It’s a topic I hesitate to write about, since there’s nothing that annoys politically informed people more than overestimating the impact of the Never Trump Republicans (or ex-Republicans) who are already overrepresented in the punditocracy, including such key precincts as cable TV and the op-ed pages of the New York Times. But four years after Donald Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party, it is probably a good time to get some perspective on Never Trumpers and their significance. Perry Bacon Jr. gives us a good start at FiveThirtyEight:
Anti-Donald Trump activism among conservatives — known informally as the “#NeverTrump” movement — started in early 2016 as a way to stop the businessman from winning the GOP nomination. It failed.
Even by the slightly broader standard of influencing Republican politics, #NeverTrump has been largely unsuccessful …
But “Never Trumpers” are increasingly involved in the Democratic Party and have gradually shifted their tactics in that direction — effectively becoming a “Never Trump” and “Never Bernie Sanders” coalition. And they appear to be having more success shaping their new party than the one that many of them had been associated with for much of their lives.
So Bacon does not treat this high-profile tribe (whose membership includes media figures Joe Scarborough, Bill Kristol, Max Boot, Jennifer Rubin, David Brooks, George Will, and many others) as they were once widely regarded, as representatives of a sort of permanent conservative aristocracy that would outlive Trumpism and rise again in some future — perhaps near future — GOP. Recognizing that the Republican Party’s heart, soul, and membership now belong to POTUS, Bacon regards Never Trumpers as having largely made the transition from one party to the other. And in that respect, they represent not the small number of GOP holdouts quietly resisting Trump, but the voters who have defected as Trump replaced George W. Bush and Mitt Romney as the definer of Republican (and conservative movement) orthodoxy. And whether or not their numbers justify the heavy presence of Never Trumpers in the commentariat, these defectors are a real phenomenon:
11 percent of Republicans switched their party affiliation between December 2015 and March 2017, according to Pew …
[I]t is possible that 5 to 10 percent of the people who will vote for Biden in November backed either Romney in 2012 or Trump in 2016 and at some point identified as conservative or Republican. So while “Never Trump” conservatives are a smaller and less formal constituency in the Democratic Party than black voters, for example, some of them feel exiled from a Republican Party dominated by Trump, backed Democrats in the 2018 midterms and participated in the 2020 Democratic primaries. Michael Halle, a strategist on Buttigieg’s campaign, said about 50 of the campaign’s county precinct captains in Iowa were former Republicans who changed their party registration to become Democrats so they could participate in the caucuses and back the former mayor.
At the elite level, Bacon’s right in observing the active role Never Trumpers played in warning Democrats to eschew Bernie Sanders. It’s less clear that they spoke for a sizable body of swing voters who were prepared to vote for anybody but Bernie against Trump. There is some evidence that a lot of the upscale suburban voters who gave Democrats some of their most notable 2018 gains joined African-Americans in the coalition Joe Biden put together to beat Sanders on Super Tuesday and subsequent primaries. So perhaps Never Trumpers do represent, as Bacon suggests, a new Democratic Party faction serving as a not-so-heavy counterweight to the better known progressive tendency. More likely they are simply merging into the Donkey Party’s preexisting moderate wing.
By and large, these people, at both the elite and grassroots level, resemble the neoconservatives of the 1970s and 1980s. Before “neoconservatism” became associated with a specific GOP foreign-policy school of the early-21st century (mostly identified with the failed military enterprise in Iraq), it referred to a group of disgruntled Democratic thinkers and movers who gradually abandoned their party over an assortment of cultural and foreign-policy grievances. The classic definition was offered by Bill Kristol’s father, Irving, a former leftist who quipped that a neoconservative was “a liberal mugged by reality.” The classic neoconservative leader was Jean Kirkpatrick, an adviser to old-school liberal Democratic presidential candidates Hubert Humphrey and Scoop Jackson, who gradually left the Democratic Party during the Carter administration and eventually became a key figure (as ambassador to the United Nations, and as 1984 Republican Convention keynote speaker) in the Reagan administration.
As Anthony Elghossain explained recently, the original neocons weren’t just hawkish conservatives:
Remaining relatively liberal on social and economic issues and rejecting conservatives’ isolationist impulses, these neocons — and some younger, internationalist hawks such as Richard Perle — spent the 1970s in a space occupied by Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson. They wanted to engage the world, not “come home.” They wanted to confront, not contain or compromise with, communists. And they wanted to apply American power to pursue interests and ideals abroad.
Like the Never Trumpers, the neocons represented an actual body of voters — particularly strongly anti-communist Catholics and white Southerners — drifting from the Democratic to the Republican Party. Like the Never Trumpers, they had some associates (notably Daniel Patrick Moynihan) who could not bring themselves to abandon the Old Faith. And there’s some tangible links between the older band of heretics and the new (e.g., Max Boot and the Kristol family).
Perhaps Never Trumpers will, like the neocons did, melt into their new party and eventually lose their identity, if not their history. Even in the short term, a narrative of 2020 that emphasizes such discrete developments as migrations between parties is likely to be swept away in the tide of pandemic and depression. But at the moment, Never Trumpers do offer some fresh impetus to the nonprogressive Democrats who are, for the moment, in charge of the urgent task of ridding the nation of Donald Trump. If they succeed, there will be many new questions about the future direction of both parties.