I am happy to be part of the discussion of Rob Saldin and Steve Teles’ new book. It is a real contribution to the study of American politics of a type that we too seldom see. The big battalions in political science have long focused on voters first, elected officials second, and everyone else a distant third. The first two are the populations for whom data is easiest to collect and who most readily lend themselves to quantitative analyses. Even the study of elected officials has lost ground with the rise of experimental methods. A literal-mindedness that sees parties as only their formal committee structures also impedes inquiry into groups with informal party ties like those Saldin and Teles examine. Prior studies of what the authors call “the extended party network” focus more on campaign professionals, Congressional staff, and donors than the expert communities that are the focus of this book.
In this readable and sympathetic account of the Never Trump movement, the authors recount forgotten episodes from a recent past that now seems quite distant. The GOP foreign policy establishment’s fear of Rand Paul’s ascent before 2016 is one now laughable example. Saldin and Teles also detail Never Trumpers’ attempts to draft a prominent conservative alternative to oppose Trump and Clinton in the general election, reporting participants’ assertions that these laborers came closer to succeeding than is now appreciated. The book is based on interviews with seemingly all the leading Never Trumpers and includes many on the record quotes. Most are introspective and self-aware. Others are perhaps unintentionally amusing, like John Cochrane explaining the failure of many of his colleagues to sign an anti-Trump petition by asserting, “Maybe economists just have a little more humility about our scope of expertise.”
This study is unusual in that the movement it recounts is interesting yet ineffectual. The story of the Never Trump movement is one of repeated failure. They failed to keep Trump from being nominated. They failed to keep him from being elected. They failed to detach any significant number of GOP Congressmembers from Trump during his impeachment and failed to ensure that he faced any significant challenge for re-nomination. (Perhaps the story would have been different had the pandemic, economic collapse and protests occurred a year earlier.) While failing to impede the President, Never Trumpers gradually lost adherents, as some of them eventually made their peace with Trump.
Despite all this, resistance to their party’s nominee and President by prominent individuals–at some professional cost in a polarized era- is inherently interesting. Exploring why some resisted Trump while others did not, and why some remained resolute while others folded is a real contribution to the study of elite behavior. The authors cite both group level and individual factors to explain this variation in response. The Republican foreign policy community had ties to Democratic and non-partisan elites, independent sources of employment, and was the most uneasy with Trump’s policy agenda. Political consultants, by contrast, were not policy-focused, and their livelihoods depended on their ties to the GOP. Conservative lawyers, concentrated in the Federalist Society, mostly accepted a transactional relationship with Trump based on judicial appointments. While wary of Trump’s protectionism, conservative economists found him better than expected on policy. Their resistance was limited and mostly unorganized, perhaps due to weaker preexisting social networks. Within expert categories older, more prosperous individuals seemed more willing to stand up to Trump. Relatedly, conservative writers whose careers did not depend on reaching a mass public were more critical of Trump than radio and television commentators who needed to please their audience. Saldin and Teles also report that Jews and Mormons were notably over-represented in the ranks of Never Trumpers, perhaps because their lingering insecurity as members of historically persecuted minorities made them more apt to see Trump as an authoritarian menace.
Yet Saldin and Teles are not satisfied with describing the distinct communities within the GOP expert class and offering explanations for the variation in the degree of resistance to Trump across and within these categories, useful and interesting as that is. They also seek to show that despite their seemingly quixotic maneuvers, the Never Trumpers mattered and remain relevant. Here the results are more mixed.
The authors make two claims for the broader relevance of the Never Trumpers, despite their many failures. They assert that these critics’ very absence from the Trump Administration was important, arguing, “The Trump Administration has had to govern without its party’s brain, leading it to make profound errors of basic domestic and foreign policy governance that helped to contribute to the impression that Trump is overseeing a never-ending sequence of incompetence, corruption and political self-subversion.”
Trump did leave many posts vacant and filled others with inexperienced people. The incompetence of an Administration, in which press releases as well as Presidential Tweets have been replete with spelling errors, is hard to deny. Yet it is unclear just how much difference this made for governance. One of the authors’ interviewees argued that the paucity of competent economists and mid-level appointees meant fewer regulations had been rolled back than would have been the case under a different Republican President. Courts did block many rules the Trump Administration promulgated.
Counterfactual assessments are always speculative, however, and experience is no guarantee of success. Some Trump cabinet appointees who flamed out early once their corruption was exposed–like Tom Price, Scott Pruitt and Ryan Zinke–had spent years in federal or state offices. (One might say that when the GOP establishment enters the Trump Administration, they’re not sending their best.)
The authors describe foreign policy experts as the group of Never Trumpers who were most resolute in their rejection of Trump. Many refused to serve under him. (Others later were blackballed even after recanting their opposition.) Yet seasoned Republicans like John Bolton, Dan Coats, and Mike Pompeo did fill leading national security posts for a time. Several other former senior appointees, including Rex Tillerson, H.R. McMaster and James Mattis, were not part of the GOP foreign policy community- but they still reportedly gave Trump advice of the sort members of it have presumably offered. Yet often Trump was dismissive, and eventually pushed them away. Trump’s decisions might have been administered more competently had more Never Trump cadres been in place in sub-cabinet level posts. But it is an open question whether bad policies administered competently are more desirable than bad ones managed poorly. The old joke about the restaurant where “the food is bad, and such small portions!” comes to mind.
Saldin and Teles’s other claim for the importance of the Never Trump tendency is to see it organizing a moderate faction in a post-Trump GOP in which populism remains ascendant. This scenario, in which Democrats are also riven between factions, is only one possibility, as the authors concede. Republicans may not welcome back Biden backers, if they even want to return “home”. It is also unclear how many of Trump’s policies will survive him. Protectionism seems less central to his appeal than racism and nativism. Some Never Trumpers also rejected the man at least as much as his deviations from GOP orthodoxy.
When they move beyond their close focus on the Never Trumpers, the authors are on shakier ground. While recounting GOP elites’ utter failure to repulse Trump in 2016, they assert, “there is no reason to think that Democratic Party elites, faced with a populist demagogue of the left, could exercise this gatekeeping function either.”
The rise of social and partisan media and the resulting explosion in small donors has undercut elites in both parties. In February, many thought Bernie Sanders might push aside the Democratic establishment. Yet in belatedly rallying behind Joe Biden, the Democratic elite responded more effectively to the less disruptive and demagogic challenge Sanders posed than their GOP counterparts had to Trump in 2016. Perhaps this was simply because Democrats had a more obvious focal point in Biden than Republicans did four years earlier. Yet there may be more of an asymmetry between the parties than Saldin and Teles concede.
The disdain for expertise Trump displays is also less prevalent on the Democratic side. Moreover, while Trump is unique in some ways, his dismissal of facts and experts underscores that the President is only marginally different than many Republicans. Recall John DiIulio decrying the “Mayberry Machiavellis” on the Bush White House staff who didn’t know the difference between Medicare and Medicaid. Dismissal of climate change science was widespread among Republican elites well before Trump was nominated. To their credit, the authors see precursors of Trump’s approach in the anti-intellectual conspiracy-minded candidacies of Herman Cain, Ron Paul, and Michelle Bachmann. (They might also have mentioned Sarah Palin, an early Trump backer.)
In their thorough and engrossing study of the Never Trumpers, Saldin and Teles offer readers what surely will be the definitive account of an unusual movement among political elites. Students of parties are in their debt.