The spring of 2020 was, to put the point mildly, a strange time to drop a book on anything other than infectious diseases or systemic racism. And yet, our book is timelier than we might have anticipated, given the enormous publicity garnered by the Lincoln Project and the never-ending parade of governing incompetence that the Never Trumpers warned would come from a Trump administration.
As much as every author wants to convince potential readers that their book is ripped from today’s headlines, Never Trump is primarily an account of the past. It asks: Why did lifelong conservative Republicans, who went into the 2016 cycle with no sense that they would leave their partisan foxhole, end up opposing their own party’s nominee? We argue that the most valuable, first cut at an explanation begins with their professional identities in the various expert communities of which they were a part. While elected officials were, at best, “summer soldiers” and “sunshine patriots” in the cause of Never Trump, many of these experts—national security authorities, campaign professionals, economists, lawyers, public intellectuals—stuck to their guns. The price of that persistence was an increasingly marginal role in a Republican party dominated by Donald Trump.
The remarkably accomplished group of commentators brought together by the Salvatori Center at Claremont McKenna College has given us a lot to chew on. We will focus just on a few of the more incisive comments.
Megan McArdle shows that she is a true daughter of the University of Chicago, in analyzing Never Trump with Occam’s Razor of economic self-interest. She argues that, “to a striking extent, the people who went #NeverTrump and stayed there are the people who had some way to support themselves outside the party now controlled by Donald Trump.” We agree that this factor has a great deal of explanatory power, and make this point ourselves in the book. The life of the mind—and, for that matter, the life of the mouth—is a vocation, but it’s also an industry. Ideas are a business, and few people choose to put themselves out of a job.
One complication is that, at least in 2016, there were a lot of Republicans who thought that their economic interests and opposing Trump were aligned because there was such a broad consensus that he was going to go down in electoral flames. The opponents of Trump would then be in a strong position to claim that the party had been temporarily taken over by cranks and second-raters, but that it was time to put the grown-ups back in charge. So while being Never Trump might be a career problem in the very short term, it was going to be an asset come 2017. Obviously, it didn’t quite work out that way. But that’s how things mostly looked from the point of view of narrow self-interest. Except, that is, for those who were on the margins of the conservative professional class. Trump attracted mostly second-raters because of the opportunities for career mobility that had been opened up by the front bench of experts, in effect, going on strike.
Megan’s point should also be somewhat softened—made less “Chicago”—by observing that the greater opposition to Trump in places like AEI and National Review, as well as the op-ed pages of the New York Times and Washington Post, was not just because those conservatives were not dependent upon the conservative mass market for their income. It was also that those kinds of conservatives imagined their job differently than the broadcasters did. Those conservatives have always thought of themselves, at least in part, as ambassadors for the cause, the people whose job is to present an attractive face of the right to educated liberals, to show that they are just as learned, just as thoughtful, and just as idealistic as the left. For a conservative who understands their vocation—and not just the way they pay their mortgage—that way, Trump was a nightmare. Imagine being a conservative arguing that there was a sound economic argument for more selective immigration rules, only to have Trump declare that we needed to clamp down on migration from Mexico because it was sending us rapists! Conservatives had constructed a social role for the thoughtful critic of liberal orthodoxies, one that Trump was polluting by openly associating the Republican party brand with unapologetic bigotry. They had to oppose Trump, if only to create a firewall between their conception of the conservative vocation—one that gave them access to mainstream, mostly liberal discourse and publications—and the president’s ignorance and bigotry.
Jon Rauch responds to the book by drawing on his important work on the decline of gatekeepers and leaders in contemporary American politics, arguing “That Wallace and Buchanan lost, while Trump won, has less to do with any genius on Trump’s part than with the collapse of Never Someoners.” We argue in the book, similarly, that the Democrats in 2020 and beyond might not have any more effective antibodies against populism than the Republicans did in 2016. But as David Karol observes, “there may be more of an asymmetry between the parties than Saldin and Teles concede…” David is right. Faced with a somewhat similar situation in Bernie Sanders, the Democratic party’s “Never Someoners” acted with remarkable dispatch to congeal around Joe Biden. They somehow found the mechanisms for collective action that Republicans lacked.
How do we explain this remarkable asymmetry? Two cases do not a theory make. But one speculation is that the performance of the Democrats in 2020 is significantly explained by the role played in the party by African-Americans. African-Americans have the same range of human types and personalities that any other ethnic or racial group have. But because of the way the Republican party has positioned itself on racial matters—and despite having views on religion, crime, personal responsibility and other issues that would make them natural voters for conservative parties in much of the rest of the world—the more conservative parts of the African-American community are stuck with the Democratic party. Politicians like Jim Clyburn know that older, churchier, more Southern black voters are an important part of their constituency, and they were the ones who voted in such huge numbers for Joe Biden. In addition, most African-American elected politicians know that the difference between even a moderate Democrat and any Republican is huge where the basic, material programs that their voters count on are concerned. That makes them less willing to take risks on dreamier, radical politicians like Bernie Sanders.
So part of the difference between the two parties is that the Democrats have a mobilizable constituency for a politics of “Never Someone.” By contrast, it turns out that the Republicans, when the heat was really on, didn’t.
The question that George Thomas asks, is whether Never Trumpers could be the basis for a politics of “Never Someone” that could sustain constitutional norms. “Whether the Republican Party will remain committed to liberal democracy may well depend on Never Trumpers.” We believe that this is true, but perhaps not in the way that George envisions. The great risk that our constitutional system has run over the last two decades is to have increasingly homogenous parties in a regime that is really not designed for them. The risk of polarized parties is that if one of them is taken over by an illiberal figure in the mold of Trump—even with initially barely majority support in their own party—then negative partisanship can push that party toward nearly complete, unchallenged support. As we have seen, when such a party holds the reins of governing power, the damage they can do is considerable.
David Karol is somewhat suspicious of our exercise in speculative futurism, which is fair. But we do think there are reasons to believe that both parties are on their way to becoming more factionalized. Factionalized parties, we argue, are inherently less of a risk to liberal democracy. A Republican party with a majority populist faction but a vibrant, well-organized “liberal-conservative” faction (which would incorporate most of the Never Trumpers) would be one in which any party leader would have only partial control of the party’s brand and institutions. In such a system, members of the minority faction would insist on rules that make it easier for them to work with those in the other party, and that would give less hierarchical control to party leaders. In a system like that, it would be easier to engage in organized, collective action in resistance to a party leader who endangered liberal democratic norms. While Never Trumpers would not be in charge in such a scenario, they would hold the pivot, and would have the organization to credibly use it.
We think such a future is highly likely. We are already seeing that the Democratic party is well on its way to a future in which a majority, mainstream (you might call it “Bidenite”) faction is forced to negotiate—and sometimes compete—with a minority but pivotal democratic socialist faction. That will be a harder party to lead, and it may be one in which leaders are simply given less control of the political agenda. Something similar is not hard to imagine on the Republican side. Places like Massachusetts and Maryland already elect Republican governors who are popular and successful, but so far figures like Larry Hogan and Charlie Baker and those around them have not invested much in creating institutions and a distinct brand for a non-populist, bourgeois Republicanism. But they could. While such a faction with the Republican party might hold little appeal in the reddest parts of the country, it could offer a compelling alternative and be quite competitive in precisely the places where the Democratic party has swung strongly to democratic socialism, but where the majority populist Republican brand is toxic.
Internally factionalized parties of the sort we envision may seem strange in the context of 2020, but they have actually been the norm over the course of American history. Indeed, it is today’s homogenous parties that are the anomaly. Other countries process the demand for more than two options through multi-party systems. Yet the structure of the American political system pushes strongly in the direction of just two parties. Yet that reality can obscure a far more diversified political universe that has historically characterized American politics. Political scientists of the 1950s used to talk about America as having “four party politics,” albeit processed through only two formal organizations. It is not hard to imagine us having it again. That kind of politics would be messy, even chaotic, as different coalitions needed to be built on an issue by issue basis. But precisely that messiness could be the critical support for liberal democratic norms that George is rightly looking for. In a system of shifting coalitions, there would be great conflict but it would be omni-directional, rather than the trench warfare of the last few decades. Legislators would know that the people they fought with today could be a necessary part of their coalition tomorrow. They would not support norms that protect the rights of the other party out of good manners, but self-interest and an expectation of reciprocity.
Such a future, however, is not preordained by iron laws of social science. It is only possible if the Never Trumpers, as well as their potential voters and financial supporters, go about the hard work of building a durable political faction that can force the majority of the Republican party to share power and support flexible rules. Only through acquiring power, in short, can Never Trumpers really shore up the norms that are essential for the health of liberal democracy.