Donald Trump is president of the United States. At that essential level, Never Trump failed. But in our polarized age, where negative partisanship motivates so much of our politics, it’s curious that so many conservative elites rejected their party’s presidential nominee. They did not just voice concern but sought to derail the nomination at the Republican Convention and, when that fizzled, sought to recruit a third-party challenger to Trump. Four years in, many of them continue to oppose Trump and the Republican Party that has so quickly coalesced around him.
Rob Saldin and Steve Teles’s Never Trump: The Revolt of the Conservative Elites, is an even-handed and gripping analysis of the unfolding of Never Trump, as well as a diagnosis of why these conservative elites broke with the Republican Party. Never Trump offers insights into how institutional incentives shaped the remarkably different perspectives of conservative elites—whether they were foreign policy experts, economists, public intellectuals, political operatives, or lawyers. It also situates Trump’s complete capture of the Republican Party in a historical perspective, revealing longstanding arguments within the different factions of the party that partly explain who ended up capitulating to Trump and who continued to resist. It’s here that Never Trump may yet have life. Never Trumpers remain a vibrant strand in our political discourse. But will they remain outcasts within the Republican Party or might they help shape party politics in the future?
This is very much a book by political scientists. Yet beyond institutions and political culture, the story highlights individuals acting to preserve the Republic against their party. They failed in an immediate sense, partly because of institutional structures. But as Trump reminds us every day, character matters. Those who resisted Trump had the courage to break with their party because they saw him as a threat to liberal democracy. The last three years have more than borne out their concerns.
Conservative public intellectuals have been deeply linked to the Republican Party. In its heyday, which is easy to forget in our blurred present, the Republican Party was seen as the party of ideas, which were largely drawn from conservative intellectuals. Thinkers and writers from William F. Buckley to George Will and William Kristol and David Brooks were nurtured on a literary sensibility that valued ideas. Yet this sensibility was being eclipsed by conservative television and social media, which largely saw itself as being implacably opposed to liberals. For the last two decades, these tensions have been papered over.
Saldin and Teles give us a rich genealogy of the Republican Party and the debates between its different wings, letting the Never Trumpers speak for themselves. So-called Reformocons like David Frum and Yuval Levin have some sympathy for Trump’s overtures on economic policy and the need to build a Republican Party more attuned to the needs of the working class, even while insisting that the party must reach out to racial and ethnic minorities as a matter of both justice and survival. Was the party already failing the working class that increasingly made up much of its base? Was it also fueling the populist and racist elements that Trump drew on? Part of the dissection of intra-party debates includes whether some Never Trumpers were responsible for the rise of Trump. Had they helped nurture the unsavory stands of the Republican coalition—fed a diet of resentment and opposition—that Trump simply capitalized on? Max Boot, Charlie Sykes, and others confront these questions head-on and plead at least partly guilty. From a different angle, Reformocons like Reihan Salam thought that the “Republican failure to defend the interests of working-class voters, and to speak to their hopes and fears, has made Trump’s authoritarianism dangerously alluring” (159).
Yet for all of the differences, Never Trumpers were united in their concern for the future of American democracy. Reformocon Yuval Levin insisted the presidency takes “a certain human type” and Trump’s “total absence of dignity and seriousness” made him unfit for the office. Limited government conservatives like Charles Murray pointed to his “pathological character,” while Neocon Bret Stephens insisted that politics was “about culture and values” and not just policy. He saw Trump as an abandonment of conservative values: “Do I have to sit there and read Allan Bloom to these motherfuckers?” (176). Bloom is so 90s. Surely it wouldn’t matter. William Bennett, who putatively cared about the “de-valuing of America,” is a staunch Trump supporter. So goes the Republican Party.
And this raises the question of whether there is any hope of putting the Republican Party back together as the home of respectable conservatism. Even with a populist turn in the late years of the twentieth century–with party primaries the essential mechanism for selecting each party’s presidential candidate–the prevailing wisdom in political science was that the party was still able to wield enough influence to select reputable candidates. Until Trump. In 2016, the gatekeeping function fell on public intellectuals. It was too much weight to bear.
Yet why were conservative legal elites, who were also attached to the American Constitution, more split about Trump than public intellectuals? With the death of Justice Scalia, and Trump’s commitment to selecting judges from a Federalist Society approved list, many conservative lawyers went with Trump for the judges. And as Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society, who frequently consults with Trump on judges, put it, he measures Trump’s commitment “to the rule of law by his actions, not his off-the-cuff comments, tweets, and statements” (209). This hasn’t worn well. But, as Saldin and Teles’s deft analysis suggests, lawyers were working from a different calculus: they were professionally more inclined to go with someone they found troubling (professionally, lawyers do this all of the time) given the payoff—a Supreme Court seat plus lots of federal judges. And they were less inclined to worry that words matter.
Lawyers with these concerns gravitated to Never Trump. William Baude and Oren Kerr, law professors at Chicago and Berkeley, worried that Trump’s words harmed America’s understanding of the rule of law and constitutionalism. Many originalists, who have become much more influential and respectable in the legal academy, worried that Trump would sully the brand. This was particularly true of legal academics who insisted that originalism should not be seen as a partisan enterprise—as part of the Republican agenda.
An underappreciated concern is how the preoccupation with judges harmed the constitutional culture more generally. Upholding the Constitution, including interpreting the Constitution, is a duty of all the branches of government. While this idea, which dates to the founding, has surged in the last decade or so, it was prominently re-introduced to constitutional discourse by President Reagan’s Attorney General, Edwin Meese. Originalists like Baude and Adam White, who largely approved of Trump’s judicial appointments, saw him undermining the Constitution in these more important ways. There was far more at issue than “Scalia’s seat.” Baude captures this: “The basic idea [is] that government officials, not just judges, are supposed to care about the constitutionality of a law and want to uphold it” (208). Yet, Trump’s “every word seems calculated to create an atmosphere of arbitrariness and unpredictability much better suited to an authoritarian regime” (208).
Three years in and Trump’s abuse of constitutional limits and the rule of law is obvious. Trump just used force against peaceful protestors in Lafayette Square so he could get a photo op with the Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church. Against such routine actions, “But Gorsuch” is perverse. It’s an extraordinarily odd position for conservatives who have insisted on the importance of constitutionalism outside the courts to reduce the whole of the American Constitution to judicial appointments. Some who weren’t Never Trump from the beginning, like the conservative lawyer George Conway, have entered the fray by organizing opposition to Trump with Checks and Balances, Republicans for the Rule of Law, and the headline grabbing Lincoln Project.
But do Republicans in political office care at all anymore? The political scientist Daniel Ziblatt has shown how conservative parties, in taming ethnic nationalism and adhering to democratic institutions and norms, have been central to democracy. Yet Trump’s Republican Party has fueled ethnic nationalism and populism. And Trump shows a weak commitment to democratic norms: he calls elections rigged, threatens political opponents, encourages violence at his rallies, and routinely threatens the freedom of the press. Republicans are unfazed. It’s talk. He likes to trigger elites. There’s some truth in this shrug of a response. But there’s a much deeper one as Republicans look away when Trump uses the power of the state to enrich himself and punish his political opponents. Or when he uses the military to disperse a peaceful protest and the DOJ to support lawless allies and damage the lawful opposition. These authoritarian gestures get almost no resistance within the party. Senator Tom Cotton, angling to succeed Trump, has amped up the rhetoric. And it seems foolish to rule out a future that may include Don Jr.
Whether the Republican Party will remain committed to liberal democracy may well depend on Never Trumpers. As Saldin and Teles argue, with or without Trump, any version of the Republican Party is likely to be much more populist and nationalist than it was before. A moderate version of that party is likely to be influenced by Reformocons, which as Will Wilkinson has pointed out, have some overlap with progressives like Elizabeth Warren on economic issues.
The different strands of Never Trump may have more influence in building a moderate center, especially building alliances with the center-left. Indeed, what’s left of Never Trump has begun to gather behind Joe Biden. Let us hope in 2020 they succeed.
Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Crown, 2018), 66-67
George Thomas is the Wohlford Professor of American Political Institutions at Claremont McKenna College and Director of the Salvatori Center for the Study of Individual Freedom. He is the author, most recently, of The (Un)Written Constitution forthcoming from Oxford University Press.