“Never Trump” and the New GOP

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.

Political Operatives

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.

The relevant electoral question was not whether citizens should distrust Trump personally, but whether they should distrust his administration overall relative to that of his opponent.

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.

Public Intellectuals

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.

Reader Discussion

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on May 14, 2020 at 08:03:30 am

In a sermon given not long before the election of President Trump, Fr. George Rutler observed: "It is incorrect to say that the coming election poses a choice between two evils. For ethical and aesthetic reasons, there may be some bad in certain candidates, but badness consists in doing bad things. Evil is different; it is the deliberate destruction of truth, virtue and [goodness]. (the term "goodness" is probably more widely understood than Fr. Rutler's category -"holiness") but I may be mistaken about that.

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on May 14, 2020 at 11:08:21 am

I am opposed to Donald Trump because he has a view of government--or possibly am ignorance of the constitutional limits on his powers. He deals with Kim Jong Un as a leader of a legitimate country. North Korea is an area of Korea occupied by the Soviet and Red Chinese opposition to the legitimate government. The United Nations Security Council, in 1950 authorized a "police action" to protect the Korean government and Congress authorized troops to participate in a "peacekeeping operation." So our relationship is as a guarantor of the territorial integrity of the Korean Republic. The nuclear capability of the North is with the encouragement and consent of Red China--whichever factions happen to deal with the area. A ceasefire does not end a state of belligerency. No, Afghanistan is not our longest war, nor the forty years of conflict with the various indigenous nations of the American West. Mr Trumps misunderstanding of this has us sucking up to an illegitimate power with whom we are in a state of belligerency--which some of /us old cold war Republicans look at as treason.

On the economic front, Trump has been using a delegation of powers from the Kennedy era to unilaterally regulate foreign trade, Okay, I may just be a free marketeer who has outlived his relevance. But it was the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act that led to a recession in 1931 which my grandfather in law's cousin Franklin stretched into the longest period of downturn which was masked by extraordinary wartime spending and relieved only by the end of wartime rationing and wage and price controls.

Quite frankly, I see little difference between the National Socialism of Trump and the Soft Socialism of Biden. Biden and Trump (like myself) were born during the period of rationing and wage/price controls. As heir to large amounts of real estate he was somewhat sheltered from the effects of the Depression, but a lot of people saw the effects. With the Pandemic, Trump is essentially buying the 2020 election, but is doing nothing to strengthen the underlying structure.

My Dad's family has a section in the Church Cemetery---up to or possibly in excess of 90 graves--from the 1918 Camp Funston Flu epidemic. Neither Edith Wilson (de facto President) nor Warren G Harding did anything and the country and the post-war recession that accompanied it. And the country recovered. In my puberty and young adulthood, we had polio epidemics, and recovered. So far in this "pandemic" we have added a couple trillion to the National Debt. Is this any different than what Clinton would have done. Since I have not been selected as an elector by either party I will not be casting a vote in December.

In terms of my republican values, I cannot support Trump.

gv8hc8n l / yu

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Earl Haehl
on May 14, 2020 at 14:45:04 pm

This retrospective does not really address the pressing question of what to do about Trump going into this November. I voted for Trump simply because I thought there was no alternative. I knew Trump was a dumb rock but a rock was the only tool available.

It turned out that Trump is nothing more than a dumb rock. Trump and the GOP are not any different from the obviously senile and possibly demented Joe Biden and the DNC. Trump is weak, vacillating and oblivious to the realities of governing. He has a taste for nepotism, war, dissembling and grand and petty corruption that easily match those of the deeply entrenched governing uni-party.

The GOP has usually worked in conjunction with the DNC to highlight his weaknesses and collaborated with the DNC to insure that the US has been without a functioning government for the last three and a half years. The two Supreme Court appoints Trump made can credited solely to McConnell and Federalist Society and do not outweigh the damage the anti-Trump establishment has already done. Trump’s only decent appointment has been William Barr. As I recall, I was suspicious of Barr but either McGinnis or Rogers at L&L were correct; Barr is a gem.

The existing governing regime has proved to be corrupt beyond anything I imagined in November 2016. While Trump exposed it, is beyond doubt that Trump is incapable of doing anything more than that. I do fear that the game is over and we have long since passed the point of no return and our next government will be headed by someone comparable to Commodus, Caligula or Caligula’s horse Icitatus.

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on May 14, 2020 at 15:36:51 pm

The Washington Generals lost over 2400 games consecutively to the Harlem Globetrotters, before they beat them on a last second shot in 1971. Since then, they have not made the same mistake, and have lost consistently over 10,000 times.
There are some parts of the Establishment who expect and desire that the Republican Party be to the Democratic Party as the Generals to the Globetrotters. The media will help determine what king of candidates it is acceptable for the Republicans to offer, and then, having gotten their Goldilocks candidate -- not too conservative, not too centrist -- they will then cheer for the Democrat. And there are both political operatives and public intellectuals who are proud to play for the Generals but who, if not selected for the team, will of course root against it.
But of course we got to this juncture because the Democratic Party has become utterly corrupt, more deeply in the pockets of the billionaire elites than the Republicans of mid-Century ever were, and totally condescending toward the wants and needs of 'working people.' And onto that scene came a personality with considerable experience promoting a sport -- wrestling -- where spectators cheer for the 'heel', the supposed bad guy. If in fact the concerns of 'Middle America' are legitimate, and they need a champion to help them challenge the establishment, then that team cannot be the Washington Generals. We should not feel too sorry for the public intellectuals and political operatives who want their old team back. Let them play for the establishment which they have always been a part of.

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on May 14, 2020 at 16:14:11 pm

This book is irrelevant to understanding the only Never-Trump forces that mattered in 20016: Wall Street, BigBanks, Mega High-Tech, the Business Roundtable, the US Chamber of Commerce, the Republican National Committee, state Republican Committees and incumbent Establishment Republican Governors and Members of Congress and the Senate. None of these powerful forces against Trump is now a strong Trump supporter except the RNC, some of the state Republican committees and a handful of Establishment Republican incumbents, most importantly the House Freedom Caucus.

The book is devoted, instead, to the anti-Trump forces that were and are of de minimis political significance. No one in the Trump Campaign gave a hoot about the Never-Trump foreign policy experts, lawyers, political operatives, public intellectuals and economists. No one cares about them now. Except for the "public intellectuals," the others typically followed the money and the career opportunities and came to support Trump after he was elected. The Heritage Foundation, the Federalist Society and the Conservative Political Action Committee, by far the most politically-important of the "public intellectuals," have tended unofficially to support Trump, with the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society proving to be quiet allies generally, especially on legal matters, while specifically providing significant input on judicial nominees, and with CPAC offering consistent support on conservative politics. Among "public intellectual" publications the Claremont Review, which is the best of the bunch, has been frequently favorable. First Things, whose writings on politics are infrequent and on faith, morality and culture constant, has been favorable in its limited commentary on Trump, as has the New Criterion and Modern Age.
And Trump's popular political base is stronger and broader now than in 2016.

Trump is, in fact, winning the hearts and minds of those with hearts and minds, which would exclude BigBusiness and Establishment Republican incumbents.

The only conspicuous soi-disant "public intellectuals" in the Never-Trump camp were the Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol and George Will, who seen nowhere to be found or heard these days and little to be read.

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on May 14, 2020 at 20:40:13 pm

My comments above note that this new book fails to discuss the important Never-Trump forces and is entirely devoted to discussing Never-Trump forces of no consequence in 2016 and today. As a codicil to my discussion of the important Never-Trump forces then and now I should add the tens of thousands of federal bureaucrats who populated the federal government when Trump was inaugurated and who have remained to thwart Trump's presidency.

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on May 15, 2020 at 10:50:05 am

During the lead up to the 2017 election I was a Ted Cruz fan. I was very disappointed by the way he was treated by Trump, so much so that I could not vote for anyone for president. But, as a CSPAN junkie I watched the inauguration. Just a few minutes into Trump's speech I sat bolt up from my couch and I said to myself, "Have I misjudged this man?" When I was in college I took an upper level politics course and I wrote a paper on the history of the presidential Inaugural Address. It is not a campaign speech, it is a thankful sermon designed by George Washington. What is in the speech is actually a window into the new president's soul. He has just taken a Sacred Oath where he has promised both God and man of his allegiance to God, the people and the Constitution. But, here was a man known for his bloviating and he is humbly thanking the people for the honor they have given him? This was something Clinton and Obama never did. I said to myself, "Okay now, if he does three things I will support him. He needs to make good judge picks, he needs to prove that he is pro-life and he needs to be nice to Ted Cruz." He has done all three. I now support Donald Trump.

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Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.