President Trump has consolidated Republican support in Congress and the wider party network, despite a lot of initial concerns. Whatever became of the Never Trump movement that arose in the 2016 campaign? And who, if anyone, is still resisting Trump within the Republican Party? Steven Teles and Robert Saldin find that public intellectuals and foreign policy elites were more willing to take on Trump than lawyers and economists, but all of the movement mattered for the campaign and the administration. Karyn Amira and Jordan Ragusa find that, in Congress, conservatives and establishment Republicans are more likely to vote with Trump, while women and the electorally vulnerable are less likely to do so, but his high support caps long-term polarization. They all see it as difficult for Republicans to move on from Trump.
Studies: “Never Trump“; “Adversaries of Allies?”
Interviews: Steven Teles, Johns Hopkins; Robert Saldin, University of Montana; Karyn Amira and Jordan Ragusa, College of Charleston
Matt Grossmann: This week on The Science of Politics, which Republicans are resisting Trump and why? For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann. Almost everyone loves a winner and President Trump has now consolidated Republican support in Congress and the wider party network, despite a lot of initial concerns. Whatever became of the Never Trump movement that arose in the 2016 campaign? And who, if anyone, is still resisting Trump within the Republican Party?
Today, I talked to Steven Telus of Johns Hopkins and Robert Saldeen of the University of Montana about their new Oxford book, Never Trump. They find that public intellectuals and foreign policy elites were more willing to take on Trump than lawyers and economists, but all of the movement mattered for the campaign and the administration. I also talked to Karen Amira and Jordan Ragusa of the College of Charleston about their perspectives on politics article, Adversaries or Allies. They find that in Congress, conservatives and establishment Republicans are more likely to vote with Trump while women and the electorally vulnerable are less likely to do so. But his high support caps a longterm polarizing trend. Saldeen says their book tracked all of the Republican action to oppose Trump during the campaign.
Robert Saldin: The book is about the Never Trumpers, these Republicans and conservatives who opposed Trump back in 2016 and in the primaries and in the general election, and in many cases after the election wrapped up as well. So, it’s largely based on some 80 in depth interviews that we conducted with all the key players. And I think Steve and I both think, just on its own terms, it’s a fascinating story. The thing that drew us to this project is that the Never Trump phenomenon is pretty unprecedented. So the core question of the book really is why did this set of dedicated partisans react in this unprecedented way? And it really was pretty remarkable. Opposing your own party’s nominees is a big deal. And they went scorched earth, they pulled out all the stops, they tried to coalesce behind a Republican alternative. They released a series of letters signed by some of the party’s top shelf policy experts, opposing Trump. They orchestrated barrage of critical opinion pieces and all kinds of media outlets, probably most notably a full issue of national review was given over to attacking Trump at a really important moment. They tried to deny him the nomination on the floor at the Republican National Convention, and then finally they recruited a third party challenger to run knowing that one possibility with doing so would be that it would throw it to Hillary Clinton.
So, all of this stuff is quite unusual. And in many instances it carried pretty significant consequences too. These are people who were going to be in line for political appointments in the next Republican administration, people who made their living from being in the good graces of the party, people whose sense of identity, both professional and personal, was tied up with being a Republican, with being a conservative. So all these things, these people paid a pretty high price.
What Steve and I have tried to understand is why some of these elite level Republicans and conservatives went Never Trump and why others who, at least at first glance, are seemingly in similar positions and why they looked at the same situation and were basically fine with it and saw the Never Trumpers as hysterical. And so, I’d say one key to understanding all of this, I think, for Steve and I, is that we look at Never Trump as a party phenomenon. And there are a couple important points to that.
First, I think we’re suggesting a little bit of a broader understanding of political parties. And it’s sometimes been typical, so a lot of times political scientists think of political parties as teams of ambitious office seekers or coalitions of interest groups and activists. But these accounts miss out on a lot of activity that can and we think should be understood as partisan. And in particular it leaves out a lot of the people who were at the core of this Never Trump phenomenon, people who provide a range of important services to parties, things like all the people who have to run a modern campaign, the people who staff the bureaucracy. Right? We’re talking here, especially like national security experts, lawyers, and economists, and then this whole cadre of people who generate ideas, the people who develop and enforce ideological orthodoxy. We’re talking here of people at magazines, think tanks, universities like this.
Robert Saldin: And critically, in our attempt, these Never Trumpers understood themselves to be playing a role within the party that they were supposed to be playing, that they were authorized to play by their place within the Republican Party.
Matt Grossmann: And Amira says they wanted to understand the very high Republican congressional support for Trump once in office.
Karyn Amira: The first question is how much did the Republican caucus agree with Trump legislatively in his first year in office? And when we say agree, we mean that they’re voting in the way that he wants them to vote. And we know that because he’s made public statements about the issues that they’re voting on. So it’s voting behavior agreement. And is this level abnormally high? Is it abnormally low? Or is it about what we would expect given some of the political trends in the last few decades?
And so the answer to that first question that we find is that the Republican caucus supports Trump a lot. Their level of agreement is at the highest level since the ’60s, which is where our data begins. They’re supporting him between 90 and 100% of the time in Congress. So if you were to hear that in isolation, you might think that sounds kind of odd whenever we say it’s at the highest or the lowest level, we would think, “Oh, what’s going on here?”
Karyn Amira: The second question was, is that actually odd given what we know about the trajectory of Congress and the environment? And our answer is no, not really. This is what we would expect. It’s what’s in line with these trends. So we know that there are certain features of Congress. So in terms of how Congress looks ideologically and how divided the parties are, what presidential approval looks like, these factors tend to predict a certain level of presidential success, so we can use those factors to forecast what Donald Trump’s agreement amongst his co-partisans should look like right now. And we find that it’s within the range that we would predict. So we don’t think that this is odd given the trend lines that we’ve been seeing since the 1960s. So that’s the first part of this.
The second part is, well, Republicans don’t vote in sync with him on every single vote every single time. Right? There are people who are defecting against his wishes. So the next question is, are there patterns for which Republicans are doing that? Are certain types of people more likely to oppose him or agree with him legislatively? And so we look at a host of factors that might predict this.
Some of these factors are about the actual demographics of the legislators, like their gender, their religion. Some are about their own policy preferences, so their ideology. Some are about their constituents. We go through this whole range of factors and we do find some patterns. They’re not overwhelming in size, but they do seem to exist. So people that are more likely to support him are Republicans that are considered more “establishment,” and Republicans who are more conservative. And the people that are more likely to oppose him are Republicans who are female and Republicans who represent areas that are wealthier and have a larger percentage of black constituents or Hispanic constituents.
So, overall, we do think that there’s something going on with the legislator themselves, like their own physical identity. We see that with the gender thing. But there’s also some sort of identity politics related possibly representation going on at the constituent level. The racial breakdown of those constituencies seems to be predicting whether or not Republican support or oppose him.
Matt Grossmann: Ragusa says support was high and especially strong among the congressional establishment, only somewhat matching popular views.
Jordan Ragusa: Republican support for Trump was quite high in his first year. On roll call votes, as Karen mentioned, Republicans voted with Trump’s position well over 90% of the time. And so, of course the Never Trump faction of the Republican Party, however we define that, gets a lot of attention. And so this finding is really contrary to what most people would think.
And second, we find that conservative and establishment Republicans were more likely to vote in line with Trump’s position, which is contrary to this idea that Trump’s core support comes from the non-establishment” wing of the party or from lawmakers that don’t have traditional Republican ideological positions.
But then on the other end of the spectrum, we do have some findings that are fairly conventional. We find that female Republicans and those that represent non-white districts represent some of Trump’s strongest supporters. And so it’s a mixed bag of things that most people suspect about Trump’s Republican opposition, but also some things that people, I think, wouldn’t necessarily see.
Matt Grossmann: Outside of Congress, Telus says Never Trump had more of an afterlife than the conventional wisdom suggests.
Steven Teles: Among those who’ve stuck with Trump, the odd thing about the Never Trump phenomenon is they simultaneously dismiss them as irrelevant and yet continually talk about them, which suggests a tell. And I think part of that is that the assumption was when all of the elected officials ran for the hills, as more or less they did after being very critical of Trump during the campaign, that that was pretty much the end of things. And we argue that actually there’s conceivably a afterlife to Never Trump because the most important part of Never Trump was not really ever among elected officials, many of whom were opposing Trump, I think largely because they believed he was an electoral liability. And it is important to remember during the campaign just how almost complete the belief that Trump was going to be blown out was. And that affected a lot of people’s calculations about how they were acting, certainly on the electoral among elected officials.
Steven Teles: I do think among professionals, the people that Rob was talking about earlier, that the opposition to Trump was much deeper, it was much more fundamental, and it had a number of components. One was that Trump was actively anti-professional. That’s how they read him as not believing in the necessity for expertise including hard one expertise that conservatives had built up by trying to create a counter establishment of which they were members. And that has, I think, kept a number of them in an oppositional stance, even as the elected officials have pulled apart. And so I think one of the contributions of our book to thinking about party again is to differentiate these kinds of different components of party. Right? We have elected officials, we have what the UCLA school calls high policy demanders, and then we have this professional providers of service to the party.
And it’s that latter group that has held on to what you might think of as the pre-Trump conventional wisdom among Republicans, even as a lot of the other parts of the party have made their peace with Trump.
Matt Grossmann: Saldin found large differences across sectors of the Republican party in their willingness to take on Trump.
Robert Saldin: While there were some commonalities across these various groupings that we look at, each professional network does have its own story and we organize the book around these different professional networks. And so we have a chapter on lawyers. And you’re right, they got their judges and that was of course the key for them in the campaign and why a lot of lawyers didn’t end up going Never Trump. You had a lot of things overhanging the election for lawyers. One was that a Scalia had died. So that seat, we often talk about how the Supreme Court is on the ballot in presidential years. Well, it really was on the ballot in 2016 and there’s a long history of course to the conservative legal movement preparing for these kinds of moments, a history of disappointment and in setting things up in such way.
And then when Trump released the list of judges, that obviously satisfied a lot of lawyers. There’s also just something inherent to being a lawyer, they have a client serving way of understanding themselves that maybe makes it a little easier for some of them to move in a different direction. The economists you mentioned, I mean I think it’s right, many of them may have liked the tax cut, but on some other things, maybe not so much. Trade and deficits. It’s also the case that a lot of those economists who you would think would be staffing this administration has been marginalized. And the people who do have a seat at the table are looked upon by a lot of those who went Never Trump as being definitely the B list or even the C list.
And in terms of the political pros, as you mentioned, they like a winner and they need their clients. And that was, in some ways, to me one of the more interesting little networks because a lot of them in 2016 started off in the Never Trump camp. But once he got the nomination, most of them fell in line. And so yeah by the end of the campaign, those who were in the Never Trump camp were really the anomaly and I think we can explain that at least to some degree on a rational basis.
And it’s this network probably more than any other that’s just really totally dependent on being in the party’s good graces and staying there. They don’t have, like a lot of the other groups that we look at, they don’t have these kind of cushy a university or a think tank positions to retreat to if their main gig gets sidelined. And so a lot of the people who held firm as Never Trumpers, they were the kind of celebrity consultants of the Republican party, the Mike Murphy’s and the Stu Stevens. People who had already made money and had other sources of income.
And all that being said though, there’s this lingering concern amongst a lot of the political pros that that of going with Trump in 2016, while maybe it paid off one last time, but it’s not at all clear that that it’s going to work moving forward.
[inaudible 00:16:32] says the breadth and content of the internal party opposition was unprecedented.
When political scientists think about history, we think about it in two ways. We think about cyclical history, right? We think about events repeating. And then we think about secular history. We think about political development. And part of the argument is that this professional partisan class is itself a important and relatively recent developmental phenomenon. Right? There have always been periods in which there were elected officials from the losing side who defected. Obviously the most famous is 1912 when Teddy Roosevelt helps lead the Progressive party that prevents the Republicans from winning in 1912. What was really different here is first of all, the breadth of internal opposition.
And more importantly, how much it was centered in this professional class, which is not a constant across American history. And especially among conservatives, this group of lawyers, public intellectuals, national security experts, the sheer size and influence of them, or at least what people thought was their influence, was a relatively recent phenomenon on.
So I do think it’s a little hard, first of all, to compare. But if you were to look at say 1972 among the Democrats where there was, whether it was Democrats for Nixon, even there, that was much smaller in terms of the sheer breadth and number of people who more or less stuck with McGovern even through biting their lip or even in ’64 with Goldwater. There were almost none of them who explicitly argued for voting for Johnson in a way that you actually saw. A number of people who had held important positions in Republican administrations actively arguing for voting for somebody else other than the nominee of their party. So I do think this is a pretty substantially different phenomenon, both because of its intensity and because of the fact that it was centered in a group that isn’t a constant across American history.
Matt Grossmann: Saldin found lots of people weighing needs for the coming administration against standing on principle.
Robert Saldin: One of the things that we were able to get access to for that part of the project was all these internal emails that were sent back and forth around one of these two letters that got a lot of attention at the time. And so we were able to actually see all of these internal negotiations as they went down at the time, which was just fascinating. We include a lot of that in the book.
But these national security experts, this is in a lot of ways that the most identifiable and unified group in its never Trump’s stance. And to some extent this is the network against which all these other groups that we look at are measured. They released several letters that denounced Trump is unfit. The signers pledged not to vote for Trump and implicitly pledged to not work in his administration.
And this basically comprised nearly the entire swath of the Republican foreign policy establishment. This was probably the group that was most easy to see as a network that Trump just totally dismissed, as Steve was talking about. He kind of made the calculation that he didn’t really need a lot of these people. He didn’t need them to win the election and he didn’t need them to govern. And so we have seen a lot of unfilled positions in the federal bureaucracy. We’ve seen lots of different people in those government jobs than you would have had if you’d had a different Republican president.
Most of these people in the national security realm anyway, most of them at this point seemed pretty content with their decisions. There are some who recanted, some who were canted pretty early on. And one of the interesting things about those people who tried to walk back their pledge is that they were treated by their peers within that network as something like traders. Like those kinds of words were thrown around. And then there was also maybe it’s worth noting that this big debate after the election over whether or not to go into the administration if asked. Now as it turns out on the foreign policy side, a lot of these people weren’t asked. They basically constructed their own enemies list and they weren’t asked. But there were some who were kind of up for consideration. So that was a big question.
So to some extent that has played out throughout the presidency. Do you go in if you have the opportunity to go in? The dominant view for these people, I think, if you wanted to look at it this way, is that they’re pretty content with their actions, pretty content with watching what they see as a disaster play out and they’re contempt to have said, “Hey, we warned you about this. Now here’s what you get.”
Matt Grossmann: Teles says Trump deferred to legal experts due to social conservative links, but national security folks had little electoral power, despite their importance today.
Steven Teles: The most thing about the conservative legal movement is that Trump more or less deferred to them all the way back to the campaign because Trump, whatever his other vices, which are innumerable, does have a kind of reptilian sense for who possesses power. And he respects power. And he knew that social conservatives had the power to hurt him. And as a consequence of that, the conservative legal movement, which it also has power in large part because of its relationship with social conservatives who again, in the UCLA school are high policy demanders and our core coalition members of the party, he deferred to them. And I think what he recognized among national security conservatives is they really didn’t have that kind of hard power in the sense of at least immediately being able to harm him, that their power was a function of the fact that people thought that they had to defer to their judgments or authority. And that’s the kind of thing that Trump saw through directly.
Steven Teles: Now I think the challenge is that you really could transfer power over to the conservative legal movement and the various different parts of it who have networks that identify people who are going to be potential judicial picks and that kind of thing. The problem with national security is even if you’ve got a different idea, somebody still has to run it. And that’s true of a lot of different governmental functions. And I think this is an area where Trump, before COVID-19, should have been enormously politically popular, way more popular than he was. If you just had sort of the replacement level Republican candidate at this point, given the state of the economy, he should have been beating any Democratic challenger by a very high level. And I think a lot of that has been a consequence of the just sheer mal-administration under Trump and also the kind of chaos associated with the personality of Trump.
And so I do think one way that never Trumpers have been consequential is simply by their absence. Right? A lot of these areas of government are having to be run by very generously, third raters or people who are only in temporary positions. Lots of positions are being left unfilled. And you can see this just in the governmental response to COVID-19. A lot of the proposals that are going around for testing or tracing are literally going entirely around the federal government.
One of the most popular proposals out there is about creating a state compact. And that’s almost purely because they don’t want to have to run it through the federal government, which they think at this point is entirely incompetent at doing anything complicated. And I think that has filtered down to the overall level of popularity of Trump. And that is a consequence of what you might think of as the second phase of Never Trump power by simply being able to withhold their labor.
The lack of organization of Trump dissenters across contexts limited there later influence. And that’s showing up in Congress, [inaudible 00:25:12] says.
One of the stories that’s in the background here, which we address in the conclusion, is the surprising absence of much collective organization. There were a lot of people who were, as individuals, opposed Trump or criticized him even in Congress. You had people like Bob Corker who is occasionally very critical. Jeff Flake, who was highly critical. Justin Amash, who looks like he’s going to run for the Libertarian party nominee for president from near you in Michigan. But they all operate as individuals, which is one of the reasons why I think they mostly ended up throwing, just quitting rather than struggling because they weren’t really part of an actual collective resistance of any kind.
I think that is probably something of a contingent outcome. I don’t know that we necessarily want to say that was inevitable. If a lot of the Never Trumpers had actually tried to actively organize as a party faction as opposed to a group that kind of still imagined that the entire Republican party would be able to be brought back to reason, I think you could have seen a little more active resistance to Trump. The problem was that all of these people would have to do it, so far have had to do this as isolated individuals. They’re a lot easier to pick off for the larger sort of Trump-dominated Republican party.
This is one where I do wonder whether there’s a kind of virtual history story to be told here that if people with money, people in Congress had actually organized collectively in a way that the Democratic Leadership Council did back in the 80s, it would have been easier to sustain an active resistance in a way that it wasn’t able to do with people just acting as isolated individuals.
Matt Grossmann: Now the congressional story from Amira and Ragusa. They find Trump fits the long-term trend in co-partisan congressional support.
Jordan Ragusa: One of the things that’s kind of unique about our paper is our decision to look at the President’s co-partisan support. Karen said in the introduction we were kind of motivated to study this issue based on the attention that Republicans who opposed Donald Trump were getting in the media. Past scholars have looked at support in the aggregate. People have looked at support from the opposition party, but really almost no one has looked at support within the President’s own party. The broader context is that for most of the immediate post-war period, the President enjoyed about 60% to 70% support from his co-partisans in Congress. Beginning sometime around the 1980s that begins to change. As you mentioned, you have kind of these upward sloping lines in the support that the President gets from his co-partisans in Congress. Generally this pattern follows the pattern of polarization in Congress.
We have a model that predicts presidential co-partisan support. We try to answer the question of, “Is Trump’s support unusually high?” Again, the answer there, no. The main predictor of co-partisan support is simply a chamber polarization variable. For example, congressional Democrats voted with Obama somewhere around 90% of the time. Some years it might be in the high 80s. Some years it might be in the low 90s, but it was generally at about 90%, which is higher than it was for George W. Bush. W’s support was higher than his predecessor Bill Clinton. The short version is that when we get to Trump it really isn’t unusual that his support was well over 90%. It follows the basic pattern of polarization in Congress that a lot of scholars have documented.
Matt Grossmann: Amira says both district level and personal identity factors matter for which members support Trump.
Karyn Amira: A lot of the effect sizes we find are relatively small, although they are quite robust. The characteristics of the sort of districts, like the racial demographics of the districts, those are some of the smallest effect sizes on their own. If you were to add them all together, they would hold a bit more explanatory power, but on their own they’re relatively small. But do those effects, do they indicate representation of some form? It might. I think it’s quite possible that legislators understand the demographics of their district and they know that certain demographics tend to dislike Trump more. They may express that in their voting in order to get re-elected and keep their job.
It’s hard to make conclusions with great certainty about which is the most important predictor. A lot of these factors correlate with one another. We’re trying to pull them apart to the best of our ability, which is always a bit hard in social science. We can’t show causality in this type of observational design, but we think that we’ve done our best to try to show the effects of each of these uniquely from one another. It does look like certain racial factors of constituents are playing some sort of explanatory role, approximately on par with a legislator’s own gender if you were to sort of like add them up together.
I hesitate to say that we can make any causal claims or anything like that, but there does seem to be a mix of sort of identity politics at the constituent level as well as identity politics at the legislature level.
Matt Grossmann: But Ragusa acknowledges, it may be Trump following Congress rather than the reverse.
Jordan Ragusa: We are also limited by the simple fact that the congressional agenda is set by party leaders in Congress and not the President. We try to be careful in the paper to talk about presidential support and not presidential influence because both of these things just highlight the inherent challenges of working with non-experimental data. I teach an undergraduate research methods course. I like to use the heuristic of like what if you were able to play God, what would you do in the real world to try to figure out if something causes something else.
Karen already mentioned the challenges of causality and that’s something that all non-experimental researchers are confronting. In this case, if we were able to play God, we might force Republicans to vote on some of Trump’s less conventional positions. There a good example might be his proposal during the 2016 campaign to spend a trillion dollars rebuilding infrastructure. There’s no question that would generate a lot of Republican opposition, kind of like foreign policy and trade, which you mentioned where the President’s positions are certainly less conventional within the Republican party.
Kind of on the second piece. I mean, overall there’s no question that these measures are mostly picking up Trump’s alignment with the Republican party, not as much the other way around.
Matt Grossmann: Amira does not see much sign republicans will defect anytime soon.
Karyn Amira: Has a lot changed? I guess, yes and no. Yes, because three years have gone by and a lot has happened in that time. But I mean if anything, it looks like the party in the aggregate, at least symbolically, has sort of doubled down on their support for Donald Trump. I’m not talking about legislative votes on policies. I’m really talking about he was impeached and then Republicans did not remove him from office. Now there’s sort of a real incentive to justify that decision I guess. In that sense, I don’t imagine that there’s going to be a lot of dissent away from his preferences. Although I haven’t looked at any of the data since we ran the first year.
Also, Trump’s approval numbers aren’t really cracking their ceiling or their floor. They’ve been sort of at this 45%-ish approval rating for years. Even in the coronavirus time, it’s not really actually like a really small rally around the flag effect, but it was small and it’s gone back to the place where it is. When you see that approval hasn’t really changed, it doesn’t incentivize the party to change. There’s previous work that looks at when does Congress really start to move against the President? It tends to be when the President’s party or his co-partisans in the public really turn against him. I think that for Republicans in Congress to really start voting against him, Republicans in the public would have to really show that they disapprove of him. That has not happened yet. It’s really stayed the same. His base isn’t really budging. I don’t think there’s a huge incentive for the elites in the party to go against his wishes en masse.
Matt Grossmann: Comparing the movements in and outside of Congress, Ragusa says legislators have to be more concerned with elections than intellectuals and other partisans.
Jordan Ragusa: In the current polarized era that we’re in, the fate of lawmakers and the presidents are so strongly linked that it really creates incentives for them to work together. Obviously, conservative intellectuals who are not lawmakers don’t have the same alignment in terms of their ultimate fate. Conservative intellectuals would be motivated more by policy or ideological purity, whereas lawmakers care more about winning re-election. In that sense, Trump’s presidency has really magnified the fact that parties are sort of diverse coalitions of actors with oftentimes varied interests.
This is something that you see in any presidency. In some sense it’s not really that unique. It’s just that you usually have to kind of like squint in order to really see some of these differences. I’m glad that other folks are looking at this issue and broadening the focus beyond lawmakers because I agree with the premise of the question that there are going to be very big differences between how lawmakers are responding to the Trump presidency and how other outside actors are going to respond.
It kind of taps into this classic and much broader debate about the nature of political parties in the United States. Are they primarily legislative coalitions or are they coalitions of outside actors and elites? I think the answer to the question about how people respond to the Trump presidency really hinges on who you’re looking at.
Matt Grossmann: Saldin says Never Trump shows the intellectuals may not have the roles in the party they believe they do.
Robert Saldin: It would probably be an overstatement to say that the intellectuals never had any power in the conservative movement, but it’s probably also the case that it was overstated a bit and that they themselves thought that they wielded more power than they did. Part of it is that we have had a significant shift in the media universe. It used to be that some of those voices out there like National Review probably played a bigger role than they do now simply because they were one of the few outlets out there. Now there’s just a lot more competition in that space. One of the things that came out in this project as we were looking into the these public intellectual types is that a lot of them still thought that they had that role. That they were playing that kind of gatekeeper role that they at least have told themselves over time that is part of what they’re supposed to do within the party.
That National Review special issue that I mentioned, which is kind of remembered as the Never Trump issue. It actually said against Trump, which for some of these people it was an important distinction, but that came out right before the Iowa caucus. Rich Lowry after Trump lost the Iowa caucus, sent out a tweet saying, “You’re welcome,” with a picture of this National Review issue. He was in a sense taking credit and I think thought at the time that they had effectively derailed Trump’s candidacy with that special issue and the National Review was that influential. Again, I think that clearly is not how it played out. It was probably overstated for them to think that they could still play that role or perhaps that they ever played that role.
Maybe one other point I’d like to make just on the public intellectuals and kind of thinking about them as a group, and it kind of ties in with National Review and this whole way in which they see themselves, is for this group I think this distinction between respectable conservatives and non-respectable conservatives is really critically important. For those who went in the Never Trump direction, they were really invested in this conviction that the conservative movement and the Republican Party was not what all of its critics had for a long time been saying it was, that it was racist, that it was ignorant, that it was everything else. And part of the role that these people have traditionally played is making the case that, no, it’s the Republican Party, conservative ideas. There’s a lot more to it. It’s not just what all of its critics say it is.
But then you have this figure in Donald Trump who comes along and seems to prove all of the critics right. And so that’s part of the reason why you have this massive pushback amongst these public intellectuals who I think if you look at it in terms,, relative to the other groups that this after the National Security people, this was the biggest constellation of people out there.
Matt Grossmann: And polarization is making it harder for democratic norms to be enough to move people away from their party.
Steven Teles: One of the things we do in the book is look to the work of Milan [inaudible 00:01:04]. He’s done a number of these studies about basically how people prioritize democratic norms relative to their policy preferences. And the basic idea is that people value both of these things, but what happens when they’re in conflict?
And one way of thinking about this is to just imagine politics playing out on a football field, that the ideological span is all contained within the 40 yard lines. Well, in that case, if you have someone who captures a nomination of your party, who’s a threat to democratic norms, it’s really not that big of a deal to just go and support the other party. Because if your party loses, then the worst thing that’s going to happen is that policy will flip from one 40 yard line to the other.
However, if you imagine that the country has become a lot more polarized in the politics in general and the spectrum of policy possibilities now plays out between say the 20 yard lines, well, in that situation it becomes a much bigger sacrifice, in terms of giving up your policy preferences if you want to go with the other party. So in that kind of a framework, I think you can get a helpful way of conceptualizing how polarization influenced what was going on in 2016. The basic point is that polarization, or at least the perception of polarization, makes it harder for people to abandon their party even when there’s a threat to democratic norms, because the price that they’re paying in terms of their policy preference is really high.
So it makes, in one way the Never Trump phenomenon even more remarkable, that you have a lot of Never Trumpers who were very much among those who were being asked to give up a lot of ideological territory. They recognized that and they did it anyway. And then this polarization backdrop, it also helps answer one of the lingering questions that the Never Trumpers keep asking themselves. And that is, “Why did we find ourselves alone in the foxhole at the end of this?”
Well, one way of understanding those Republicans and conservatives who went in the other direction who stuck with Trump, be it reluctantly or enthusiastically, is that they perhaps saw the system and the threat to American democracy as being just less severe than the Never Trumpers did, and that the policy trade off that they were being asked to make was too much. It was too high of a price to pay.
Matt Grossmann: Amira expects it to be hard for Republicans to thread the needle going forward.
Karyn Amira: I think it’s going to be a very delicate balancing act for the near future. By near future, I mean next four to eight years. I think a lot of Republicans are going to have to talk out of both sides of their mouths, making sure to emphasize that they are their own person and that they have their issues that they really care about, that they’ve worked their life on, and are devoted to. And at the same time demonstrate that they are loyal to the party and also to some degree, Donald Trump. Because I don’t think that his base is going to abandon him anytime in the next decade, in terms of how they feel about him.
So that’s going to be, it’s going to be hard, especially when trying to appeal to independents that did not like Trump. They’re probably not going to win the support of many Democrats going forward, but independents, that’s who they’re going to have to work for. I know that you were interested in asking if Mike Pence could do something going forward to distinguish himself. I, first of all, this is sort of a personal opinion and a professional opinion combined. I don’t think that Mike Pence would be a very good candidate for president in the future simply because he’s not a figure that is dynamic, in many ways. He’s incredibly establishment seeming, even though he was Donald Trump’s VP. I think it would actually take some pretty weak primary challengers and a very weak democratic challenger in a general election to get him into the presidency.
But if I were to give him some advice, Donald Trump’s vice president, it would be to talk about how he did his role as a public servant. He was there to be vice president and support Donald Trump in his endeavors. And he would have to emphasize a handful of moments in the Trump presidency that he supported that were some of the least controversial, most straightforward tasks that a president could do. And he’ll have to emphasize that sort of civic duty aspect, because he’s not going to win over many Democrats and it’s going to be difficult to get independents unless they are some of Trump’s base.
I think there will be a lot of talking out of both sides of the mouth going forward. Trump’s base is simply not a constituency that candidates can afford to lose in the next few years. If we’re talking about more than 10 years down the line, voter memory is short and a bit depressing. So I’m not sure about that further down, but in the near future it’s going to be a lot of doublespeak, I think.
Matt Grossmann: Is anything changing now? Ragusa doesn’t see much evidence.
Jordan Ragusa: Most major legislation that passes in Congress is in fact bi-partisan. We see much more more bipartisanship on roll call votes in Congress than what most in the media pay attention to. So in that sense, I think the answer is no. But in a more direct answer to the question, I mean look, we are comparing what’s going on with this current pandemic to a war. And I kind of think that that’s apt in a couple ways. One has to do with the bipartisanship that you noted of late.
We’re seeing a, maybe a bit of a rally around the flag effect, which occurs during wars. But unlike a war which tends to be long and drawn out, I think that partisanship will very quickly revert to its normal position here very shortly. I mean, if you look at Democratic opposition to Bush during the Iraq war, it eventually went back to its normal trend over the years. Same thing after Bin Laden was killed. There was a brief rally around the flag effect. There was a surge in President Obama’s approval rating, but then it reverted back to its normal course.
And so, I think the answer to the question is no, because partisanship and polarization in Congress have much more systemic causes than these kind of idiosyncratic things that can be very important in their context, but ultimately kind of fade from memory. And then I guess the third reason why I think it’s no, I think that as far as the calculus of Republican lawmakers, I don’t think this is going to cause them to abandon Trump in large numbers. As I kind of mentioned earlier, the fates of presidents and their congressional co-partisans is so strongly linked today that I think ultimately there is more to be lost among Republican lawmakers by not voting with Trump than abandoning him.
Matt Grossman: But Teles sees signs of more factionalism to come.
Steven Teles: In the conclusion of the book, we speculate about what a future of Never Trumpers would look like, and we suggest that we may be moving to a much more deeply factionalized party future than we have seen in the past. Certainly in the last 20 or 30 years, the Republican party has been remarkably lacking in real factual divisions except for a kind of Maximalist faction in the form of the freedom caucus. But that that may not be sustainable. Especially if Trump loses in 2020, and especially if he loses quite substantially, you could imagine a lot of the opposition to the populous direction that Trump brought the Republican party and coalescing around a quite distinct organizationally coherent opposition to the dominant populous faction.
And we suggest what that would look like. But we think that organized faction that’s going to have a different geographical base than the Trumpist populous part of the Republican party, would have a different set of intellectuals and experts advising it and those would be the kind of people who are most associated with Never Trump. And at the same time, the Democrats are likely to have a much more factional future with a kind of DSA, AOC kind of weighing at a moderate mainstream, larger majority faction.
And in a world like that, institutions are going to operate differently than they do now. Again, conditional party government theory would suggest that degree of heterogeneity would lead to a lot more open agenda with potential, with weird potential coalitions being made across these party factions. And in a world like that, it may be that intellectuals and experts like this are going to have a newfound influence, although one that may look more like the way that experts interacted with the party system back in the seventies when you had a lot more play in the joints.
Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The Science of Politics is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center. I’m your host, Matt Grossmann. Thanks to Steven Teles, Robert Saldin, Karyn Amira and Jordan Ragusa for joining me. Please check out Never Trump and Adversaries Are Allies, and then listen in next time.
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore at CC by SA 2.0.