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Rōnin Without Masters: A Never Trump Assessment

with Steven Teles,
hosted by Richard M. Reinsch II

Richard Reinsch:

Welcome to Liberty Law Talk. I’m Richard Reinsch. Today we’re joined by Steven Teles to discuss his new book, coauthored with Robert Saldin, Never Trump: Revolt of the Conservative Elites. Steven Teles is professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University and a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center. He’s the author and editor of a number of books, including most recently The Captured Economy: How The Powerful Enrich Themselves, Slow Down Growth and Increase Inequality, with Brink Lindsey, and also Prison Break: Why Conservatives Turned Against Mass Incarceration, coauthored with David Dagan from Oxford. Steven, glad to welcome you to the program to discuss this new book.

Steven Teles:

Happy to be here, I should mention my coauthor in this book is Rob Saldin of the University of Montana.

Richard Reinsch:

Okay, excellent. Thinking about this book, what got you interested in writing about the Never Trump phenomenon?

Steven Teles:

I’ve made a little bit of my business over my now 25-year career of writing about various forms of conservatism, going all the way back to my first book on welfare policy. So, studying conservatives has not been a recent phenomenon, and I’ve largely focused on what you might think of as the elite stratum of conservatives. There’s lots of other political scientists who study conservatism as a mass phenomenon, or who study conservative social movements, but I really focus on what you might think of as the intellectual or professional cadre of conservatives. I studied with conservatives way back when at the University of Virginia, where my advisors were Martha Derthick and Jim Ceaser and Steve Rhodes. So, I’ve been at this for a while, and when the election happened, I obviously paid close attention to the conservatives who had opposed Trump, a lot of whom were very disproportionately in that group of intellectual and professional conservatives who I make it my business to study. And it turned out that Rob Saldin, who I’d known who was also a PhD at the University of Virginia, was also nosing around this subject, and we decided to dive into it together. And so, we partially studied this in a way that you don’t usually get to in political science, in realtime. We started this pretty early in 2017 doing interviews, and I just thought that people who were left behind by a lot of the rest of their party, and yet seemed to be sticking to their guns, was a interestingly counterintuitive phenomenon, and I usually start out not with a theoretical question but with a puzzling phenomenon in the world, with the assumption that I’ll figure out what it is about theoretically later on. And so, that’s where I started.

Richard Reinsch:

I want to get into the principles and reasons and motivations which you set forth in the book, to understand the Never Trumpers. But before we do that, a question I have for you, and you just mentioned this. One of the great parts of the book are the interviews that you have with these leading thinkers, writers, political operatives, lawyers, et cetera. But do you have a sense in 2020 of what they make of their efforts now? Was it worth it? Regrets? Are they proud of what they’ve done? Where are they four years later?

Steven Teles:

Yeah, there are very few of the people we interviewed for this book who really turned back on what they did in 2016 and after. Again, the people I’ve talked to, most of them say that they were proud of it, that they think that nothing that’s happened subsequently has altered their view of Donald Trump, and that many of them often express this in terms of, they simply thought this was the honorable thing to do. Now, again, one problem with interviews is it’s always a little hard to know how much of it is post-talk rationalization, but I do think that one fact that we really underestimate in politics is… often because we have cynical, and especially in political science, we have public choice theories that are basically just applied cynicism, we tend to underestimate people’s conceptions of honor. But I think especially among the national security conservatives who really were the sort of leading edge of Never Trumpism, that honor is a really powerful and important part of the way that they make sense of the world. And they found Donald Trump a dishonorable person, and they, I think… You can look at all of the Machiavellianism that you might project on them, but I think simply, a lot of them thought that it would be dishonorable to, as they often use the term, to “bend the knee” to Trump in a way that they thought many other conservatives did.

Richard Reinsch:

I want to get to the principles question. You’ve kind of touched on that, but I want to ask it. You asked this question on page three, I’ll ask it to you: why did these men and women, who had not long ago been party stalwarts, take the historically dramatic step of actively opposing their own nominee, and then continuing to hound him in office?

Steven Teles:

Again, one thing to note is that there are different people here who come in different shades, and that some of those differences are actually quite important. I do think there’s one set of Never Trump conservatives who you might think of as the people who are associated with the ancien régime, right?

Richard Reinsch:

Yeah.

Steven Teles:

They dislike Trump because he represented a rejection of what they understood to be conservatism, and they liked the old conservatism and didn’t like this new populism that Trump was trying to substitute, and in particular we argue in the book that they believe they were authorized to try to stop Trump. Especially when you think about the public intellectuals, they had a conception of their role in the party that was really about preserving it against what they took to be dissident or unclean versions of conservatism. And for many of them, they had been at that work for quite a long time, so there’s some interesting interview material here with Jonah Goldberg, and Jonah had been having fights with people on the alt-right for a long time. And so, I think when Trump came around, he partially processed Trump through the same fight he’d been having with the alt-right for years. And so, I do think that many of these people thought that they had a particular role in the party, which was to preserve it as a conservative movement party. I think there were other people who stood up against Trump and continued to do so, partially for religious reasons, right?

I don’t think it’s an accident that so many Never Trumpers were Jews and Mormons; here’s some very vivid interview material in the book along those lines that… where other conservatives could imagine Trump as someone to negotiate with, or cut a deal with, or that they didn’t love him but they would have to make the most of him, many Jews and Mormons processed him through a very different filter, which we call a catastrophic imagination, an ability to imagine things getting far, far worse. And so, they saw in Trump more than just what was on the surface, and I think reacted to him in a much more intense way than many other conservatives who eventually made their peace with him.

Richard Reinsch:

What do you make of… I mean, just interesting, the Jews and Mormons… evangelical Christians widely known supported Trump. The vote share that he received was incredible. But also, devout Roman Catholics seem to have had not as much of a reticence supporting him, and I’ve read stories of Cabinet members and those in high places serving Trump in the White House, quite religious along those two lines. What do you make of that?

Steven Teles:

Yeah. I mean, I do think especially with evangelicals and to some degree with Catholics, and I don’t want to say I’m an expert on the Catholic side of this, but I do think… again, when I mentioned the catastrophic imagination before, in a way, there were sort of two catastrophic imaginations going on in this campaign. We have a long discussion of the famous “Flight 93” article.

Richard Reinsch:

Yeah. I remember it well.

Steven Teles:

Yeah, which Michael Anton wrote, which again was this very powerful metaphor of, this election was potentially the last election in which conservatives could still preserve their role in American society, and if they lost, then it was going to be essentially communal destruction with a Hillary Clinton presidency, right? They imagined that their institutions would eventually be regulated out of existence by liberals, and therefore, even if they had concerns about Trump personally, the option of accepting Hillary Clinton was sort of unimaginable. And again, I think Hillary also played her own… just personally had a particular resonance for this community in a way that it didn’t, for example, with Jews and Mormons. So, I do think many evangelicals had convinced themselves that this was not just the normal cycles of American politics, but that a Clinton win would be a more fundamental break in history, and therefore, they needed to find a way to get behind Trump. So, I do think that really was in the background for many Christians, and I think the other thing to say is the fundamental force of polarization is just very powerful. We have a binary political system and not supporting Trump meant supporting Clinton, and many conservatives, especially evangelicals, viewed her as indigestible pretty much to the same degree that they found Trump to be indigestible.

Richard Reinsch:

Yeah. No, also I think another part of this, too, is how Barack Obama chose to govern throughout most of his presidency regarding the opposition. And I think in particular, the last two years, his use of executive orders to get his way, apart from Congress, I think left a mark on the minds of many people regarding executive power. In the book, you kind of break out different aspects of those who identify as Never Trumpers by specialty, foreign policy, lawyers, political operatives, economists, public intellectuals. The first group you talk about are the foreign policy specialists, and I kept waiting… I mean, was there ever an awareness on the part of this group that maybe they, in fact, their consensus… which you note in the book, their foreign policy consensus, had in fact become the problem? That is to say, that they formed these groups to fight off Rand Paul, or to fight off Donald Trump, that actually, they should have been willing to more dialogue and talk to them, given that they may have been the group most responsible to make Trump possible?

Steven Teles:

No. I think… at least, I didn’t get… I mean, there was little-

Richard Reinsch:

I knew the answer to that question. I thought it…

Steven Teles:

There were references in some of the interviews to Elliot Cohen, who’s now the dean at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins, and was a very prominent Never Trumper and had served in the George W. Bush administration. He did say that a lot of the conservatives, the national security conservatives had been, in his quote, “sobered up” by the Iraq war. But I don’t think there was really the kind of fundamental reconsideration of foreign policy conservatism or… and I think a recognition that some of that sort of extends to foreign policy commitments to the United States, were related to support for Trump, and I do think there’s some evidence for that. So, I don’t think that was true. I mean, again, I think they very much thought that Rand Paul and that sort of species of foreign policy libertarianism, or isolationism if you want to put a different term on it, they really did think that that was the enemy. And they thought… And again, going back to that same idea, that they had a obligation, given their role in the party, to protect conservatism and protect the Republican Party against that. Just as many of these others conservatives saw themselves as authorized to perform a kind of guardian role against unclean versions of conservatism. I don’t think that they really re-thought that, or have done so now. I think many of them have more of that, “I didn’t leave the Republican Party. The Republican Party left me,” sort of attitude.

Richard Reinsch:

Assessing their efforts, when you talked to them, what exactly did they think was at stake? I mean, on one level, it’s sort of obvious, but at another level, as you note in the book, presidential candidates of both parties come to the foreign policy professionals, which you note are of all of the groups the most bipartisan, the most moderate in terms of domestic politics, the most willing to actually cross the aisle and work for another administration of another party. Do they, when they’re sort of looking at and seeing Trump arise, what are they thinking in terms of their overall consensus? What do they see at stake?

Steven Teles:

Well, I mean, again, to go back a little bit, one thing that really does characterize this group is what you might just think of as a fundamental anti-populist orientation to foreign policy, that they really do think that popular involvement in foreign policy is not a great thing. And in that sense, you might think of them as status. They believe that there is an American national interest, that it’s largely embodied in the continuing institutions of the American foreign policy apparatus, and that’s supported by this particular national security establishment that cuts across both parties. And that really is a fundamental belief that holds together a very large part of this establishment, and differentiates them from the centers on both the left and the right, who often do think that we need more popular involvement in foreign policy. So, they really do have a professionalized conception of this domain of public policy, and again, a lot of what holds the Republicans and Democrats together, even as they disagree about particular policy areas like our stance toward Iran, or how aggressive we should be toward China, they do think that that debate should be mainly dominated by them and not by the hoi-polloi.

Richard Reinsch:

Not by Congress. Nah, I’m just kidding. Thinking about your work on this group, what do you make of them as a whole? You note in the book, the foreign policy consensus group, they’re all sort of in one block, they inhabit a small network of institutions, they’re all in Washington, DC. Is there something peculiar about this group that sort of left them open to a Trump candidacy?

Steven Teles:

Yeah, well, I mean, again, one thing that did come across that we did try to make clear is… one of the main reasons why they were so aggressively against Trump is that Trump was so aggressively against them. As compared to any… most of the rest of the professional groups that make up this stratum of the Republican party, Trump was most directly willing to say that he was rejecting their role. We use the concept of jurisdiction, which comes from Andrew Abbott’s fantastic book on profession, and essentially, what Trump was doing was he was rejecting their jurisdiction over foreign policy. And Trump repeatedly said that these guys, in his colorful terms, were losers, that he was going to bring in a whole new group of people. And so, in part, they rejected Trump because Trump rejected them.

The other thing I would say is these people are quite distinct in their experience of the state. Almost all of them have had actual governing experience. One quote, I think it was from Phil Zelikow, I’d have to go check, is to say that the lives of people who do this kind of work are characterized by parades and funerals, that the ceremonial element of the state really matters to these people in a way that it’s just not as true for other groups. And I should say, I’m a child of government, although a different part of government, my parents were both civil servants, and procedure and routine and the actual rituals of the state matter to a particular set of people. In some ways, you can think of populism as a rejection of those sort of state rituals. So, I think I understand that group of people, and why Trump… and again, his very active and open attack on the ritualistic quality of how state actors are supposed to behave… for them, was so indigestible. And so, I think that’s one thing that really struck me. But again, that also means there are relatively insular groups. They’re very much defined by their relationships with each other, and their relationships to the state apparatus.

Richard Reinsch:

Okay. I wanted to just move on to the political operatives that you discuss in the book. They seem to be the group most willing to compromise their Never Trump credentials. You describe them at one point as samurai without masters. What calculations does a political operative face here with the rise of Donald Trump?

Steven Teles:

The political operatives are a complicated group, and I actually think, in a way, the lawyers might be the one that were most willing to compromise with Trump, right? Some of the most active Never Trumpers, which now are associated with The Lincoln Project, came from that group of political operatives like Stuart Stevens and Mike Murphy. So, there were a lot of those, and again, a lot of that group initially had very strong anti-Trump attitudes, and I think a lot of that was based on their theory of how the Republican party was going to be competitive in the future, that they… I think this is an important thing to understand about this group, that a lot of the core coalition partners in the Republican party have a conception of the Republican party that’s very much rooted in the people who already support the party.

That is, they think the Republican party are evangelicals and business and those core people who sit around the table, whereas political operatives, pollsters, often have a more entrepreneurial theory of the party. They think about the various different groups in the electorate, and who might be able to be moved over. And as they look at, especially in the aftermath of the 2012 campaign, when they looked at the map, they saw an increasingly shrinking core Republican electorate, and believed that the Republican party needed to reach out, especially to African-Americans and Hispanics, or that the odds for them winning would just keep going down. So, they had a much more demography-rooted theory of how Republicans had to get elected, and therefore-

Richard Reinsch:

But that also had support in George W. Bush’s… particularly his 2004 presidential run, where I think he got close to 45% of the Hispanic vote.

Steven Teles:

Yeah. So, again, a lot of these people had worked for George W. Bush, or around George W. Bush, and they mostly thought that George W. Bush was on the right track. And these were also the kind of political professionals who ended up working for the ill-fated Jeb Bush campaign, which was also based on that particular theory of the Republican party, that the Republican party, especially on immigration, needed to soften its approach because they believed there were lots of Hispanics who, on the basis of faith or other things, would be open to voting for Republicans, but that the immigration issue just stood too much in the way.

So, part of what one group of these political operatives saw is that they spent four or more years trying to get the Republican party oriented to a different kind of approach where the non-white electorate was concerned, and suddenly Trump was coming in and blowing all that up, right? Doing everything the opposite of what they had been trying to convince people they were supposed to be doing. And I think many of those kinds of people, again Stuart Stevens and Mike Murphy, those kind of people, are good examples of that. They were the parts of the political operatives who formed the hardest core of opposition to Trump. Now, again, there was a whole other set of political operatives who had a very different theory, what you might associate as the missing white voter theory of the Republican party, and they didn’t agree with that. And so, Trump in some ways was doing, often in ways they found distasteful, but he was following more of their playbook.

Either you make the choice to change your business model, and sell services to someone else, or sell them largely to go more into market research or something else, or you had to find a way to make your peace with Trump because he controlled the party apparatus.

Richard Reinsch:

Yeah. Well, you also talk about in the chapter the reaction to the so-called autopsy report, because the other, I think legitimate, criticism of that report was made by people like Yuval Levin, Ramesh Ponnuru, others that… It was more free markets, more immigration, don’t talk about social conservatism, and that would win more elections. Their theory was, “Well, it’s actually the shrinking middle class that doesn’t really see this making their lives better. There are new problems, new challenges to living in America, raising a family in America, and the government should actually find targeted ways to make their lives better.” And they had ideas about college education, the family… subsidy child leave policies, et cetera, and their theory was that was what the party needed to emphasize. In a way, though, many of them I think temperamentally were Never Trumpers, or not on a level of principle, and they couldn’t really wrap their minds around supporting Trump who, in a way, sort of touched that thread they were playing on.

Steven Teles:

Yeah. So, that view… this cuts across between that and the public intellectual chapters of the book. I think for me, the people who are most interesting are the ones who were sort of pulled in opposite directions, and I do think that people like the Reformicons that you mentioned had been engaging in a sort of ongoing battle with the people who were around the autopsy on… again, a very different theory, the autopsy people more or less treated standard conservative economics, and also foreign policy for that matter, as fine. They thought that there was a significant part of the non-white electorate who I think they often imagine is sort of middle-class, as aspiring, as entrepreneurial, who would vote for a Republican party if they just didn’t think that Republican party was exclusionary or even racist.

And I think that’s not inconsistent with where the sort of Koch network part of the Republican party was, and that was a very important part of the 2016 primary, is what some people call the sort of Koch primary. Where all of the candidates had to go around to these various Koch-supported events, and that money and the events and all that other things, created a lot of pressure to accept what you might think of as the full Koch package, which was very free market on economics, and much more open to more open immigration and other things on the other side. And in some ways, I think that does explain a fair amount of why Trump had a pretty open room to run in the primary, because that Koch primary had kind of squeezed out a lot of that Reformicon synthesis which imagined the Republican party as a more consistently working-class party, which had implications both for immigration but also for economics. And so, that’s why those Reformicons are in a way the most interesting group here, because they liked the direction in policy terms that Trump was pushing, and yet they also found him entirely morally bankrupt. I think that certainly is the kind of approach that comes across very clearly in the quotes in the book from Yuval Levin.

Richard Reinsch:

That resonated with me, because in November, late November of 2016, I wrote a piece for RealClearPolicy where I made this argument, that Trump was the Reformicon candidate. He’s the one they’ve been waiting on. I also analogized Theresa May to this, as well, in Great Britain. I remember talking to a significant reform conservative, and I could tell they understood that, but they didn’t want to go out in public and say it, or try and make these linkages, which I thought, that’s an interesting way to do politics. Maybe not the most effective way, but this is true, and their theory, America may be still sort of socially conservative; they don’t want to be lectured or hectored about anything, and somewhat economically liberal. Much more than, say, the Koch network has their thumb on, and a lot of people like Henry Olsen and others have sort of come out and written about this a lot… I mentioned at the beginning of this segment on the political operatives that they seem to be the most fluid. I was thinking here about the autopsy report itself, the principal authors, you mentioned Avi Fleischer, who was Press Secretary for George W. Bush for a time… Ari Fleischer, I’m sorry. Sean Spicer, we all know his performance, and then also Reince Priebus. And then, they sort of go over to Trump, and then you also have Never Trumpers setting up PACs to fight Trump. But then, most of them quickly peel off and go to Trump’s camp. You make that to be the business model, really, that political operatives face.

Steven Teles:

Yeah. Again, when you think about how… I’m not typically a highly materialist social scientist, but I do think these people’s business… politics really is a business, and there’s actually a great book by my colleague at Hopkins, Adam Sheingate, called Building A Business of Politics, about the growth of this particular segment of people for whom selling political services, whether it’s polling or turnout or whatever, really is their business. But they have a very small number of people they sell to. In a way, it’s a kind of monopoly model where it’s not like they’re selling it all to the RNC, but the RNC is often a very important filter through which people get jobs, and Trump took that over. So, either you make the choice to change your business model, and sell services to someone else, or sell them largely to go more into market research or something else, or you had to find a way to make your peace with Trump because he controlled the party apparatus.

Richard Reinsch:

I think also, for all of the groups you describe, my sense is… and I’m not in Washington, I’ve never worked in Washington, but there’s a sense that Trump’s going to lose. And then, I think it’s clear by… I’m trying to remember March or April of 2016, that he is going to be the Republican primary winner. That seems assured, even though you have… maybe you can talk about the machinations of Bill Kristol and others to try and recruit an alternative candidate rather late. But with that, Trump is going to win the Republican primary, and then it’s, “Well, he’s going to lose. We know he’s going to lose the general election.” At what point… maybe it’s election night, maybe that’s the point, but it begins to dawn on people that this was a choice that comes now with rather severe career consequences?

Steven Teles:

Yeah. I do think that it’s really hard to underestimate how much people really thought Trump was going to lose, right? And again, that’s a little hard to reconstruct now because we know he won, so it’s hard to get our minds back in that moment when everyone… when this was a consensus position that Trump was, in some ways, obviously absurd. I do think that was behind a lot of the political professionals, is that they thought everything they knew meant that Trump was going to lose, and lose very badly, and drag down a lot of other Republican candidates, and that their job… again, going back to the idea of jurisdiction, their job was to try to get across to people what the basic facts were about the electoral map. And I do think a lot of people made decisions that they might have made differently if that wasn’t the case.

One thing we mention is a lot of people had this idea that one reason to go out so clearly against Trump is that they would be in a good position to come in as kind of the clean team after the election, and go and fumigate the place, and clean up, and get back to sort of normal Republican politics… And the fact that this was so unexpected, I think, did mean that a lot of people had to very suddenly readjust where they were in the presence of this enormous, unexpected shock. And so, some people stuck to their guns and decided that they were going to stick to the Never Trump train, but a lot of people thought that Trump was going to get impeached and removed, potentially, and that that was going to sort of make the nightmare go away. But then, a lot of other people were suddenly faced with the decision that either they bent the knee, or they were going to be thrown out into the ether with no influence whatsoever. And I do think that those calculations, which I do think we have to be somewhat empathetic with, that this was such an unexpected situation, and a situation in which people really didn’t have any anger for rationality, for figuring out how to make sense of what you were supposed to do in a situation like this. And as a consequence, people had to make fairly binary choices fairly quickly.

Richard Reinsch:

Is there any sense, in your interviews with these political operatives, many of whose names I recognize and they’re successful and they’ve made money in this business, which I’m sure is not an easy business, any sense after the election of, “Wow, I really got it wrong, and I’ve got to rethink how I’m doing this”? Or, “Man, this was just such a fluke. Who knows?”

Steven Teles:

Yeah, I mean, a lot of the people we talked to did think about Trump in terms of… if you ran the same election over again, that the odds that he would draw the inside straight that he did, with so many very small wins in so many places that allowed him to win even though, again, it’s very important to remember that he quite substantially lost the popular vote… That was kind of a fluke, right? And I do think in general, people are not great at updating their mental models of the world, and that there were… in general, people tended to lean into where they were already.

So, the Reformicons took this as a lesson that they should have been paying more attention, too. There’s a great quote by David Frum who, I should say, gives very good quotes. He said that someone had actually approached him and said, “Look, Donald Trump is saying everything you were saying about immigration. Isn’t this great? Shouldn’t you get behind Trump?” And Frum said something to the effect of, “The reason I had been pushing for a more restrictionist immigration policy was precisely to keep us from getting somebody like Donald Trump.” So, I think a number of people leaned into their preexisting theory, rather than updating their priors.

Richard Reinsch:

Yeah, and I mentioned a third option is, “No, I’m sticking by my principles. I want the party to expand along the lines we had, and that’s what I’m going to work for.” Who knows? Thinking along the lines… you talk about public intellectuals. We’ve mentioned a few here. How do those who identify as Never Trumpers see their role, many of whom still do, I think… they seem to be the ones who’ve been most secure also in their careers… but there’s also the demise of The Weekly Standard… It’s hard for me to understand that apart from being sort of an attack on an institute, on a periodical that had stayed Never Trump largely. But what do you make of them and their principles and ideas?

Steven Teles:

Yeah, I mean, one thing… again, one of the trickiest things to do in social science is to balance material and ideational theories at once, and usually, people just go into one or two camps, and we did try and balance that here. But if you look at public intellectuals, they often do have a very different kind of business model, right? Theirs is a nonprofit business model, for the most part. Whether it’s an actual nonprofit or it’s one that a… National Review, I think, is still mostly a notional corporation, but it’s mainly a nonprofit. So, many of conservative public intellectuals work for institutions where they speak largely to a liberal audience, and that a lot of the way they think of their job is trying to demonstrate that conservatism is in fact a legitimate intellectual enterprise, that it’s not just a matter of racism or greed, but that they have really deep, fundamental principles that deserve respect. And Trump for them was obviously a very big problem, from that point of view. This is the old line that his business is making the subtext, text. Right?

Richard Reinsch:

Yeah.

Steven Teles:

Saying out loud the thing you’re supposed to say quietly, and that’s a big problem for them. And so, I think that certainly effected a lot of the ways that they responded to Trump, and the way that distinguished them from other parts of the party.

Richard Reinsch:

Also, we’re talking about people, many with academic training… reading a lot, you write a lot, you’re thinking deeply about ideas, and seems to me there’s just this awareness that Trump doesn’t really have any ideas other than the sort of very visceral statements like, “Ban Muslims,” that would seem to then resonate, and that sort of horrifies public intellectuals, because this is going to shape how people see conservatism and the Republican party.

Steven Teles:

Yeah, and again, I think the other thing to remember is, to go back to the guardian mentality we mentioned before, they really generally tend to tell a story of the conservative movement in which the role of conservative intellectuals is a really important part of that narrative. Right? Their story is about how the Republican party became a conservative party, and how it incorporated conservative ideas and intellectuals. So, intellectual consistency matters to them a lot more than it would to other parts of the conservative movement. So, it wasn’t as easy for them just to sort of switch and say, “Oh, but we’re all populists now,” when that was in some significant tension with what they thought their job was.

There’s a lot of discussion in the book about National Review, and National Review had sort of regularly played this role of… I think Jonah Goldberg describes it as a Texas Ranger sort of protecting the conservative movement against invasions from outside forces. And that’s really what they… when they saw Trump, they saw that as this kind of invasion of outside forces. And again, outside forces that they have been fighting for quite some time. When you think of the battle between National Review and Breitbart, they saw this thing of sort of mainstream conservatives and the Trumpism as just a reiteration of that same battle that they had been fighting going back to the Jon Burge Society, back to Pat Buchanan. When you think about that, that in one way the conservative movement’s story as itself is a story of these recurrent purges, and that they thought it was their job. Their job was to purge the unclean elements outside of the party.

Richard Reinsch:

It does seem to me in retrospect… and things have changed a lot in this world in the last four years, but it was hard to have a conversation if someone just wanted to dial back on immigration. Not as a anti-immigration measure, certainly not even having racial overturns, but just have a discussion about, “Well, should we have this immigration policy that we’ve operated with for the past 50 years? Should it be rethought?” Similarly, and much more dramatically in Europe, obviously, in European countries, but also in foreign policy and wars, that it was hard to have a conversation about that. A good one. And certain magazines were formed, like The American Conservative, to try to have them. But I just wonder, too, was this group, in seeing themselves as the purgers, just too cloistered, really, from a lot of elements or a lot of kinds of people who were open and thought of themselves as conservatives in some way?

Steven Teles:

Yeah. I mean, I do think that… again, we’ve mentioned the Reformicons, and I do think that group again, which was very important in National Review, had been trying to get the rest of the party to pay attention to this. And again, National Review had always been more restrictionist, and it always had a significant group of people… Again, one thing is there always had been a significant group of people who were also on the much less… I don’t know what the word for it, sanitary side of the immigration debate. And those were many of the people who got purged, right? Peter Brimelow, who eventually ends up becoming the leader of the VDARE, which was a very longstanding alt-right publication, had been in National Review and had actually been a very senior and important figure in National Review. But the point is that I think this debate was happening inside the Republican party and inside of the conservative movement, and I do think this is where the very significant core of that Koch network really limited how much that could filter down to working politicians, both because of the financial and network and other kinds of roles that Koch played. There was no similar large financial coalition partner who was behind the ideas of the Reformicons, right? Their base, such as it was, was a base in the larger conservative voting population, rather than the organized and sponsored networks of the Republican party.

Richard Reinsch:

Also in terms of influence, I’ve heard Jonah Goldberg say… he thought basically… a large percentage of Republican voters basically were on board with what they were saying. And then what they learned throughout their primary campaign was that they weren’t. In fact, really, their ideas didn’t go that deep at all. So, did you find a lot of that sort of thinking in these interviews, that, “We were really not that deep. Yeah, I mean, we’re important to each other and to other high-caliber thinkers, but beyond that, it gets thin”?

Steven Teles:

Yes, I do think that’s true, and you saw that, I think, in the national security side that the one thing that Trump… again, we can have all the criticisms we want of Trump, but Trump had a kind of sixth sense for who actually held power, right? Real power. The ability to actually hurt somebody. Which, again, is that how I think Trump thinks about the world. And that there was a lot of power that was held by national security conservatives, or these public intellectuals, because people had developed highly routinized relationships between those professional service providers and the Republican party… And again, in the national security context, we talk about how Republican politicians generally thought that, just as almost a kind of hardwired matter of how you ran for office, that you would go collect up a bunch of these people, they would advise you, they would write position papers for you.

And Trump saw that you didn’t actually have to do that. That these people had no way to hurt you if you didn’t do that. But I think it’s interesting that Trump so clearly thought that he had to defer to their expertise, and he went so far as to basically sign on to these lists of potential Supreme Court justices that were put together by conservative organizations, and that’s because I think he saw in social conservatives, evangelicals in particular, real power. These were core coalition partners, and if they didn’t get behind him, that they could really hurt him. And lawyers got in through their relationship with social conservatives. That was their source of real, raw power. But public intellectuals for the most part had power because people believed normatively that they were supposed to look to these sets of people for guidance, and policy, and authority. And Trump sort of saw that they didn’t really have that kind of power, that it was kind of a inner, subjective agreement that people would have a certain kind of authority, and once you decided that you didn’t believe it, then it would disappear. Now, I do think… in the book, we talk a lot about how there are consequences to not drawing on that professional authority where governance is concerned, that it just becomes very hard to staff an administration when most of your professional class is on the sidelines, and I think that’s actually had very strong consequences for the way that the administration has run itself.

Richard Reinsch:

Talk about the economists. Where are they in this?

Steven Teles:

The economists were an interesting group. We actually went kind of back and forth about whether to include them. One thing that’s worth mentioning here is that almost no economist endorsed Trump, especially those from the elite stratum of the Republican party, and that’s because maybe even more than the national security conservatives, Trump rejected root and branch their entire way of thinking about the world. That in its very sort of basic founding, the economics is based on the idea of exchange for mutual interest, a basically non-zero sum view of the world. And that’s apart from any of the technical economics or analysis that we often talk about, but that just general worldview, that the world is made up of lots of opportunities for exchange for mutual benefit, is not Trump’s worldview. Trump’s worldview was a worldview of winners and losers, right?

The mistake I think the Never Trumpers made is they didn’t immediately recognize that they were now a minority part of the Republican party, and needed to organize appropriately in creating distinct, factional organizations. Instead, a lot of their organizations were more along the lines of Defending Democracy, where they thought that what they needed to do was to create a kind of unified front of classical liberals of all parties, or something.

Richard Reinsch:

Yeah.

Steven Teles:

And that extends to his view of the economy, that international trade is simply a matter of winners and losers, kind of a mercantilist theory of the world, and that was really, I think, built on his grounding in New York real estate, where it’s only business to go to manipulate the rules for your advantage, to take advantage of the people on the other side of the exchange. And most economists found that just genuinely almost like the economic equivalent of atheism. Questioning what the fundamental semi-theological view of the world. On the other hand, one thing that came up in a lot of our interviews is economists generally tend to have a very dim view of the state, whereas national security conservatives really do think the ritual elements of government matter. Economists are much more likely to think of the state as simply a giant forum for exchange, and that’s rooted in public choice theory. And so I think, as a consequence, they were less fundamentally appalled by Trump as a person, with some exceptions; I think Greg Mankiw certainly was one… but for the most part, many of them were more likely to see Trump as the reductio ad absurdum of what they believed about government already.

Richard Reinsch:

Yeah. So, right now, what are the institutional embodiments of Never Trumping? What lives on, what goes away, what dies? I mean, I suppose The Bulwark has become a significant online journal; Checks and Balances, but they don’t seem to be doing much; what else is out there?

Steven Teles:

Yeah. I do think, though, in the conclusion of the book, we raise the question of what becomes of these people, and there are a number of scenarios. I do think that it was a mistake in a way for Never Trumpers to respond organizationally the way they did. I think many of them… again, in this shock that came in the aftermath of the election, did treat Trump being elected as a kind of terrible trick that fate had played upon them, and maybe the earth could get put back on its axis in which they would be the dominant source of ideas and professional expertise for the party as a whole. And we argue that that was really a mistake, because it assumed that the Republican party could get put back together again as a more or less homogenous, fusionist party. And we say that the future, and the way the future of both parties is going to be much more deeply factional, where the parties are going to be organized into well-structured, deeply institutionalized, different factions that will negotiate with one another even as they’re competing against the other.

The mistake I think the Never Trumpers made is they didn’t immediately recognize that they were now a minority part of the Republican party, and needed to organize appropriately in creating distinct, factional organizations. Instead, a lot of their organizations were more along the lines of Defending Democracy, where they thought that what they needed to do was to create a kind of unified front of classical liberals of all parties, or something. And as a consequence, very few of those factional institutions of what we call in the book the liberal conservative faction of the Republican party have been built… I do think in the aftermath, if Trump loses quite badly in 2020, there will be much more of a market for that, and I do think a lot of the funder base of the Republican party has been frozen in terms of supporting stuff like that, because many of them are worried that Trump would retaliate against them, and not without reason. So, I do think that their future is to be the intellectual vanguard of a minority but pivotal faction of the Republican party.

Richard Reinsch:

Steven Teles, with that, I think that’s a good way to end. Thank you so much for coming on to discuss your book, Never Trump: The Revolt of the Conservative Elites. Thank you.

Steven Teles:

Thank you for having me.

Richard Reinsch:

This is Richard Reinsch. You’ve been listening to another episode of Liberty Law Talk, available at lawliberty.org.

Reader Discussion

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.

on July 01, 2020 at 08:59:31 am

A sad and depressing article. Two obviously smart and informed people, neither of whom shows the slightest understanding of Trump or his vision for the party.
Trump was the only potential nominee who could have won the last election. No other potential candidate could have flipped Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, and none of them could have flipped another state to make up for those losses. The only way forward is to blow up the Blue Wall.
The populist approach is the only way to grow the party and be competitive in the future. This means ceasing to be the party of big business (which has become politically correct and left-wing in any event) and becoming the party of the American worker. Protecting workers and wages (especially among Blacks and Hispanics) will also allow the party to expand demographically. (Minorities do not want more wage- depressing competition from illegal immigrants).
The policy prescription is control over borders, restrictions on illustration, fairness in international trade, de-globalization and the re-industrialization of America through the repatriation of jobs and the relocation of supply chains. (This is a national security issue as well as an economic issue). Trump is not a “mercantilist,” but he realizes that to be the only free trader in a protectionist world is suicidal. He realizes that protectionist measures by others call for a response. This is exactly what classical economic theory requires, and it’s the only way to get to a true free-trade world. Trump gets all this; the never-Trumpers don’t.
Couple these policies with conservative judicial nominations and the removal of regulatory barriers to economic growth, and we have a winning program that can re-build America. This is Trump’s vision. It astounds me that so-called “Conservatives” can’t see this and get behind it.

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Richard Millard
on July 01, 2020 at 18:44:17 pm

Cutting through the Orwellian double speak, Trump is a progressive liberal (not a leftist statist, but someone who believes in advancing change and who believes in liberty). Trump has an agenda of change. Converservatives don't like progress because it is change, and "conservativism" by definition is about resisting change, therefore they resist Trump.

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Scott Amorian
on July 01, 2020 at 09:23:21 am

So if the authors are correct, it seems that the NeverTrump conservatives are deeply, viscerally offended by Trump's lack of respect and adulation of them. It isn't so much that they disagree with important policies, they just disagree, very deeply, with his style and tribal disloyalty. Emotional - not analytical. But, what the ugly part of their vanity is the disdain they feel for their fellow Americans, including the ones who are risking, and sometimes losing, their lives in foreign war adventures so beloved by the interventionist elites.

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Tom
on July 01, 2020 at 10:47:49 am

Steven Teles: ...Trump’s worldview was a worldview of winners and losers, right?
Richard Reinsch: Yeah.

It's very difficult to discover much of anything about how any group of people think about Donald Trump, or how their thinking about Donald Trump evolves, or what their perspective is based upon, if your own thinking about Donald Trump is so thin.

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Ario Junker
on July 01, 2020 at 12:21:18 pm

If not Trump then WHO? The World Health Organization and The Atheist Materialists Over Population Alarmists Globalists who deny that God, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, Through The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, Is The Author Of Love, Of Life, And Of Marriage, and desire to Render onto Caesar or oneself, what belongs to God, through their economic and social policies, that because they deny Divine Providence, are anti Christ?

Do the Never Trump Republicans condone The Atheistic Materialistic Over Population Alarmist Globalist, Abortion and Euthanasia Agenda, that is the real virus infecting the globe? Why, during the lockdown, that was justified by “a desire to save lives”, was abortion, which destroys the lives of a multitude of young, vulnerable sons and daughters, and exposing our most vulnerable, the elderly, to the virus, by not first and foremost protecting them from harm, permissible, and, in fact, allowed? Who in the Never Trump Republican group protested about that?

https://www.lifesitenews.com/blogs/how-dr-faucis-fraudulent-pandemic-advice-put-millions-of-americans-through-hell

https://www.lifesitenews.com/opinion/huge-number-of-covid-deaths-in-canada-were-long-term-care-residents

https://www.lifesitenews.com/opinion/prominent-covid-19-contact-tracing-org-has-strong-ties-to-pro-abortion-globalists

Do The Never Trump Republicans disapprove of Trump because although he acts on the belief that God Is The Author Of Life, but not necessarily The Author Of Love, And Of Marriage, he is willing to fight to protect our inherent Right to come to know, Love, and serve, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, which is the greatest obstacle for The Atheistic Materialistic Over Population Alarmist Globalist, Abortion and Euthanasia Agenda?

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Nancy
on July 01, 2020 at 14:00:04 pm

Two observations;
1. Many if not most of the self appointed guardians of conservatism are not guarding any long term historical conservative virtues in defending the neo-con, America-as-world-cop-imposing-Jeffersonian-Democracy-around-the-world follies these fools have foisted on us. There is nothing remotely conservative about it and it is a fool's errand that has proven disastrous not just for America but for conservatism.
2. These self appointed crypt keepers have ruled over an utterly feckless movement which has won the occasional electoral victory with ineffective, weak willed, go along to get along candidates while our society, culture, politics and law have been utterly transformed by the prog juggernaut. The voters and real conservatives rejected these self important fools because they utterly failed at the one job they were given; defeat the left. They're like monks cloistered in a monastery preserving some sacred texts [although the texts they love the most are their own insipid maunderings] while they watch the barbarians laying waste to the countryside. They're like late stage Scholastics, except most of them aren't even particularly bright.
They are more concerned with what they mistakenly consider their superior moral and political fastidiousness than they are with the peril the country is in from the century long progressive war on our institutions. Even now, with those institutions almost completely captured by leftists and, increasingly, open Marxists they prefer intellectual slap-fights and sniping from their Ivory Tower redoubts while the Constitution is gutted and now openly far left and violent insurrections sprout in city after city and the institutions both public and private kow-tow to the Marxist rabble.
The nevertrumpers would be more credible were they not so adept at endlessly proving their utter uselessness and frivolity, though they're always sure to couch those defects in flowery, self congratulatory and self righteous prose.

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BrianB
on July 01, 2020 at 14:31:23 pm

Well said, Brian B.

A perfect description of the self-righteous and vindictive cabal of Never Trump losers.

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Joseph Blown
on July 01, 2020 at 14:14:17 pm

This podcast/interview and the book on which it was based are irrelevant to understanding Trump and the only Never-Trump forces that mattered in 20016 or that matter in 2020: Wall Street, Big Banks, Mega High-Tech, the Business Roundtable, the US Chamber of Commerce and Establishment Republican Governors, Members of Congress and U.S. Senators, Chief Justice John Roberts and the Deep State. Most of these forces remain Never-Trumpers. None of these powerful Never-Trump forces is now a strong Trump supporter except a handful of Establishment Republican incumbents, most notably Senators Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, Rand Paul and Josh Hawley, House Minority Leader McCarthy, the House Freedom Caucus, and a handful of other House Republicans.

The interview/book is devoted, instead, to the anti-Trump forces that were and are of de minimis political significance, those few elements of Never-Trumpism about which no one in the Trump Campaign gave or gives a hoot: foreign policy experts, lawyers, political operatives, public intellectuals and economists. Except for the "public intellectuals" and the "foreign policy experts' (both part of the Beltway Swamp which Trump has sought to drain,) the other entities are typically mere self-serving opportunists who typically follow the money and career opportunities. Many, if not most of them came to support Trump after he was elected. As for "public intellectuals," the Federalist Society and the Conservative Political Action Committee, by far the most politically-important (but not financially) of the "public intellectuals," tended unofficially to support Trump, with 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 uniformly favorable. First Things, whose writings on politics are infrequent and whose first-rate writings on faith, morality and culture constant, has been favorable in its commentary on Trump, especially his historically-singular support of religion in the public square, as has the New Criterion and Modern Age. The Weekly Standard and National Review were prominent Never-Trumpers; the former and its founder committed journalistic suicide and the latter has had to back-pedal furiously, although it foolishly clings to the confused, confusing David French as its token Never-Trumper. Bill Kristol and George Will, soi-disant "public intellectuals," seem nowhere to be heard these days and little to be read.

And Trump's "populist" (sic) 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 Big Business and Establishment Republican incumbents.

The most important Never-Trump forces then, in 2016, and and now in 2020 (besides the incredibly shrinking cowardly forces of Establishment Republicanism) is the Administrative State, the hundreds of thousands of federal bureaucrats who populated the federal government when Trump was inaugurated and who have remained to thwart Trump's presidency. Besides its previously noted omissions as to the ranks of Never-Trumpers, the book also fails to address the Deep State.

BTW: I think prior commenters Richard Millard and Tom are spot on as to the book and Trump.

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paladin
on July 01, 2020 at 14:18:14 pm

I would like to add the names of Ario, Brian and Nancy to my list of Ever-Trumpers whose comments on Never-Trumpers are spot on.

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paladin
on July 05, 2020 at 07:03:38 am

Paladin, one is not necessarily an Ever Trump if one is not a Never Trump. My choice was Mike Pence.

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Nancy
on July 05, 2020 at 10:58:47 am

Point well taken.
Never be an Ever anyone.
Elect Pence in 2024 (I hope) and restore the incomparable political heritage, moral dignity and personal dynamism of Calvin Coolidge

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paladin

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