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Don’t Blame Never Trumpers for the Left’s Defeat

Anti-Trump conservatives didn’t bring down Bernie Sanders. There are other forces pulling the Democratic Party to the center.

Drew Angerer / Getty Images
Representative James Clyburn helped deliver South Carolina for Joe Biden in the state’s primary in February.

The failure of Bernie Sanders to take control of the Democratic Party in the 2020 primaries was understandably traumatic for the American left. Having rapidly ascended from seeming irrelevance to surging media attention and organizing in just a few years, many democratic socialists convinced themselves that their moment had come.

Sanders’s loss to—of all people—Joe Biden, therefore, came as a kind of cosmic joke. How could it possibly be that a near-octogenarian, whose greatest legislative achievements were pro-creditor bankruptcy reform and the 1994 crime bill, would defeat the left?

There was an obvious explanation, of course. If you’re looking for the person who stopped the Democratic Party’s movement to the left in 2020, that man is Congressman Jim Clyburn. It was South Carolina, under Clyburn’s leadership, that turned the tide, and it was the stubborn support of Biden by the older, more Southern, more church-going parts of the African American community that denied Sanders the nomination.

But for the democratic socialists working to make sense of Sanders’s loss, there must be a more psychologically comforting culprit. Yale professor Samuel Moyn, in his recent review in The New Republic of our book Never Trump, thinks he has found one: Republican opponents of Donald Trump. Moyn writes that “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.” Yet he provides little actual evidence that the Never Trumpers “mattered” other than his assertions of their media influence. A few talking heads on cable TV seems like a strange explanation for the behavior of largely African American voters in Greenville and Beaufort, which, given the rhythm of the primary, is the thing to be explained. The Never Trumpers may make an appealing scapegoat for the left, but the far more obvious explanation for Sanders’s loss is the simple fact that the Democratic Party is just not composed of enough voters (including, but not limited to, African Americans) willing to provide a majority for democratic socialism, at least in larger turnout elections.

Moyn’s essential claim is that we served as easily duped mouthpieces for the Never Trumpers. “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.” What Moyn characterized as “coziness,” we think of as a rigorous, scholarly effort to try to convey the—inevitably partial—perspective of our sources. We believe that the Never Trumpers cannot be understood outside of the professional networks with which they were affiliated. Moyn made only a passing reference to the central conceptual move in the book, which is to understand the Never Trumpers as providers of professional services to the Republican Party. The Never Trumpers we devote our attention to were the kinds of people who provide policy expertise and key staff posts in GOP administrations, the political pros who run campaigns, and the public intellectuals who provide ideas and guard the intellectual boundaries of conservatism. Each of these professional networks has its own unique story to tell in the Never Trump saga. Had we simply engaged in some armchair theorizing without actually delving into these networks, we would never have been able to grasp many of the key factors that caused lifelong conservatives to oppose a nominee of their own party.  

Across these various professional networks, a unifying theme emerged—both in our interviews as well as in the contemporaneous materials we drew on, most notably a private email chain of national security experts discussing a group statement denouncing Trump. His Republican opponents have consistently told us—and told themselves—that Trump is unacceptable because he is erratic, psychologically unstable, ignorant, demagogic, dishonorable, and possessed of a disturbing sympathy for the nation’s adversaries. Ideology and policy played a lesser role than did character. Their obsessive focus on character may, in fact, be a fatal flaw in the Never Trumpers, causing them to devote inordinate time to the president’s manifest defects rather than developing alternative ideas and policies for a non-Trumpy faction within the Republican party. Ironically, Moyn argues that “it’s difficult to believe that Trump’s character foibles and edgy nativism are supposed to explain the [Never Trumpers’] hatred for him” when it is precisely the fact that they (with a few notable exceptions, such as David Frum, Yuval Levin, and our compatriots at the Niskanen Center) are so focused on those “foibles” that they’ve failed to productively engage in the ideological warfare that Moyn seems to believe fundamentally motivates them.

Given that perhaps excessive focus on Trump (and his apologists), it is puzzling that Moyn takes us to task for failing to lay bare “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.” To this claim we can only say that we sincerely wish that Never Trumpers had done such consequential work. Unfortunately, they have not been nearly as engaged in the actual contest for control of either party as we wish they had been. Most of their energy has been focused on cross-partisan efforts to defend democratic institutions and defeat Trump in the 2020 election, rather than on building the moderate wing of the Democratic Party or an organized faction within the GOP with the power to check Trump’s (presumably) more competent successors.

There is no question that many Never Trumpers have much to answer for in their pre-2016 careers, and we have significant criticisms of how they have devoted their energies since the election. But we also believe that both scholars and political activists are more effective when they strive to imagine what the world looks like to those in situations quite different from their own, rather than projecting motivations onto them from afar. Real, flawed, flesh-and-blood people with diverse circumstances and histories, seeking to find direction in radically unfamiliar circumstances are, we think, far more interesting and more surprising than straw men.