Back in February, when online conservatives first began their unsuccessful campaign to deny Donald Trump the GOP presidential nomination, #NeverTrump meant different things to different people.
To its most cynical adopters, like Senator Marco Rubio, the mantra was little more than a rallying cry for his own ailing campaign—an attempt to harness genuine anti-Trump sentiment on the right, less for the purposes of making Trump’s unfitness for the presidency evident than to press a momentary advantage against Ted Cruz and other Republican rivals. #NeverTrump: Because only one person can be the nominee, and I want to be that person!
Other conservatives interpreted (and continue to interpret) #NeverTrump as a statement of personal ideological boundaries: Trump isn’t a true conservative, and therefore, as a conservative, I can’t support him.
But to the extent that #NeverTrump captured the public imagination at all, it was thanks to a different, largely unspoken, but potentially profound reading of the term: the implicit acknowledgment that Hillary Clinton’s candidacy isn’t abnormal, reckless, or morally irresponsible in the way that Trump’s is. Some of the most influential conservatives in the country were essentially conceding that whatever ideological and moral redlines liberalism confronts them with, Trump losing would be the lesser evil in an election that pitted him against her.
#NeverTrump is now widely considered to be a lost campaign. Not only have anti-Trump activists been unable to recruit a conservative candidate to run on a third-party protest ticket, they’ve failed to convince rank and file Republicans that Trump is a dangerous aberration. On the New Republic podcast “Primary Concerns,” former Jeb Bush spokesman Tim Miller, an adviser to the anti-Trump Our Principles PAC, acknowledged that his group’s efforts would likely cease after the Republican convention in July. Citing a groundswell of lobbyist, donor, and official party support for Trump, Politico declared, “The Never Trump moment is over.”
Perhaps it was destined to fail. But as long as anti-Trump conservatives were unwilling to be forthright about the meaning of the #NeverTrump cause, it never stood a chance.
In his requiem for the anti-Trump movement last week, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat noted that the original argument for the third-party idea was premised entirely on the amoral, strategic view that Trump would be an electoral disaster for Republicans across the country. “When the idea was first kicked around months ago, the main case for a third-party candidate was that the G.O.P. could actually benefit institutionally from an independent anti-Trump campaign—that it would help rescue down-ballot Republicans by giving anti-Trump conservatives a reason to turn out, and it might even help save the Republican brand from being permanently tarnished, permanently Trumpified.”
In hindsight, Douthat notes correctly that this strategic argument didn’t hold up to either the collective action problem (everyone might hope for a sacrificial lamb, but nobody wants to be that lamb) or to the party reunification challenge (the Trump faction would feel robbed and betrayed if thwarted by a third party). But an evident part of the problem is that conservatives disjoined the strategic and moral cases for an anti-Trump protest candidacy—or even a robust anti-Trump conservative movement—and to the extent that they’ve articulated a moral case at all, it is a maddeningly oblique one.
Set aside the gaming-out of post-November scenarios and simply ask the question: Is it a good thing for the country, or for that matter for the world, that our only options in November are Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump? It’s clear that the answer for a great many people remains a resounding “heaven help us, no.”
By “people” here I don’t just mean Bill Kristol or Bernie Sanders’s campaign team or anyone else with a professional stake in stopping Trump or Clinton. I mean the extraordinary numbers of Americans who regard both parties’ likely nominees with a mix of fear, exhaustion and disgust, and whose entirely reasonable sentiments will make Trump-versus-Clinton a battle of the two most reviled nominees in modern presidential history.
The presumption here is that a great disaffected middle despairs at the thought of a binary choice between Clinton and Trump, and that the former is as much a source of the despair as the latter. In reality, and for the most part, this dread consumes only one party. Even absent her ongoing primary campaign against Bernie Sanders, it’s true that Clinton would have unusually high unfavorables for a major party nominee, but nearly all of it would be attributable to a 25 year build up of Republican antipathy. At both the elite and rank and file level, Democrats are overwhelmingly content with the thought of a Clinton presidency, and will become more so as the Democratic primary winds down. In the other party, the story’s much different. Rank and file Republicans may be coming home to their nominee, but nearly the entire GOP elite, including the segment of the elite making peace with Trump, is aghast at his nomination.
The proper case for a robust #NeverTrump effort thus has nothing to do with a weariness about presumptive nominees that transcends ideology. It isn’t about giving the disaffected public a candidate they can vote for in good conscience, but about insuring against the risk that the electorate makes a world historical error. The strategic and moral elements of this case are identical: #NeverTrump is a conservative imperative because Trump can’t be allowed to win the presidency by mistake. Even if denying him the presidency makes Clinton the president-elect by default.
Douthat relegates this central purpose of the anti-Trump movement to an aside between two em-dashes. “If you believe that either choice risks too much, for the republic or the world—or if you merely think that Trump risks too much and that in a head-to-head race he might find a way to win—then by leaving the voters with only those options you are effectively choosing to leave grave evils unopposed.” Hillary Clinton is an unopposed evil only if you believe liberalism is itself an evil and a threat to the constitutional order on par with Trump himself. Some conservatives surely believe that, and are now convinced the country is destined for peril one way or another. But for the sizable faction of the conservative elite that recognizes Clinton is a conventional Democrat, and that the country can survive four or eight more years of Democratic rule, they owe it to the public to be crystal clear about the fact that Trump is a unique threat: Clinton represents the dashed hopes of a conservative policy course correction, but she’s a fundamentally capable steward of the government and Trump is not.
Other conservatives have similar difficulty prosecuting the #NeverTrump case head on. In beseeching his former political bête noire Mitt Romney to run for president again, conservative Erick Erickson writes, “More and more Americans are horrified and disgusted at the thought of voting for either Trump or Clinton,” without betraying the slightest hint that nearly all of these Americans are reliable Republicans—that this is a problem only Republicans can solve. GOP strategist and #NeverTrump PAC adviser Rory Cooper comes much closer when he acknowledges that Trump would be a more destabilizing force in America and the world than Clinton, and quotes Alexander Hamilton’s maxim, “If we must have an enemy at the head of Government, let it be one whom we can oppose, and for whom we are not responsible, who will not involve our party in the disgrace of his foolish and bad measures.”
But even this shades the point too much. The Hamilton allusion is as much an argument for surrendering to Clinton as for preserving the purity of conservatism in exile should Trump ultimately win. Perhaps nobody on the right would’ve run interference against Trump under any circumstances, but none of the potential third-party contenders were ever presented a clear-eyed argument for taking on the task. That argument might go something like this: The GOP elevated a hopelessly unfit strongman to be its presidential nominee; he can’t be allowed to win, under our party’s auspices or any, even if his defeat means Clinton becomes president. We’re unfortunately complicit in 20 years’ worth of right-wing efforts to paint Clinton as a scheming crook, so we must now either confess that we painted a caricature, or figure out a way to launder our role in her victory. A third-party candidate at least gives anti-Clinton dead-enders a more appealing alternative to voting for her or staying home.
The moment for that has probably passed, but the anti-Trump right’s moral obligation to interfere against him hasn’t. How they go about it from this point forward is for them to decide. If it’s too late to put a Romney-type on key state ballots, they can run anti-Trump ads, pressure vulnerable Republicans to speak out against Trump, or press the case that Clinton at the head of divided government is a better outcome for conservatives than a Trump sweep. But as long as they continue to approach the challenge in such a muddied, blinkered way, their efforts will be largely wasted.