Why did Never Trumpers fail to stop Donald Trump from capturing the 2016 Republican nomination, the presidency, and the party itself? And are they, in the immortal worlds of Monty Python, “not dead”? Those are the questions at the heart of Robert P. Saldin and Steven M. Teles’s new book, a fascinating and deeply researched account of the failed resistance to the greatest party crackup since the demise of the Whigs in the 1850s.
They map the intellectual terrain so well, that the best I can do is to supplement their book with a friendly addendum: in the 2020 election, Never Trumpers will finally matter—provided they have enough moxie not just to oppose Trump, but to support Joe Biden.
“There had never been a candidate remotely like Donald Trump,” the authors write. One of my few cavils with them is that actually George Wallace was a lot like Trump, as I document in a recent article for The Atlantic. Although Trump himself is a one-off, Trumpism is merely the latest and greatest eruption of Wallaceism, a white, working-class, populist political insurgency which dates back to Wallace’s 1968 presidential campaign.
Wallace’s message very much resembled Trump’s: disruptive, anti-system, grounded not in any coherent ideology but in social grievance and cultural resentment. Wallace’s base likewise resembled Trump’s: predominantly white, working-class, non-urban, and non-college. Even in the 1960s, working-class whites felt they were being scorned by elites, marginalized by the political establishment, devalued by the economy, displaced by minorities, and besieged by the culture. They craved a champion who would shake things up and make them heard. Understanding as much, Wallace ran for president three times—twice as a nominal Democrat and once as an independent, but in all cases really as an insurgent.
After his third run in 1976, Wallace left the scene–but his supporters didn’t. In 1992 and 1996, they mobilized for Patrick Buchanan, who mounted insurgent campaigns as a Republican. Like Wallace, he cared more about shaking things up than about a Republican victory (indeed, in 1992, Buchanan’s challenge to George H.W. Bush arguably cost the Republicans the presidency). Trump, of course, was in the same insurgent mold. Not a Republican in any meaningful sense, he expected to lose in 2016, and may even have hoped to lose.
By my guesstimate, the Wallace-Trump movement constitutes something like a quarter of the American electorate: far from a majority, but enough to take over a party and, with it, the presidency. 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.
Never Someoners are the party officials and auxiliaries who, until 2016, vetted candidates—sometimes formally, usually informally. Even in the glory days of the smoke-filled rooms, Never Someoners could not coronate a candidate who was unpopular with the party base or the public–nor would they want to–because the whole idea was to find a candidate who could unify the party and win the election. What they could do was to marginalize would-be candidates who would split the party, lose the election, govern incompetently, betray the party’s interests, or turn out to be outright sociopaths.
The Founders counted on a deliberative Electoral College to defend against demagogues and sociopaths, but that plan proved unworkable. The party establishments and their Never Someoners stepped in to play the role of systemic defense, using their influence over nominations to keep dangerous people out of office. In the 1920s, both parties’ establishments squelched a nascent presidential bid by Henry Ford, who by then was a racist megalomaniac. In 1976, Democratic insiders squeezed Wallace out of the race by clearing the field for Jimmy Carter to win the Florida primary. In 1996, the Democratic Party maneuvered to keep Lyndon LaRouche off primary ballots. And so forth.
The insiders’ job was not to make choices for the electorate, but to ensure that the electorate had good choices to make. In the main, they did well. With a few debatable exceptions, the nominees of both parties were solid presidential material, not riverboat gambles.
What was new about Trump in 2016, then, was not just the combination of his insurgent politics, his populist message, his unsavory character, and his unstable personality. It was also his discovery, and then exploitation, of the fact that there were no more Never Someoners.
Party insiders and machines could no longer block him. Their standard tools—money, endorsements, media access, party machinery—got no traction against a candidate who could raise his own money, sneer at endorsements, dominate social media, and commandeer the party machinery. Ordinarily, the last line of defense would have been for the party establishment to unite around an alternative to Trump and clear the field for that person. Still, in 2016 the Republican primaries’ timing and rules militated against the emergence of an alternative candidate, and the party could not have cleared the field in any event. Meanwhile, the Republican base had become more radicalized, resentful, and populist, disempowering the Never Someoners just when their influence was most needed.
And so Republican Never Trumpers failed not because of tactical errors on their own part but because their defense relied on a political Maginot Line: formidable in theory, obsolete in practice. As a result, they were overrun. They went into the 2016 election with a candidate who they fully expected would lose, and who, moreover, they thought deserved to lose—an astonishing and probably unprecedented state of affairs for a modern political party. “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,” Saldin and Teles observe.
Never Trumpers held one last card, but they could not bring themselves to play it: publicly defecting to the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, was a bridge too far. Instead, they sat out the election, voted libertarian, or wrote in somebody’s name. When Trump won, of course, they were completely out in the cold.
Saldin and Teles are, therefore, right when they say that “the material foundation for performing an ideological vetting function has collapsed.” For that matter, vetting for character and competence and experience and even mental health has collapsed, too—among Republicans.
The same confluence of forces also weakened Never Someoners on the Democratic side. But, as it turns out, not as much. Democratic voters remain more willing than Republicans to work in partnership with their party establishment, as the 2020 primary race demonstrated dramatically. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders—who, like Wallace and Trump, adopted a party label but was really an anti-party insurgent—at first seemed positioned to impose himself on the Democrats in the same way that Trump had imposed himself on the Republicans. But Democrats were not having it. After Sanders’s initial victories, rank-and-file partisans (especially African-Americans) rallied to Biden, other candidates cleared the field for him, and the party establishment swiftly closed ranks around him. The Never Sanders contingent prevailed.
That tale might have turned out very differently. Democratizing politics while reducing party professionals to spectator status is like putting more planes in the air while firing all the air-traffic controllers. There are many ways to reintroduce and strengthen an element of peer review in the nominating process, which you can read about, for example, here, here, and here. But that is a project for the future.
Meanwhile, in 2020, the country finds itself with not just two different political parties but two different kinds of parties: one insurgent and radicalized, the other still—for now—following conventional rules and running a conventional candidate.
And where does that leave the Never Trumpers? Suddenly, they have hope and relevance. Finally, they have somewhere to go. Biden might not be their first, second, or third choice in an ideal world, but, unlike Clinton or Sanders, he is acceptable, and in some ways appealing. With an alternative on offer, they can wholeheartedly work for Trump’s defeat (and are already doing so).
Their efforts will matter, at least if the election is close. Trump’s path to reelection is narrow, and his strategy of alienating everyone except his core supporters is self-limiting. Never Trumpers include formidable public figures like former secretary of state Colin Powell and former defense secretary Jim Mattis, and leading conservative intellectuals like David Frum, William Kristol, and George Will. They can make the case to center-right voters that a Biden vote is more consistent than a Trump vote with fundamental conservative values.
To exploit their opportunity, however, Never Trumpers need to be pro-Biden, not just anti-Trump. No fiddle-faddle about supporting Biden privately or voting third-party or writing in one’s spouse. In the 1970s and 1980s, neoconservatives succeeded in reshaping politics because they swung publicly and outspokenly to Ronald Reagan. They didn’t just grudgingly tolerate Reagan; they endorsed him and campaigned for him and built the case for security-minded Democrats to support him, because they believed the country’s future depended on it. In 2020, if they want to matter, Never Trumpers must do no less for Biden. And for the country.
Jonathan Rauch is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing writer at The Atlantic.