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Never Trumpers and the Future of American Conservatism

The role of elites—like those who criticized Trump in 2016 and ever since—in the party and movement politics.
May 22, 2020
Never Trumpers and the Future of American Conservatism
US President Donald Trump arrives to hold a Keep America Great campaign rally at the North Charleston Coliseum in North Charleston, South Carolina, February 28, 2020. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

Never Trump
The Revolt of the Conservative Elites
by Robert P. Saldin and Steven M. Teles
Oxford, 287 pp., $27.95

Halfway through Never Trump, the Republican strategist Stuart Stevens lets loose. “To buy into Trump,” he says, “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 and it didn’t mean anything—any more than ‘We say, “Chevrolet’s the heartbeat of America.”’”

What’s more, Trump has “made every critic of the Republican Party right”—all the critics who “said the Republican Party really didn’t care about people, that it wasn’t a party that was inclusive. Just go down the list—‘doesn’t respect women.’ He’s made all that true. And he made all the wrong people right.”

Political scientists Robert Saldin and Steven Teles, authors of studies on health reform, the effects of war on the U.S. government, and the conservative legal movement, examine how and why elites from the extended Republican party network came to oppose their party’s nominee. In fact, Saldin and Teles write, “there has never been a party in the Western world that was elected and sought to govern with such a wide range of intraparty opposition.”

With extensive quotation from their “informants”—the sixty-two individuals they interviewed between May 2017 and October 2019—Saldin and Teles articulate the convictions of Never Trumpers with clarity and fair-mindedness. They “hope that even those who disagree deeply with the Never Trumpers will learn at least a little something about the very human motivations that caused them to make the choices they did.”

Saldin and Teles don’t focus only on their interviewees’ beliefs about the president and his party. As social scientists, they also identify material and structural factors—financial livelihoods, audience ratings, party patronage, and donor networks—that allowed some members of the extended conservative network to break with their party but worked to keep many others in line.

Saldin and Teles highlight how shocking 2016 was for conservative elites. As traditional candidates like Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush competed for high-information voters, Trump swept up low-information voters, securing the nomination over “Against Trump” finger-wagging. This isn’t just a problem for moderate Republicans and aging neocons, Saldin and Teles warn. A body of literature suggests that by restraining and marginalizing extremists on their own side, right-wing elites are essential to sustaining democracies.

Never Trump takes each elite component of the extended Republican party—defense hawks, party operatives, public intellectuals, lawyers, and economists—in turn, describing their institutional structures, ideological makeup, and the push/pull factors in their relationship with Donald Trump and the greater Republican party. Saldin and Teles’s analysis of this disparate political force is even-handed and perceptive, laying out the Never Trump movement and its place in the political scene.

Of the groups studied, the conservative wing of the national security establishment formed the staunchest Never Trump faction. Saldin and Teles characterize the extremely inside-the-Beltway defense intellectuals, led by scholars like Eliot Cohen of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins and Bryan McGrath of the Hudson Institute, as the most culturally moderate and bipartisan of the extended GOP. Immediately alienated by Trump’s rejection of the foreign policy consensus, the tight-knit defense establishment largely unified around two anti-Trump letters and a refusal to work with the administration. Trump himself facilitated the defense intellectuals’ anti-Trump stand by refusing to bring them on board.

Many of the organizational efforts described in Never Trump are symbolic: letters, meetings, hashtags. Throughout, the Republican elites seem shellshocked, waiting for the world to return to its regular axis. Attempts to stymie Trump politically came largely, though fruitlessly, from party operatives.

Mindy Finn, a conservative digital media strategist, launched the hashtag #NeverTrump—“what, at least by conservative standards, would become a genuinely hip, if ultimately fleeting, ‘Never Trump’ trend.” (Perhaps the first use of “hip” in a study of conservatism.) Never Trump spends a chapter tracing plans to enlist a challenger to Trump, with diminishing returns.

If the Republican defense establishment was primed to oppose Trump, party operatives, by contrast, felt pressure to board the Trump train. “Because they earn their living by providing services to the party, their personal livelihoods are almost always entirely dependent on being in good standing with its formal organization.” As the Republican Party became Trumpified, operatives fell in line. Saldin and Teles quote Bulwark contributor Tim Miller as estimating that more than 85 percent of the party’s operatives were originally anti-Trump but made their peace with him—including some, ironically, of Miller’s colleagues at “Our Principles,” an anti-Trump PAC. Saldin and Teles describe “a deep sense of abandonment” that is “universal among the political operatives who stayed Never Trump.”

An interesting subplot in Never Trump is pre-Trumpian visions of the future. Some Republicans were committed to the findings and recommendations of “The Autopsy,” the report written after the GOP’s 2012 election loss, which suggested combining conservative economics with socially liberal positions and immigration reform. An opposite lesson was drawn by the group Saldin and Teles describe as the most “ambivalent” anti-Trumpers, the “Reformocons” like Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat who saw Trump as a crude vindication of their idea of a working-class-oriented GOP. Both these groups had on some level concluded, in the years before Trump, that sustaining the party would require changing its issues or coalition or both.

The chapters on economists and lawyers are slighter, and suggest how little institutional strength conservative elites possessed to wield again Trump. Saldin and Teles argue that geographical dispersal and a combination of caution and cynicism curbed academic economists’ capacity for collective anti-Trump action.

Conservative lawyers were also muted. Motivated by their hopes for how Antonin Scalia’s empty Supreme Court seat would be filled and by resentment for Clinton, and mollified by Trump’s outsourcing of legal policy to the Federalist Society, most Republican lawyers got into line—with the exception of a few paper organizations.

The category of Republicans perhaps most invested in maintaining guardrails—not only for the party, but for the broader conservative movement and the United States writ large—was the public intellectuals associated with magazines like National Review and the Weekly Standard, new media blogs and websites, and often with berths in mainstream venues. In some cases, these men and women had individual brands and a degree of traditional journalistic independence that allowed them greater independence than party operatives and lawyers.

Never Trump delineates two models of conservative public intellectuals. On the one hand are those in the mainstream whose role is to persuade liberal and independent audiences. “This physical and social proximity can make them highly oppositional to liberalism, but they also draw their sustenance and friendship networks from within generally liberal institutions and wish to preserve, while also comprehensively reforming, them.” For this type of intellectual, like Yuval Levin, Ramesh Ponnuru, or David Brooks, to do their work they “need to be recognized by the very actors they are criticizing to avoid being cast as ‘wingnuts.’”

These conservative intellectuals, Saldin and Teles suggest, understood themselves as belonging to a conservative tradition that attempted to maintain conservative respectability dating back to William F. Buckley’s disciplining of the John Birch Society. From this view, Trump represented a literal alternative right, one repeatedly suppressed over the conservative movement’s history. This print-oriented category of public intellectual produced some of the leading Never Trumpers.

The second type of public intellectual exists primarily within the conservative media bubble, especially Fox News and talk radio. These figures, like Rush Limbaugh, Tucker Carlson, and Mark Levin, relied on “negative partisanship” intellectually and the partisan base financially. They quickly went Trumpist.

Early in the 2016 election cycle, most conservative elites opposed Trump. Saldin and Teles draw out several trends to explain how their commitments moved to Trump. Finances and livelihoods were a major factor. The Heritage Foundation, closely in touch with donors, and hosts on Fox News and talk radio, attentive to the ratings, shifted into line with the base. Likewise, Republican operatives needed the wider party blessing to work. They too got in line.

Beyond money, the extent to which Trump, since taking office, has delivered on different ideological priors has brought some elites into the fold but kept others outside. His deference to legal conservatives has brought most lawyers on, while his heterodox foreign policy and trade views continue to alienate defense intellectuals and economists.

Meanwhile, conservative elites who live and work close to liberals—even if in intellectual opposition—were more likely to oppose Trump and stay opposed. Regular engagement with political opponents seems to foster essential norms of “forbearance,” which include a willingness to accept the opposition as legitimate and the rules and processes of the democratic regime. In a humane republic, the Never Trumpers’ party-transcending commitment to institutions would be praised. For the Trumpist right, it’s evidence their critics are RINOs and cucks.

Relatedly, polarization shaped conservative elites’ decision-making in different ways. The assumption that Clinton’s victory was inevitable lowered the cost of opposing Trump. When Trump won the nomination and then election, that cost of opposing him became extremely high. But the inverse happened as well: Opposing Clinton, a conservative bogeywoman for 25 years, unified many conservative elites behind Trump as the lesser evil.

We’re learning how corrosive polarization can be for functioning politics. Republican government needs both forbearance and a sense of proportion to survive. Research suggests that in polarized countries, voters do care about institutions and norms, but not if they require major policy sacrifices—like Supreme Court seats, abortion legalization, or the perceived future of religious freedom. Saldin and Teles warn that, “disturbingly, the more a political system polarizes the more there is at stake, in terms of public policy, for a voter placed in the position of deciding whether or not to vote for a demagogue or authoritarian of their own party.”

In Saldin and Teles’s hands, Never Trumpers are genuinely concerned about America’s political norms and institutions. What’s missing from their informants’ remarks is a deep reckoning with their role in the polarization that facilitated Trump’s emergence.

As evident from Michael Anton’s infamous “Flight 93” article, apocalyptic thinking came to define Trump’s active supporters among conservatives. But apocalypticism, and its driving forces polarization and negative partisanship, have been central to the movement conservative project since its inception. The foundational conservative thinker James Burnham pathologized liberalism as a syndrome of Western suicide; National Review’s longtime publisher William Rusher actively worked to redefine the GOP on ideologically polarized lines; Barry Goldwater rallied conservatives against John F. Kennedy by warning “we are facing Democrat candidates and a Democrat platform that signify a new type of New Deal, far more menacing than anything we have seen in the past.”

The conservative movement’s vaunted history of policing its ideological borders is much more complicated than the way many conservative writers and thinkers remember it. Take perhaps the most famous example, William F. Buckley’s kicking of the John Birch Society out of the movement. In fact, while Buckley was distressed by the Birchers, he vacillated and only took decisive action after the 1964 LBJ landslide—five years after first registering his discomfort with the organization while at the same time carrying water for the Southern Strategy. Before the John Birch Society, Buckley took up anti-anti-Joseph McCarthy positions and dallied in responding to the anti-Semitic American Mercury.

Contemporary Never Trumpers are only just beginning to reflect on the extent to which they participated in the demonization of liberals, worked within a party that invited proto-Trump Pat Buchanan to address its convention in 1992, and justified, ignored, or spit-shined the arguments of many who flocked to Trump—or, like Michelle Malkin, even worse extremes. As Saldin and Teles put it, “the enthusiastic response that Trump’s cruelty, racism, and misogyny generated in a large part of the party base lent support to charges that those inclinations were in fact baked into the party’s DNA.” They note that “many Never Trumpers had minimized” these characteristics of the conservative movement, “or insisted [they] were outdated or flat-out wrong.”

And the distinction Saldin and Teles draw between ideas-oriented public intellectuals and red-meat cheerleaders is perhaps blurrier than they and their informants allow.

For example, David Brooks complains about conservative media personalities Dinesh D’Souza and Laura Ingraham and their breakthrough at the Dartmouth Review, a student newspaper. “Even in those days,” Brooks tells the authors, “they were much more confrontational, much more anti-left, much more shock the bourgeoisie, and that turns out to have been a significant difference.” Yet both were mentored by National Review senior editor Jeffrey Hart, in whose living room the paper was founded and whose sensibility they inherited. And both were once taken seriously as intellectuals. D’Souza’s movement pedigree is outstanding. After Dartmouth, he worked in the Reagan administration, held a fellowship at the Hoover Institution, and was contributing editor to Policy Review when it was published by the Heritage Foundation. Even now, he is still on National Review’s masthead. In other words, conservative intellectuals and institutions have been too willing to work with and defend questionable actors until they become a public relations liability—and in some cases after. (For its part, the Weekly Standard criticized D’Souza as early as 1995, in its second issue, but went on to publish him six times between 1997 and 2002; in later years, though, it was frequently critical of D’Souza, through to its final issues.)

Never Trumper and defense scholar Philip Zelikow complains that Trumpism is “an attitude. It’s a posture. It’s a signal of identity, and they look for hot-button ways of expressing these postures.” That’s true, but it’s also true about much of the history of movement conservatism. Ronald Reagan built part of his national profile on the back of the symbolic and strategically nonsensical issue of keeping the Panama Canal. Historians like the Niskanen Center’s Geoffrey Kabaservice have demonstrated how conservative “rule and ruin” politics polarized the Republican party and, in effect, paved the way for Trump.

Among the interviewees, Mona Charen, a columnist, fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and Bulwark contributor, is one of the most reflective as she considers conservatives’ tortured history with racism. “It wasn’t entirely just with Trump, it had started before then, it started with the Trayvon Martin thing,” she says. It made her “realize that racism wasn’t as fringey a phenomenon as I had thought it was. I thought it was just in the fever swamps, but I don’t think that anymore.”

Many observers on the left have delighted in the fall of the conservative elites Saldin and Teles deal with. But as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote in 1950, “a responsible liberal . . . would rather have a healthy and intelligent conservative party, which might even win an election now and then, than a dull and hopeless conservative party, threatening at any moment to break into pieces and leave its members prey for fascist-minded demagogues.” “There is no guarantee,” he also remarked, “that any new party which rises in its place will have a basic respect for constitutional processes and public order.” In this case, the demagogues eviscerated the elites.

But Saldin and Teles offer hope for Never Trumpers. They suggest the loose group may play a key role in the future of the Republican party.

Never Trump concludes with the hypothesis of the re-emergence of factionalized parties instead of leadership-dominated ones. In such a future, the Democratic party is split between moderate and leftist factions while the GOP is primarily nationalist-populist. But Saldin and Teles envision a Never Trump faction with a strong independent brand analogous to the Democratic Socialists of America or the Democratic Leadership Council—part of the Republican party, but crucially close to the center and able to leverage their position.

If this factionalized party system is to emerge, it will require hard work and organization.

But it’s unclear what exactly Never Trump is. Like the Whigs of old, it has formed first in opposition to a larger-than-life figure and fading older allegiances. Is it a commitment to small-L American liberalism and constitutional arrangements? Or an ideological critique of Trumpism? An antipathy to the man? A commitment to small government and free market nostrums? The personal nature of Never Trump means all of the above apply to individuals.

Without a serious reckoning with conservatism’s sins and blind spots, the great temptation of Never Trump will be to reconcile with Trump’s enablers when the Democrats inevitably retake the White House. It is by no means guaranteed, but it is quite plausible there will be a rapprochement on the right united in opposition to Joe Biden or whoever is the next Democrat to sit in the Oval Office, especially once Trump leaves the political scene. A sincere reflection on the dark sides of conservatism—including those that some Never Trumpers failed to counter, or even facilitated—is necessary to salvage the American right from Trump so it can perform the vital democratic task of keeping the monsters at bay.

Joshua Tait

Joshua Tait is a historian of American conservatism. He has a Ph.D. in U.S. History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Twitter: @Joshua_A_Tait.