On February 15, 2016, the longtime house journal of American conservatism published nearly two dozen essays with the express purpose of repudiating the then-ascendant Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Featuring contributions from such prominent voices in the conservative movement as Bill Kristol and Glenn Beck, the National Review’s now infamous “Against Trump” issue denounced the soon-to-be president as no less than a “philosophically unmoored political opportunist” — a dangerous demagogue antithetical to everything conservatism stood for who had to be stopped in his quest for the GOP nomination at any cost.
Trump, it hardly needs saying, hastily conquered both the American conservative movement and its principal political arm, the Republican Party. And in a development which should have surprised no one, at least half of those who had contributed to February 2016’s official censure not only fell in line but became some of Trumpism’s most zealous and committed partisans.
This includes Eric Erickson, the conservative talk-radio host who once condemned Trump as “a racist” and “a fascist” adding that it was no surprise “so many people with swastikas in their Twitter profile pics” support him. “I will not vote for Donald Trump. Ever.” wrote Erickson — who recently published a piece entitled “I Support the President.”
It includes Bill Buckley’s nephew L. Brent Bozell III, who in his National Review essay argued, “Trump might be the greatest charlatan of them all” and now aides in his efforts to delegitimize critical press. It includes Glenn Beck, who once called the president “an immoral man who is absent decency or dignity” and now views him as the ultimate Daddy figure.
With so many erstwhile critics now firmly onside, an approval rating among self-identified Republicans that would make any ribboned despot blush, and a veritable phalanx of sycophants and palace courtiers hanging on his every word, it can safely be said that Donald Trump has enshrined his ideology and personal style as the lingua franca of American conservatism.
Yet turn on cable news or open any of the country’s marquee newspapers, and there’s a good chance you’ll be served with a radically different narrative about the orientation of prominent conservative figures towards the current Republican president. I’m speaking, of course, about the so-called Never Trump Conservative: a phenomenon at once so ubiquitous and so illusory it will one day feature in media studies courses as a teachable moment about the dangers of believing everything you see on TV.
Since 2016, people like David Frum, Bill Kristol, and former McCain apparatchik Steve Schmidt have been the toast of cable networks and publishing houses despite hailing from a constituency so lilliputian in number that a candidate waving its banner would struggle to win an election in a single one of America’s more than 300 area codes. Start a tendency called Originalists for Anarchy or Paleocons for Full Communism, and you could probably garner a roughly equal number of real-world converts with the same money and institutional legitimacy behind you.
To state the obvious, there is indeed, technically, a group of people who identify as Republican or conservative and who publicly declare their opposition to Donald Trump. Earlier this week, several of them (including Schmidt) even published an op-ed in the New York Times announcing something they call The Lincoln Project: the latest product relaunch to hit the market courtesy of the perpetually inflated NeverTrump brand.
While Schmidt and co. do at least find time to condemn their fellow Republicans, congressional and otherwise, for backing the atrocious Trump, the authors also take care to make sure that their critique of the president never quite rises to the level of political substance. Read the whole thing yourself and you’ll find little more than a mound of meaningless fluff adorned with hollow appeals to patriotism and wounded national pride; a giant Have You No Decency, Sir-esque screed masquerading as the Gettysburg Address.
Not once do the piece’s authors see fit to mention the president’s racism. Not a single word is allocated to brutalized refugees in detention camps or his appointment of a man credibly accused of sexual assault to the Supreme Court. Despite interminable pablum about the greatness of American democracy there is nothing whatsoever about gerrymandering, voter suppression, or the various wider efforts at disenfranchisement. Go to the group’s website and you’ll find little more than a few images of Honest Abe, a box in which to enter your name and email address, a statement reading, “The Lincoln Project is holding accountable those who would violate their oaths to the Constitution and would put others before Americans,” and a link back to the New York Times op-ed you just finished reading. There is no substantive critique of Trump, no proffered manifesto or program to counter his politics, and certainly no condemnation that rises above the extremely generalized idea of opposing the president even if it means holding your nose and voting for the odd Democrat.
“This effort,” the authors announce,
asks all Americans of all places, creeds and ways of life to join in the seminal task of our generation: restoring to this nation leadership and governance that respects the rule of law, recognizes the dignity of all people and defends the Constitution and American values at home and abroad…The American presidency transcends the individuals who occupy the Oval Office. Their personality becomes part of our national character. Their actions become our actions, for which we all share responsibility. Their willingness to act in accordance with the law and our tradition dictate how current and future leaders will act. Their commitment to order, civility and decency are reflected in American society.
A dewy-eyed Aaron Sorkin pulling a cognac-fuelled all-nighter ahead of The Newsroom’s pilot episode could hardly have put it better.
So, to return to our original point, while there is indeed a group of people who might reasonably be called Never Trump Conservatives, their omnipresence on our TV and computer screens obscures the extent to which they represent a media phenomenon rather than a real political constituency. There is simply no popular base for Never Trump conservatism within the Republican Party or the wider conservative movement, and the quixotic gaggle of former neocons, Bush administration alumni, and think tank warriors that forms the spine of this would-be resistance movement has about as much flesh on the bone as a desiccated corpse in the Gobi Desert.
As a political strategy designed to defeat Trump, it has little to commend it – among other reasons, because it was already tried in 2016 and failed so spectacularly. But the media’s elevation of the Never Trumpist sect also obscures the extent to which its critique is, and has always been, laughably hollow. Revisit the National Review editorial board’s supposedly principled censure of Trump and you’ll discover it was largely an attack from the right laden with angst he’d be a poor salesman for conservatism who lacked sufficient commitment to the reactionary cause. Which is to say: if the infinitesimal number of prominent, self-identified conservatives who still denounce Trump seem to offer little in the way of a countervailing agenda it’s because they don’t really have one. David Frum’s bestselling polemic against the president also attacks him from the right and Jonah Goldberg’s book similarly struggles to find much of substance to disagree with him about. One only need glance at the history of American conservatism to understand why there’s so little daylight between its so-called “mainstream” and the ever-more feral incarnations it seems to birth with each successive decade.
Above all else, the tedious ubiquity of the Never Trump Conservative is an indictment of those who moderate the organs of liberal tastemaking and opinion-forming. In what should have been a moment of critical introspection, liberalism post 2016 mostly made a conscious choice to reaffirm rather than interrogate its core assumptions and beliefs about the country and its institutions: preferring instead to take superficial comfort in the same fairy tales of American exceptionalism and elite solidarity across the partisan divide that accompanied both Trump’s initial rise and the Democratic establishment’s ultimately futile effort to beat him. To this end, millions have been served the seductive and highly-marketable fiction of a righteous conservative movement in exile, eager to partner in a patriotic front with liberals to restore America’s lost national honor.
It’s a dangerous myth to be sure. But faced with an increasingly vocal and progressive current demanding more from the country’s anti-Republican opposition than the empty bromides that predominated before and throughout 2016, it’s also awfully convenient for some.