, Mitt Romney’s top 2012 strategist, says. “I’m incredibly ashamed about it, I mean, I actually did believe [in the party’s principles].” “I was very hostile to the ‘racism explains everything’ argument” that Democrats long lobbed at Republicans, the conservative columnist Mona Charen confesses. Now, she says “that racism wasn’t as fringey a phenomenon as I had thought it was.”

Today, Never Trumpers find themselves adrift between the two parties. A few, such as the columnists David Brooks, Jennifer Rubin, and Max Boot, have begun to migrate toward, if not yet join, the Democratic Party. Others, such as the pundit Bill Kristol, cling to the hope that the GOP can be rid of the taint of Trump and that a restoration of the old order can take place. But this looks to be increasingly implausible as Trumpian sentiments are being espoused by everyone from Josh Hawley to Marco Rubio to Tom Cotton. In one revealing passage in the book, the longtime GOP operative Mike Murphy tells the authors that while he admires the “moral clarity” of his fellow Never Trumpers, their current political organizing reminds him of America’s Syrian proxy forces, who were “out in the field marching around broomsticks trying to figure out how to be a soldier” while stone-cold ISIS forces were beheading their enemies. He adds,

Hanging out in some Georgetown living room talking about third-party candidates and making paper signs and fighting over a logo is just busywork for people who aren’t involved in practical politics. When I can get ten Republican state chairmen in a secret room, and a couple of $10 million-a-year donors, and people whose first name is senator or governor, and they want to have an honest discussion about taking out Trump, I’ll be the first guy at the meeting.

Their anomalous status has permitted the Never Trumpers to gain a disproportionate amount of attention for their efforts to create what amounts to regime change in Washington. The more the GOP embraces Trump, the angrier they become. For all their fury about Trump, they have benefited professionally from their opposition to him. Whether it is Boot, Rubin, George Conway, or Bret Stephens, their public prominence has never been higher. 

Saldin and Teles want to claim that the Never Trump adherents represent a first wave of a restructuring of the American political system. “With the institutions of the national party largely out of their reach,” they write, “former Never-Trumpers will redirect their activity into capturing and then building up the GOP in places where it has desiccated, both as a way to challenge the Democratic left for control of the state government, and also as a way to establish a power base for intra-party conflict.” They suggest that something new can be constructed out of the rubble—a liberal-conservative faction, centered around the Never Trump contingent, that will build new institutions that “will bridge the minority factions of both parties much as those created by the Progressives in the early 20th century.” Saldin and Teles are careful to stipulate that the scenario they outline is provisional. But it is clear that they are more than hopeful that a centrist wing composed of Republicans and Democrats can transcend the current ideological quarrels that permitted Trump to ascend to the presidency. 

This is tempting, inviting—and improbable. The main problem is that Saldin and Teles ascribe more importance to this small grouping of intellectuals than they deserve. The depth of their repugnance for Trump, at a moment when many of their peers are confecting meretricious defenses of Trump, does them credit. But Trump has exposed the illusions of the intellectuals, demonstrating that over the decades their real function was to offer shiny defenses of policies that the GOP all along was determined to pursue for corporate elites. 

Above all, the belief that a fresh start is possible relies on the conviction that Trump, or Trumpism, is a passing phenomenon rather than a permanent condition. The trouble is that numerous Republicans have already accommodated and adapted themselves to Trump. A small industry of pundits has formed around Trump at websites devoted to lauding him, such as American Greatness, not to mention the great leviathan Fox News. Even now, as the president continues to run roughshod over traditional constitutional restraints, the Senate remains almost entirely quiescent. The more likely prospect is that the GOP will continue to crumple in the face of Trump’s assaults if he is reelected. He would be regarded, or at least treated, as not simply a politician but a seer with infallible judgment. Should he lose, a bloodbath would likely ensue. The Trump base would not disappear with his defeat. Another politician would try to meld the disparate factions of the party together. The stakes could hardly be higher. The most that the Never Trumpers will likely do is to comment from the sidelines, or at best play bit parts in the drama over the fate of American democracy.

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Jacob Heilbrunn

Jacob Heilbrunn, a frequent contributor to the Washington Monthly, is the editor of the National Interest and the author of They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons.