Notwithstanding the very low odds that Donald Trump walks on stage Thursday and declines the Republican presidential nomination (“The Aristocrats!”) he is now no longer “presumptive.”
This is in some sense a formality: Trump crossed the pledged-delegate threshold months ago. By the Republican National Convention’s own rules, he was entitled to the nomination essentially by acclamation. If you squinted hard, you could identify procedural mechanisms the party could use to deny him the nomination. But there were never anywhere near enough people in the party interested in or willing to stage a coup to take their plotting seriously.
But simply by existing, these technicalities created a focal point for conservative #NeverTrump activists, which allowed them to avoid the central dilemma facing their movement: not how to deny Trump the Republican nomination, but how to deny him the presidency. And that’s why the GOP’s formal recognition of Trump’s months-old victory is so important. It forces anti-Trump conservatives to decide if and how they’re truly going to join the argument.
Before Tuesday, #NeverTrump was largely an emblem of virtue for conservatives who didn’t want themselves or their movement to be tarnished with Trump’s vulgarity. Now it’s a test of whether they’ll actually put higher ideals before power and party.
The activists I have in mind aren’t by and large GOP officials or delegates; they aren’t people who registered their opposition to Trump with lame and quickly forgotten convention-floor antics, knowing they’ll fall into line eventually. These are party actors, people like The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol and conservative activist Erick Erickson, who claim they will oppose Trump to the bitter end.
Until now, they’ve been able to deflect questions about their bottom-line conception of #NeverTrump behind process issues: How can Trump be stopped? Who will step up to launch a third-party campaign? How many more delegates do we need to get the convoluted convention coup process started?
For all their earnestness, this was a choreographed and heavily indulgent performance of group auto-fellatio. The theater of principle, a facade that allowed them to pretend, #NeverTrump or no, that Trump and Hillary Clinton are comparable evils.
It was a stalling tactic. For months now, the three real questions for #NeverTrump have been about the the months between the conventions and the election:
1. Can you admit that the hate debt the right has built up at Clinton’s expense over the past 25 years has largely been artifice? That at the end of the day, she is a conventional politician, in the mainstream of her party, whose leadership the country can survive?
2. If not, can you bring yourselves to encourage conservatives to stay home, or vote for Libertarian Gary Johnson in November, even at the risk of a Clinton presidency?
3. Or, are you using #NeverTrump as a slogan of self-absolution, a bragging right that carries with it no real civic duties? Are you a faker?
It’s possible that come mid-August, Clinton will open up an insurmountable lead and relieve #NeverTrump of the obligation to take actual steps to deny him the presidency. But if she doesn’t, then #NeverTrump can no longer hide behind technicalities. One way or another, the movement will have to take a stand.