Donald Trump is obviously the most important factor shaping the future of the Republican Party. But the second most important factor, albeit a distant second, is the phenomenon of “Never Trump.” Never have so many members of a party’s intellectual establishment been so thoroughly alienated by a victorious presidential candidate flying their own standard.
In their book, Never Trump: The Revolt of the Conservative Elites, political scientists Robert Saldin and Steven Teles provide a masterful dissection of this diffuse and variegated movement. They analyze five sectors of the Republican establishment—foreign policy experts, political operatives, public intellectuals, lawyers, and economists—to show why many were repulsed by Trump and what they have tried to do to stop him. The authors are not conservatives themselves but are sympathetic to these people on the right—sometimes too sympathetic. They do not fully describe the way Never Trumpers’ own failures of analysis, past and present, have hobbled their movement. But they beautifully capture how each group is unhappy in its own way.
Foreign Policy Experts
Republican foreign policy experts are the least partisan of the intellectual groups covered by the authors. These experts share a commitment to internationalism with most Democratic foreign policy experts. They were almost uniformly horrified by Trump’s America First policies, which seemed to be a throwback to the destructive isolationism of the pre-Eisenhower Republican Party. As a result, they were the most vocal in opposing Trump, with hundreds writing an open letter that implicitly called for the election of Hillary Clinton. But they made the least difference. The public does not focus on foreign policy unless a war is big enough to affect domestic politics by dint of substantial expenditure of blood and treasure.
Moreover, as the authors note, much of the Republican foreign policy establishment had been discredited by the Iraq war. They could have also observed that foreign policy experts, particularly Republicans, had also been proven wrong in their belief that communist China could be integrated into the free world through commerce. Trump gained because he highlighted a real global threat that many such experts had downplayed. Even his openness to Russia has a strategic rationale, assuming that China is our principal adversary. Just as Nixon went to China in 1971 to counterbalance the Soviet Union, a calculated tempering of tensions with Russia may well advance our long-term geopolitical interest in containing a still rising communist power.
The Republican establishment that runs political campaigns thought Trump was a complete joke, in part because he did not try to hire anyone from the establishment to run his campaign. The authors do not, in my view, make enough of these political operatives’ blindness. Operatives are paid to understand politics and they missed the power of celebrity in a media-driven culture, particularly a celebrity whose most famous slogan, “You’re fired!” was tailor-made to boost a quintessential outsider campaign.
But many Republican campaign consultants continued to oppose Trump (often privately) not just because they were confident he would lose, but because his campaign violated their view of how to make the Republican party viable in a nation whose demographics were becoming less white. Following the so-called “autopsy” that the Republican National Committee conducted after Mitt Romney’s 2012 defeat, the operatives thought there needed to be an opening to Hispanics, particularly through a more generous immigration policy. But Trump’s major campaign promise was to restrict immigration, often expressed in crude terms.
Here again, political operatives may be blind to the way culture shapes politics. Considered in purely electoral terms, substantial immigration by low-income workers makes much more sense for a center-right, market-friendly party in an assimilationist nation without a substantial welfare state. The immigrants attracted will all be strivers and will vote Republican as they move up the income scale. But we no longer have that culture, and it seems likely that many immigrants will be swept up in the politics of identity and the welfare state, and will therefore keep voting Democratic for the foreseeable future.
As the authors correctly note, public intellectuals have had an important role in creating the policies of the Republican Party since the founding of National Review. And while right-leaning intellectuals disagree among themselves, they were nearly united in horror by Donald Trump. He had taken their party from them. He seemed to undermine the core elements of the center-right consensus, like entitlement reform and free trade. Even those who agreed with him that the party needed to offer more to the working class thought his policies were half-baked. And almost all believed that he lacked the character to be President, particularly because, in the United States, the president is head of state with an important, unifying symbolic role.
While I disagree with some of Trump’s specific policies (particularly on legal immigration, free trade—especially as a mechanism to bind nations in an alliance against China—and entitlement reform), the public intellectuals are correct that his public character is his most serious deficiency as president. It deprives the nation of a source of unity in a crisis, as in the coronavirus disaster we are now experiencing. It also discredits Trump’s achievements in such areas as deregulation, corporate tax policy, and judicial appointments among people of goodwill who are angered or depressed by his rhetorical excesses and cheap shots.
While very few conservative lawyers made Trump their first choice in the primaries, relatively few emerged as full-throated Never Trumpers. According to the authors, lawyers are used to defending clients whom they do not necessarily like. They were Republicans, and Trump had become their client. Moreover, in the middle of the campaign, Justice Antonin Scalia died and Trump put out a list of sterling replacements.
Still, some lawyers did become Never Trumpers, in particular a group of academics who put out a letter, Originalists Against Trump. The authors do not, in my view, sufficiently make clear how badly some of the predictions and fears of that letter have held up. The signatories said they did not “trust Trump” to keep his word on judges. Trump, in fact, has been by far the best president in modern times for the appointment of originalists, not only in his Supreme Court appointments but in filling the lower courts as well. If Hillary Clinton had been elected, originalism would have been set back for a generation. But these judges will remain on the bench long after Trump has departed the presidency.
It has also proved doubtful whether their distrust of Trump’s “respect [for] constitutional limits in the rest of his conduct in office” has been vindicated as a reason to oppose his election. Distrust of those who wield executive power should indeed be a watchword of classical liberals. And to be sure, Trump’s attacks on judges are not fitting for a President of the United States. But while that behavior reflects his justly criticized rhetorical performance as head of state, it does not reveal any actual breaches of the law. Life-tenured judges, to their credit, do not seem to pay any attention to him. Indeed, his comments almost surely have backfired, encouraging judges to rule against the administration even when not warranted. Trump also did not act well in the Ukraine matter that led to his impeachment, although in my view his conduct was not illegal. Politicians frequently have predominantly political motives even when exercising their legal authority.
The relevant electoral question, however, was not whether citizens should distrust Trump personally, but whether they should distrust his administration overall relative to that of his opponent, Hillary Clinton. After all, the lawyers in his administration are taken from the same group as his fine judicial appointments. And if the administration of Barack Obama is a good proxy for that of Clinton, it is hardly clear that Trump has proved any less trustworthy in this respect. David Bernstein, for instance, has detailed the many departures from the rule of law in the last Democratic administration.
Indeed, Trump has happily reversed some of the worst departures from the rule of law, like the use of Title IX to deprive students of due process in sexual assault cases on college campuses. He has also moved more generally to assure more due process protections to those targeted by the administrative state. These actions promise to improve justice for many people.
Republican-leaning economists were also not the most vocal of Never Trumpers. The authors offer one amusing reason: Economists tend to see most politicians as liars anyway, and they thought that Trump was merely a low-grade version of the typical product. They dismissed most of his policy proposals as cheap talk. Moreover, many have been impressed by some of his achievements, like corporate tax reform, even as they abhor his opposition to free trade and entitlement reform. I would add that Republican economists are unlikely to be Never Trumpers because they are trained to look at alternatives, and the Democratic candidate was more likely to add to entitlements, ill-considered regulation, and taxation.
The authors conclude by considering the future of Never Trumpers in the Republican Party. They argue that the Republican Party after Trump is likely to become embroiled in factional struggles with an establishment wing that includes Never Trumpers pitted against a populist wing. (The Democrats will have their own factional struggles with newly empowered socialists arrayed against an old-line establishment.) They may well be right in their analysis, but if so, the balance of power between the factions depends on whether Trump is reelected. Over the course of American history, one-term Presidents do not often fundamentally remake their party.