In that panic-haunted spring of 2016, when Donald Trump was in the last laps of his inexorable journey towards the GOP nomination, a fierce, vocal, and highly visible conservative rebellion suddenly coalesced around the hashtag #NeverTrump. Factionalism isn’t new, but there was novelty in the sheer speed with which #NeverTrump created itself, launched a full-frontal assault on the interloper, and then, utterly routed, immediately splintered again into two groups. There was the resigned majority who signed a peace treaty with the new regime, and an ever-shrinking rump who continued to conduct guerilla warfare against Team Trump from bases located safely outside the borders of Trumpistan—many of them within mainstream institutions that leaned farther to the left than the partisans they sheltered.
There are a few stories that you can tell about these developments. The first is that #NeverTrump represented the last gasp of a spent establishment that was too weak to respond with anything more than venomous whining and ineffectual slaps at the more energetic hands reaching to seize the institution they’d neglected. Those establishment figures quickly subsided into irrelevance, trending towards extinction, as Donald Trump broke up their cozy little cartel, defunded their sinecures, and began to wield power to benefit the Republican voter–rather than a self-interested, self-lubricating elites that had sold out their principles to donors for cash, and to left-wingers for respectability.
This is, unsurprisingly, the narrative favored by Trump afficionadoes.
The second story involves a narcissistic grifter who managed to seize control of the Republican Party in much the same way that the feline toxoplasmosis parasite invades the brains of mice, and then short-circuits the vital synapses that tell them to be afraid of cats. In this tale, a brave remnant, the party’s immune system, struggled valiantly to resist, to hold onto the core principles of conservatism against the onslaught of a viral media campaign. No matter how hard they fought, that free media kept converting erstwhile conservative voters to populists, and previously healthy allies into Trump drones, and eventually the host succumbed.
Perhaps those struggling to repel the invader had made earlier mistakes; possibly, they had been too complacent about Trump’s candidacy. Or perhaps, the party’s vitality had been compromised by their earlier refusal to listen to the base on issues like immigration, leaving it vulnerable to an opportunistic infection. But at the 11th hour, when it mattered most, they at least tried. They might even have succeeded, if it hadn’t been for the rage-blind voters and spineless collaborators who joined Trump’s zombie march towards a racialized populism—one that would eventually doom, not just the careers of the former establishment, nor even the conservative ideas they’d espoused, but the electoral prospects of the Republican Party.
Are you shocked to hear that this is how #NeverTrump likes to tell the story? No, of course you’re not.
A third story recognizes their last stand as valiant, but only in the sense that a deathbed confession is braver than carrying the secret to your grave. In this version, the Republican Party nurtured that racialized populism, using its harnessed energy to power a business-friendly agenda that enriched its plutocratic donors, and the elites who served them. Trump is simply the apotheosis of five decades of Republicanism, and #NeverTrumpers merely the pathetic handful who could not, at the last minute, bear the sight of what they had done.
This, of course, is exactly how the left likes to hear the saga recounted.
But eventually, self-flattery palls and crude caricatures seem a bit gaudy, which is when one ideally should pick up Teles and Saldin’s Never Trump. Their account is more interesting precisely because they aren’t really trying to tell a story. Saldin and Teles recognize that #NeverTrump has many stories—the foreign policy experts, the lawyers, the campaign operatives, the economists, the ink-stained wretches like myself.
The book’s biggest achievement is showing how those stories differed, which lets us get at the question of why they differed—why the Republican Party’s national security elite mostly went #NeverTrump and stayed there, and why the campaign operatives mostly didn’t. In between were the economists and lawyers and writers whose actions were more mixed: Some eventually shifted Trumpwards, some repudiated not just the Trump regime but large swathes of their own previous beliefs, and some attempted more of a straddle, neither endorsing nor blanket condemning.
There are many reasons that those groups differ, and Teles and Saldin do an excellent job of teasing out the subtleties. But I don’t have a whole book’s worth of words to spend on the question, so I’ll point to one, the obvious one: 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.
That’s not to say that #NeverTrumpers paid no price for opposing Trump. People lost television contracts, speaking opportunities, friends. But there’s a divide between those who lost quite a bit for repudiating Donald Trump, and those who stood to lose everything.
The cost of #NeverTrumping for a right-leaning writer, for example, was considerably lower than the cost to a right-leaning radio host, much less a television host. Some writers wrote for mainstream publications where it probably would have proved more personally costly to support Trump (an unpleasant fact I meditated on as I read the book). But even writers at conservative publications had more freedom than other kinds of conservative journalists, because writing is the cheapest medium, and one publication can be supported by a small number of readers.
Radio and television need mass audiences, and the mass of the Republican party was jumping on the Trump train. The journalists working in those conservative media had to jump after them or lose their jobs, and we shouldn’t be surprised that most of them chose to make the leap.
Similarly, national security professionals mostly have academic or think tank homes within institutions that are at most center-right, in an ideologically flexible sort of way. On the other hand, campaign operatives have to work on campaigns, something that is tricky to do if you have been spending a lot of time bad-mouthing the party’s president. You can guess which group went #NeverTrump early and stood firm, and which group mostly kept its head down and let Trump have his way.
One can frame this negatively, as pure selfishness, and that’s how Trump’s supporters have framed it, without noticing at least equal mercenary incentives on their own side. (Trump’s defenestration of the party’s elite created openings for many people who were not flourishing under the old order). But carping aside, they have a point—or half of one, at least. The Trump faction’s creation myth misses one crucial distinction: people were led to these decisions not so much by the pursuit of gains as by the avoidance of costs. Which is why it’s so easy for them to be unaware that they are being led.
I focus on this distinction because most commentary—on Trump, on everything—tends to ignore it. Yet it shows up everywhere. Young single women are markedly more likely to support abortion rights than any other group; young black men are more likely to think that aggressive policing is a problem than older white people; people with orthodox religious views on human sexuality are more likely to think that religious freedom must be protected, even at the cost of curtailing anti-discrimination laws.
That doesn’t make someone right when they decide that things should be arranged to lower their personal costs. The common idea that right lies on the side of the most suffering often involves editing out of the equation someone whose cost is at least equally high—the human being who never drew breath because their mother aborted, the gay couple who walks into a bakery giddy with the plannings for their wedding celebration, and walks out having been told that their union is too sinful to cater. But while understanding someone else’s cost structure doesn’t have to make us agree with someone, it ought to make us more empathetic.
Empathy has been in critically short supply during the Republican Party’s long battle with itself. Trump’s arrival on the scene upset a long and comfortable equilibrium, and forced people to make painful choices, with hard tradeoffs. Those kinds of difficult decisions necessarily carry some risk of regret, so those who make them often soothe themselves by developing an escalating hostility towards anyone who chose differently. I can’t say I’m any better than anyone else on that score; I can only say I regret some of my choice remarks.
As November draws nearer, it is starting to look like Trump will lose his re-election bid. If so, two shattered factions, having lost their raison d’etre, will have to see if there is some way to reassemble a party that can win and govern. They’ll be in a better position to do so if they spend the next few months meditating on how easily where you stand can depend on where you sit.
I don’t claim that developing a little empathy for each other (perhaps even for some non-conservatives) can solve all of the party’s problems or the movement. But after reading Teles and Saldin, I think that’s where solutions have to start.
Megan McArdle is a Washington Post columnist and the author of “The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”