What causes people to draw ethical lines and purport to stand on principle? In February 2016, as it became clearer and clearer that Donald Trump was on track to win the nomination of the Republican Party for president, some of its elites took fright. The hashtag #NeverTrump “blew up” on social media, Robert P. Saldin and Steven M. Teles remark in their new book, when the host of The Apprentice won endorsements from the likes of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, his beaten foe in the primaries, and Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, his future attorney general. Suddenly the bad joke of the Republican primary was anything but funny.
Claiming to be torn between principle and loyalty to their party, Never Trumpers rose above the usual careerist opportunism and short-term gain, Saldin and Teles believe. Democracy itself was at stake. In the face of populism, an assortment of normally gray and straitlaced national security experts, political operatives, and “public intellectuals” (scare quotes for those unsure Jonah Goldberg and Kevin D. Williamson should count) felt called upon to go rogue. They could not shirk the grave responsibility of the moment: Sacrificing their influence in their own party, they resolved to criticize its leader from the outside in hopes of winning it back. Aiming to save the country from ruin, some even voted for Hillary Clinton.
We should pity these upstanding few, Saldin and Teles insist: Understanding them requires grasping how difficult a time 2016 was to be a principled conservative. And it is in part because the risks to their careers were so substantial that those who volunteered to defend basic values deserve our thanks. Even if the Never Trumpers failed in the short term—both in the Republican presidential primary and in the general election in November 2016—they may yet cast the die for the sustenance of American democracy for the future. Or at least this is how the principals in this drama, in interviews with Saldin and Teles, tell the tale of their righteous campaign for democracy itself.
“The louder he talked of his honor,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once drily remarked of a self-promoting guest, “the faster we counted our spoons.” The Never Trumpers’ account of their own movement in its early years is, not surprisingly, self-congratulatory and incomplete. They claim they were attempting to save the soul of conservatism and set up a bulwark against tyranny. In fact, their brand of conservatism had long been tarnished, and they gained little traction within their own party for that reason. Instead, they would join with centrist Democrats, exercising greater power against a growing egalitarian and noninterventionist left than they would ever wield against the extreme right.
Saldin and Teles are fellows at the Niskanen Center, a think tank founded in 2015 to advance a kind and gentle form of economic libertarianism and that has become a base for Never Trump advocacy. Niskanen stands for bleeding-heart libertarianism: The center’s devotion to free markets and warnings against an encroaching state are offset by its acknowledgment that the climate and the poor will not save themselves. In the Trump era, it has provided a counterpoint to the crackpot policies that Trump epitomized, especially by steering far clear of the nationalist-populism—of Missouri Senator Josh Hawley or genteel scribe Yoram Hazony—that other conservatives have tried to present as the fancy philosophy of his erratic rule.
Exceptionally close to the Never Trump insurgency, Saldin and Teles take a cozy approach to their study of this movement and its central characters, faithfully drawing on their accounts of the rise of Trump. They start with the national security experts—figures such as former National Security Council staffers Peter Feaver and Philip Zelikow. Officially, this stalwart crew feared that Trump threatened the Cold War national security consensus that had once led conservatives beyond geopolitical “isolationism.” Views once safely quarantined to the libertarian or racist fringes of their party were now getting a second look, they worried.
Their concern here was hardly disinterested: More important than anything else for them was that Trump was breaking the taboo within the Republican Party that forbade calling the Iraq War a gross error. When Trump said on the South Carolina debate stage in February 2016 that George W. Bush’s invasion had been “a big, fat mistake,” Republicans shuddered in horror. Like many others, Bush’s speechwriter Marc Thiessen thought such comments were suicide in a military-friendly state. But Trump’s comments helped him. “Strange as it may be to hear,” Never Trump ex-Republican and journalist Jay Nordlinger later reflected, “the current president of the United States—a hero of the Republican party and the conservative movement—has the same view of the Bush administration and the Iraq War as the hard Left.”
To their credit, Saldin and Teles get one national security specialist in the Never Trump movement to admit that he consciously angled to make an early act of resistance seem like anything but a defense of reckless warmongering. In August 2016, he released an open letter for wide media circulation, arguing that Trump was beyond the pale for a storied party. When he started to collect the signatures of former Republican officials, he strategically left out neoconservative “prince of darkness” Richard Perle and former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, both architects of the Iraq War. This move did not stop New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd observing that the Never Trumpers’ fear—that Trump would “make America less safe” and “diminish our standing in the world”—was already a reality created by the establishment’s foreign policy.
In retrospect, it is hard to figure out what the 2016 Never Trump fuss was about in national security circles. Trump’s foreign policy since his election, after all, is at least as much a story of continuity with the Beltway consensus and Republican traditions as one of rupture. In many respects, Trump merely extended longtime bromides of right-wing foreign policy, like opposition to the Iran deal or the Paris climate accord, and support for anti-democratic forces globally, including the Israeli far right. True, Trump sidled up to a wider circle of dictators than was fashionable even in Cold War Washington, D.C., but it was a move from a bit less to a bit more rather than from consistent advocacy for democracy to its opposite. The friendship of George H.W. Bush and his clan with Saudi royalty over the decades is not that different from Jared Kushner’s relationship with tarnished wunderkind Mohammad bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince and thuggish de facto ruler of the country, even if the two communicate by text.
The other would-be heroes that Saldin and Teles interview are political operatives who run campaigns and staff bureaucracies; magazine writers and newspaper columnists who offer apologetics for friends and condemnation for enemies; and some academic economists and lawyers. Members of each of these groups report experiencing Trump’s boorishness as an insult to their own intellectual standing. Never Trumpism “can’t be superficially intellectualized as policy dispute,” Zelikow explains. “He’s disgusting,” curtly observes Bush speechwriter (and now Atlantic writer) David Frum, who introduced the phrase “axis of evil” to the language—as if the fact that Trump is a skunk proved that the politics of Republicans before were a garden party. “Politics isn’t just a matter of getting the policy you want,” Bret Stephens sententiously tells Saldin and Teles. “Politics is also about culture and values.… Do I have to sit there and read Allan Bloom to these motherfuckers?”
But it’s difficult to believe that Trump’s character foibles and edgy nativism are supposed to explain the hatred for him. The notion that the same crew that promoted Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin as standard-bearers of American conservatism has always demanded exemplary leaders is laughable. American conservatives have never entirely cordoned off the toxic forces in their own coalitions—the antisemites, patriarchs, and racists—especially after the Republican electoral base moved south in the 1960s. Some Never Trumpers, like newly minted Washington Post columnist Max Boot, feigned horror in discovering what the conservative movement had been doing all along. Ross Douthat, the New York Times writer and soft Never Trumper, concedes to Saldin and Teles that many Republicans have long practiced a “willing blindness” about the centrality of race-baiting as an election and governance strategy.
A better theory of the origins of Never Trumpism is that it was a political bet that Trump would lose in the general election if not in the primaries. Those who made that bet had to own it when it didn’t work out. It is true enough that many Never Trumpers have forgone opportunities in the short term. (Others ultimately compromised, like neoconservative Elliott Abrams, who is now special representative for Venezuela, or considered doing so, like Eliot Cohen, who melodramatically vacillated about whether conservatives should serve in the administration, consulting with Trump’s team just to be sure.) But it was rarely because of a moral objection: Never Trumpers were, Saldin and Teles observe in passing, “positioning themselves for the future,” when they believed the party would again look to them for guidance.
It is here that Saldin and Teles themselves slide into a bit too much rationalization. Many of the Never Trump sages they interview have, after all, spent their careers compromising on the purity of their policy visions, insisting on working within a political system that requires leaders who cut deals, organize coalitions, and win votes. These are not people known for ethical probity, and they regard those who carp about compromise from outside as naïve and unsophisticated, incapable of understanding that action requires connivance with power. Saldin and Teles imply that this very fact might make the Never Trump reach for purity even more honorable.
Far from choosing exile, and suffering for their sins, Never Trumpers were plotting the most plausible course toward their own promised land of influence and power. Despite the commitment they professed to the Republican Party, they would have been quite happy, as many now admit to Saldin and Teles, to see Hillary Clinton win. It did not strike them as a significant setback for conservatism. “The other side gets its turn and they screw up,” allowing the normal tag team of elites to continue, one source remarks. What shocked them, after Trump won the general election, was that their plan to start rebuilding the party after so patiently waiting their turn would not pay off anytime soon.
And whether or not the Never Trumpers would return to power sooner or later, their focus on the president allowed them to evade any responsibility for their party’s descent, rather than reflecting on why their own politics had proved unappealing to a majority of voters. The architects of “deadlocked government, subprime debt, offshored jobs, unrestrained corporate power and compromised legislature that made Trump seem a credible candidate to millions of Americans,” as writer Pankaj Mishra has put it, never saw any reason to own up to their share of the political mess. For Never Trumpers, a vote for Trump was a betrayal of democracy itself—not a judgment on policies that left many Americans scrambling to make ends meet and seeking refuge in a politics of rejection.
With Trump elected president, the Never Trumpers presented themselves as politically homeless. Yet they were quickly welcomed with open arms by liberals. Onetime enemies of progressive orthodoxies like conservative Beltway lawyer George Conway and former Commentary hate specialist–turned–Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin—not to mention Republican government officials like James Comey and Robert Mueller—became liberal icons. With new friends on the other side of the aisle, this coalition pushed to have the president removed from office from the start. They did much to define the focus of American politics for the next four years, from the Mueller inquiry to impeachment.
Whatever Sturm und Drang the Never Trumpers inspired on these fronts, they have done more damage to the left wing of the Democratic Party than they have to the powerful extreme right of their own party. From Trump’s Inauguration Day onward, Never Trumpers have written a script of defending the status quo ante, by delegitimating alternatives to it. They joined a coalition of liberals for whom free-market depredations and imperial violence were acceptable parts of doing America’s business, but left-wing mobilization was seen as part of a Weimar-style harbinger of regime collapse, and a living wage and universal health insurance were totalitarian equivalents of racist marches and travel bans.
This agenda made it easy for the Never Trumpers to pivot from hating Trump to hating Bernie Sanders: “The Republican party allowed Donald Trump to capture it in 2016,” William Kristol remarked as a self-appointed counselor to Democrats. “It would be bad if Democrats went down a parallel path. America deserves better than a choice between an authoritarian populist of the right and a socialist populist of the left.” Sanders’s decline had many causes, including his own mistakes, but it definitely mattered that the Never Trump script treated him as mirror image of Trump, and as equally perilous for “democracy”—and that many a liberal embraced this idea.
In the heat of the campaign, one New York Times editorial board member asked Sanders “how you flying around the country in 2021 rallying the people would be different than what Donald Trump has been doing?” As Sanders began to surge, another of the newspaper’s staffers remarked forebodingly that “people dismissing the possibility of Bernie” were “the very same people who dismissed the possibility of Trump,” as if there were any real similarity between a longtime senator and a reality television host. The evidence is mixed so far on whether Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is leaning more to the center or left—likely, he is doing a little of both. But we will be burned badly if the effect of his campaign is to allow Never Trump assumptions about foreign policy and political economy to set the terms of future policy.
It is a pity—the biggest shortcoming of their book—that Saldin and Teles do not discuss what their subjects have been doing since 2016, an era in which the Never Trumpers have enjoyed a smashing victory with their faux-nostalgic call for “normalcy” and restoration. Launching their book in The Atlantic, Saldin and Teles remark that Never Trump Republicans have been “rehabilitated” by mainstream Democrats in a way that was “once unthinkable,” adding that big donors like billionaire Seth Klarman have funded a centrist alliance to establish a “patriotic” and “pragmatic” defense against the renascent left, too. They do not detail all the Never Trump work that has gone into helping centrist liberals win their struggle against the left in the Democratic Party, a form of power even if they never get their party back.
While Saldin and Teles are right that the Never Trump phenomenon will have lasting effects, those effects are not the ones they propose. Its significance, even if it was born on the right, is that it succeeded overwhelmingly in a centrist containment of the left. Its historic role turns out to be not among Republicans so far, but within a Democratic Party whose members have chosen to convert enemies into friends, setting up a guardrail against the capture of their party by the left. The legacy of Never Trump so far is stopping progress, rather than saving democracy.