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Can the Never Trumpers Deliver the Goods in 2020?

Emboldened and organized, disaffected Republicans are in a position to prove that they can oust the president and reform their party.

Doug Mills/Getty Images

The Republicans dedicated to the defeat of Donald Trump—known as “Never Trumpers”—are enjoying a moment of renewed interest in their cause. They are among the president’s sharpest critics, and many hold prominent positions as columnists for The Washington Post, The New York Times, and other publications. Although those on the left welcome their assistance in defeating Trump, some are also skeptical of them, fearing they want more than just a repudiation of Trumpism; they may also want to move the Democratic Party rightward to a more moderate position on key issues.

A new book, Never Trump: The Revolt of the Conservative Elites, by the political scientists Robert P. Saldin of the University of Montana and Steve M. Teles of Johns Hopkins, provides some insights.

They argue that the Never Trumpers have undergone a significant transformation since 2016. Before the election, many opposed Trump not so much because they found his policy positions abhorrent, but because they supported rival GOP candidates or thought Trump was unelectable. But they were also alienated from Trump by his rejection of policy advice from the Republican Party’s intellectualsacademics, think tank scholars, and others who saw themselves as the principal source of the party’s policy ideas.

After the election, 2016’s Never Trumpers split: Some made peace with Trump, perhaps reluctantly, or because he was good enough on the issues they really cared about. Republican legal scholars, for example, have been delighted by Trump’s appointments to the federal bench. However, other Never Trumpers became so disgusted by his performance in office that they left the Republican Party altogether. Once one leaves the GOP, one is not really a Never Trumper anymorethat term implies a critic from within the party. And once such dissidents have moved outside the party, there is little to distinguish them from Democrats except for their pedigree.

For this reason, the Never Trump opposition within the GOP basically collapsed after the election. Political consultant Liz Mair, a leader of the Never Trumpers in 2016, pronounced the movement dead in early 2019, when it failed to recruit a viable candidate to oppose Trump for the GOP nomination in 2020.

David Azerrad of the conservative Heritage Foundation saw the collapse of the Never Trump movement as the fading of a small dissenting faction that was little more than a chimera in the first place: “NeverTrumpism only still exists because the Left finds it useful to add a sprinkling of ‘conservative’ anti-Trump vitriol to its progressive anti-Trump vitriol,” Azerrad argues. “At this point, it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish the NeverTrumpers who claim to be on the Right from the anti-Trumpers on the Left.”

If the Never Trumpers were just a bunch of frustrated columnists, there wouldn’t be much reason to be concerned about them. But in fact, Never Trumpers now constitute a sizable voting bloc that Democrats would be foolish to alienate. There is good reason to believe that they can become part of their coalition with the right approach.

The best analysis of Never Trumper voters has been done by the political scientists Michael Barber and Jeremy Pope, both of Brigham Young University. Their article, “Conservatism in the Age of Trump,” appears in the September 2019 issue of Perspective on Politics, a journal published by the American Political Science Association.

They define Never Trumpers as people who identify themselves as Republicans but voted against Trump in the 2016 primaries and also against him in the general election. Back then, they represented about 10 percent of the Republican electorate. By and large, Barber and Pope find these voters to be moderates, by Republican standards. They tend to be younger, wealthier, and better educated than the hard-core Trump supporters who voted for him in both the primaries and the general election.

The average Never Trumper had an income in the $70,000 to $80,000 range, while the strong Trump supporter earned an annual income between $50,000 to $60,000. The former was likely to have a degree from a four-year college, while the latter only had some college and no degree. The average Never Trumper was 49 years old, while a strong Trump supporter boasted an average age of 59. And Never Trumpers were likely to be employed full-time, while hard-core Trump supporters were more likely to be retired.

Confusingly, the authors note that Trump was viewed by many Republicans as the more moderate candidate among those running for the GOP nomination in 2016. One would have thought that many in the Never Trumper camp might have been attracted to him for that reason. In fact, his electoral support came mainly from among those identifying as strong conservatives, while the Never Trumpers voted for Hillary Clinton.

Of course, the idea that Trump is any sort of moderate is absurd today, but in 2016, it was notparticularly when viewed from a Republican perspective. For example, according to a May 2016 article in The New York Times on Trump’s apostasy from Republican doctrine, he supported a higher minimum wage and gun control, opposed cuts to entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare, and his policies on trade and immigration aligned more closely with those of progressives than conservatives. (Conservatives favored unfettered free trade and a liberal policy on immigration.)

Other issues on which Trump dissented from Republican orthodoxy included gay rights, pay for corporate CEOs, foreign policy, prescription drugs, taxes, and the Iraq War (though Trump typically lied about opposing the war at the time the invasion of Iraq was underway). Trump was so far off the right-wing reservation on the legacy of the Iraq invasion that, in February 2016, former Vice President Dick Cheney said, “He sounds like a liberal Democrat to me.”

Indeed, the political scientists Doug Ahler of Florida State University and David Broockman of Berkeley argued in a 2016 article that “Trump meets the textbook definition of an ideological moderate.”

Obviously, that perception was seriously mistaken. Trump has turned out to be the most right-wing president in American history, with a governing philosophy that moves closer and closer to pure fascism every day. For this reason, it’s reasonable to assume that Never Trump voters from 2016 are unlikely to return to the Republican fold this year. The interesting question is whether they can be induced to become a permanent part of the Democratic coalition once Trump is gone.

We don’t have any polling on these voters yet, but we do know what Never Trump writers think, in part because Saldin and Teles interviewed a number of them. While few are ready to reject conservatism altogether, some are dipping their toes into left-leaning political waters.

It’s hard to find a clear-cut case of a Never Trumper adopting progressive policy positions. Frankly, I think many don’t really know very much about what progressives actually believe; as movement conservatives, the Never Trumpers probably spent decades simply accepting the right-wing caricature of the left as naïve on foreign policy, weak on national defense, socialists on domestic policy, and obsessed with identity politics.

Columnist Mona Charen, a prominent Never Trumper, explained to Saldin and Teles how people tend to wall themselves off from progressive opinions when they’re aligned with the conservative movement: “Once you’re on a team, and you are engaged with other people who think like you and you all read the same books and you reinforce one another, you come to believe in the good faith of the people that you know and that you’ve learned from and that you’re dealing with. You believe they are right.… If they’re in a fight with somebody on the left, I’m going to be inclined to believe that my guy has the better of it and the guy on the left is all wet and his arguments are not valid because my guy is the good guy. He’s my guy.”

The fact is that acquiring knowledge and information is costly, and it’s very easy to contract out one’s beliefs on subjects outside one’s areas of interest to designated allies on one’s ideological team. This is essentially what political parties doform coalitions with disparate interests and points of view, win elections, and work to implement policies amenable to members of the coalition.

But sometimes an issue comes along, overarching in its importance, that forces people to reassess their team loyalties. For many Never Trumpers, that issue is race. As Saldin and Teles put it, “For some Never Trump conservatives, race became the entry point from which to reassess their entire relationship to the conservative movement.” In his book, The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right, Washington Post columnist Max Boot lists racism first among the various reasons he broke with the conservative movement.

It’s too soon to say whether Trump’s recent outbursts of racism in response to demonstrations demanding reform of the police, following horrific cases of killings and excessive uses of force against African Americans, will accelerate growth of the nascent Never Trump movement. But at least the movement is getting organized.

The Lincoln Project is a prominent home to Never Trump political strategists and consultants, and it often gets under Trump’s skin with skillfully crafted videos. The Niskanen Center is a think tank dedicated to fighting wrongheaded right-wing ideas on the environment and other issues. Some Never Trumpers are even looking to host a counter convention to the GOP convention this summer. Growing numbers of Republicans are either endorsing Joe Biden or pointedly refusing to endorse Trump.

It remains to be seen whether the Never Trumpers will gain strength from Trump’s defeat or dissipate once the crusade that brought them together is—God willing—finally accomplished. Saldin and Teles think many will stay in the GOP and try to reform it from within. In that scenario, a strong Never Trumper contingent could hold the balance of power among the party’s various factions, as in a parliamentary democracy. As a onetime conservative who broke with the GOP prior to Trump’s rise, I am skeptical but hopeful.