The organizing principle of the #NeverTrump movement isn’t simply that Republicans should deny Donald Trump their presidential nomination, as Marco Rubio has it, but that they should also deny him the presidency should he prevail in the primary.
Some conservatives’ implicit willingness to essentially throw the race for the White House should Trump become their party’s nominee has understandably raised questions about how thoroughgoing and enduring their opposition to him will prove to be. The other Republican candidates are still promising to support Trump in the general election, and presumably some stalwart-seeming #NeverTrumpers will fall into line as well.
Another, better reason to doubt that #NeverTrump is more than a strategic effort to defeat Trump in the primary—rather than in the general election—can be found in the Senate, where #NeverTrump sentiment is about to come into exquisite tension with the Republican Party’s determination to deny President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee a fair hearing.
The tactics #NeverTrump conservatives demand of Senate Republicans are of a piece with the reactionary maximalism that gave rise to the Trump phenomenon in the first place. The person who will determine whether this final act of resistance to Obama will hold together is Iowa’s Chuck Grassley, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, and thus controls whether Obama’s nominee will receive confirmation hearings, fair or otherwise. Grassley faces reelection this year and will likely be running against a formidable Democratic opponent. Obama is reportedly vetting Jane Kelly, an appellate court judge from Iowa whom Grassley has praised effusively in the past. So there’s a great deal of countervailing pressure on Grassley to break ranks from the rest of the GOP—including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who holds that the next president should get to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court.
How is Grassley responding to that pressure? By arguing in essence that not confirming Obama’s nominee is a compromise between liberal forces who want the seat filled according to custom and the forces of reaction that “come to my town meetings and say, ‘Why don’t you impeach those justices?’”
This is a microcosm of the Republican Party’s broader failure to cope with Obama’s presidency—which in turn gave rise to Trump, on whose behalf Grassley will apparently risk his Senate seat, fighting to hold the Supreme Court vacancy open for him. Confronted for seven years with wild-eyed derangement about all things Obama, Republicans have responded by indulging rather than disclaiming it.
Grassley was the most prominent senator to vouchsafe the lie that the Affordable Care Act would contain “death panels.” Four years later, Republicans shut down the government in a show of resistance to the law’s implementation. More recently, Republicans have gotten themselves wrapped around the axle by an anti-Planned Parenthood agitprop campaign, orchestrated by people who are now indicted for tampering with government records.
These episodes of ill-fated intransigence define the Obama-era GOP, and they’ve laid the predicate for Trump to take over the party by promising to be a better fighter. The storylines collide on Capitol Hill, where Republicans, who desperately want to stop Trump, are now effectively united behind the purpose of letting him shape the Supreme Court for a generation.
And just as with the Republicans’ previous kamikaze missions—the government shutdown, the campaign to defund Planned Parenthood—this instance of pandering to reactionaries will also fail spectacularly, when Trump loses the general election in a landslide, and Hillary Clinton fills the open Supreme Court seat with whomever she wants.
Want to hear more about the 2016 primaries? We recommend the most recent episode of our weekly podcast Primary Concerns, hosted by Brian Beutler: