Abstract and Keywords
This introductory chapter provides an overview of the emergence of the “#nevertrump” hashtag on Twitter. Like any meme, #nevertrump had a variety of meanings to those who deployed it. However, for the elite Republicans and conservatives who embraced it, #nevertrump signaled horror and incomprehension at the rise of Donald Trump and how it had turned their political world upside down. #Nevertrump was also a way of signaling that Trump represented something more sinister than normal quadrennial Republican and conservative movement primary politics. Once they recognized the threat, the strongest adherents to Never Trump relentlessly and desperately searched for ways to frustrate Trump's takeover of the Republican Party. Shocking even themselves, a number of these lifelong Republicans, who had spent their careers battling Democrats, ended up voting for someone other than their party's nominee, up to and including their former nemesis, Hillary Clinton. Even after his election, a remnant of these Never Trumpers have kept up rear guard efforts to expose the deceitfulness of the Trump administration and to call their former allies away from the siren song of Trumpian populism.
PANIC HAD ALREADY SET in by the time #nevertrump became a viral sensation on Twitter. For over seven months, Republican elites had dismissed Donald Trump as a buffoonish, unserious candidate, reassuring themselves that he was destined to be laughed off the Republican stage. If his opera buffa-esque campaign kickoff event—highlighted by his assertion that Mexican immigrants “are rapists”—wouldn’t do it, certainly his ridiculous “policies” like having Mexico pay for a border wall would. There was no way, they insisted, that Trump could survive his vulgar allegation that Fox News personality and debate moderator Megyn Kelly’s tough line of questioning was the result of her menstrual cycle. At the very least, they were confident that Republican voters would instinctively recoil from his cruelty, so plainly on display in episodes like his mockery of party icon John McCain’s POW status, his attack on primary opponent Carly Fiorina’s appearance, and his imitation of a disabled reporter. And what about his childish rhetoric characterized by schoolyard insults and his reliance on simple, low-syllable-count words like “stupid”? Or those garish hats brandishing his provincial slogan, “Make America Great Again”? Admittedly, they counseled themselves, Republican primary voters sometimes flirt with outsider candidates, but they always eventually settle down with a clean, respectable suitor.
Yet, by late February it was clear to all but the most delusional observers that Trump was well on his way to securing the Republican presidential nomination. Not only had he decisively won the key early-cycle states of New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada, he’d also just picked (p.2) up the one thing that had eluded him thus far: endorsements from establishment Republicans in the form of a vanquished primary opponent (New Jersey Governor Chris Christie) and a US Senator (Alabama’s Jeff Sessions). Republican primary voters were flocking to Trump’s revolution, and the party elites’ fortifications were crumbling. It was only at this point that the #nevertrump hashtag blew up. Like any meme, #nevertrump had a variety of meanings to those who deployed it. But for the elite Republicans and conservatives who embraced it, #nevertrump signaled horror and incomprehension at the rise of Donald Trump and how it had turned their political world upside down. #Nevertrump was also a way of signaling that Trump represented something more sinister than normal quadrennial Republican and conservative movement primary politics.
Once they recognized the threat, the strongest adherents to Never Trump1 relentlessly and desperately searched for ways to frustrate Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party. They organized letters in which a range of the party’s top experts and former Republican luminaries declared their opposition to him. They tried and failed to coalesce behind a single primary challenger, and then schemed to deny Trump the party’s nomination at the Republican National Convention. They searched for and eventually found a third-party candidate in the hopes that they could deadlock the Electoral College and throw the election to the House of Representatives. Shocking even themselves, a number of these lifelong Republicans, who had spent their careers battling Democrats, ended up voting for someone other than their party’s nominee, up to and including their former nemesis, Hillary Clinton. Even after his election, a remnant of these Never Trumpers have kept up rear-guard efforts to expose the perfidy of the Trump administration and to call their former allies away from the siren song of Trumpian populism.
It is hard not to look at these efforts, at least as of the spring of 2020, as having comprehensively failed. Donald Trump is as popular with Republican voters as any president in the modern era. The party’s core coalition partners—from the National Rifle Association (NRA) to pro-lifers—have, with various degrees of enthusiasm, stuck by him. The ranks of Never Trump, meanwhile, have seen considerable attrition, with some of their foot soldiers slinking into the Trumpian fold while others defected to (p.3) the Democrats or simply resigned themselves to being politically homeless. Nonetheless, a dedicated contingent have sought to keep the candle burning, hoping for a turn of fortune. They may yet provide, like St. Benedict in the catacombs, the foundation for an eventual return to the true church. All indications, however, point to a long struggle.
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? They did so not just because they thought they were obligated to do so as individuals based on their own, idiosyncratic moral conscience. They also opposed Trump so ferociously because they thought they were authorized to do so by their role in their party and—critically for our account—by their professional vocation.
Creating Their Own Enemies List
Supporters of the president have been positively gleeful at writing obituaries for the movement. David Azerrad of the Heritage Foundation wrote that, “NeverTrumpism is not dead, but it is on life support with no possibility of returning to the vitality it displayed in 2016. Were it not for the news media’s eagerness to amplify the voices of those who hate the president, the movement would have long since been relegated to the more obscure corners of the internet. . . . Among conservatives, Never Trumpism is already a fringe and irrelevant movement.” Washington Post columnist Henry Olsen declared that, “Never Trump Republicans must confront the fact that on issue after issue they are in the minority within their own party.” Even Liz Mair, a political operative who led some of the most aggressive attacks on Trump, was ready by 2019 to throw dirt on its grave. “In most politically meaningful ways, the Never Trump movement has disintegrated. It’s now the political equivalent of a doomed exotic species, attracting a lot of stares from bystanders, but no longer playing much of a role in the actual biosphere.”2
While the Never Trumpers now hold little to no influence with the party’s base or its core coalition partners, their impact on the actual composition of the Trump administration has been far from negligible. (p.4) There has never been a party in the Western world that was elected and sought to govern with such a wide range of intraparty opposition. As Pat Buchanan observed after the election, the Never Trumpers “[made] up their own enemies list”3 for the incoming Trump administration—a list that those in charge of political appointments paid close attention to. Trump’s picks for a wide range of positions, especially in the area of foreign policy, look vastly different than they would have in any other Republican administration, in large part because so many potential officeholders had declared themselves implacably opposed to Trump—both the man and, to the extent this term can be applied to Trump, his ideas. Even more profoundly, the administration found it very difficult—and in many cases impossible—to fill a wide range of positions because all of the plausible candidates for jobs that require technocratic as well as ideological credentials had signed on to Never Trump. The Trump administration has had to govern without most of the party’s brain, leading it to make profound errors of basic domestic and foreign policy governance that helped contribute to the impression that Trump is overseeing a never-ending sequence of incompetence, corruption, and political self-subversion.
Most of the politicians who once denounced Trump turned out to be, at least in the minds of Never Trumpers, summer soldiers and sunshine patriots. Elected officials like Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz—who had once denounced him as mentally unbalanced, ideologically unhygienic, and fundamentally authoritarian—eventually came to bend the knee. Given the intense negative partisanship of our times, and the fear among members of Congress that crossing Trump will lead to a humiliating Twitter attack and a primary challenge, this is not much of a surprise.4 Yet the white-hot core of the resistance to Trump was never with elected officials but among the professionals, public intellectuals, political operatives, and once and future political appointees that all modern parties depend on to run the huge undertakings of modern campaigns and governance.
It is for this reason that the chapters to come focus primarily on these people, whom we refer to as the Republican extended party network, rather than elected officials or core party coalition partners like business, the Christian right, and the NRA. It is, perhaps, an irony that a party that has defined itself by its opposition to professionalism and (p.5) the administrative state should have accumulated such a large cadre of professionals ready and eager to work for the government. A feature of modern politics and governance, however, is that acquiring and then deploying political power requires the participation of scores of individuals with technical, administrative, and persuasive skills. Those experts are more than just hired hands because, in exchange for their professional services, they claim “jurisdiction” over the vast scope of expert work involved in seeking office and governing the sprawling American state.5 In the pages to come, we will discuss the jurisdictional claims made by networks of experts in national security, elections, law, economics, and the more diffuse category of public intellectuals. Until the election of Donald Trump, it was taken for granted that Republicans could not run a modern campaign, develop a serious policy agenda, or staff the modern state without building up and then deferring to an elite class of their own. To varying degrees, Trump challenged the jurisdiction of these elite Republican Party networks. That variation in Trump’s own behavior helps explain the different responses of these professional groups to Trump. For example, while Trump ruthlessly attacked the jurisdictional claims of Republican national security experts and their ideas, if anything he actually expanded the jurisdictional claims of Republican lawyers when it came to judicial selection.
Party Elites and Liberal Democracy
A large segment of the individuals in this extended Republican Party network agreed that they had an obligation to help save their party and the country from what they saw as the worst instincts of their own base. That impulse is one carefully analyzed by political scientist Daniel Ziblatt, who has argued that the consolidation of democratic government depends critically upon whether parties of the right agree to play by the rules of democratic government and exercise discipline over extremists within their own tribe.6 In particular, for Ziblatt, it is precisely the elite structure of conservative parties and their relative insulation from mass pressure—and with it, populist demagoguery and anti-institutionalism—that is a critical safeguard of democratic norms. This framework puts the Never Trump revolt in an interesting light. Many of the leaders of Never Trump had been pivotal in framing appeals (p.6) to voters in ways that they thought were responsive to the public’s “reasonable” concerns about thorny social issues like race and immigration. But they saw Trump, by “making the subtext, text,” as overstepping the bounds of acceptable conservative politics precisely by giving the party’s voters what they wanted rather than what party leaders thought acceptable to give them.
In addition, Ziblatt has argued in a more recent book with Steve Levitsky that the maintenance of democracy depends upon certain “norms of forbearance,” in particular a willingness to publicly recognize the legitimacy of one’s opponents and to accept the necessity of institutional rules and practices that mediate direct democracy.7 What so concerned many of the actors around Never Trump is that Trump made it quite clear that he was not willing to recognize the democratic legitimacy of the opposition—most obviously by calling for his opponents to be “locked up” or “sent home”—suggesting that he might not accept the 2016 election result if he lost, and asking foreign leaders to dig up dirt on a domestic political rival.
Never Trumpers, understood this way, were engaging in the kind of system maintenance activity that a healthy liberal democracy requires. In some other systems, like Germany, this gatekeeper function is performed formally, by banning parties that are judged to violate fundamental constitutional norms. In the American system, where the question is not what to do about illiberal, extremist minor parties, the system maintenance function is less formal and has to occur within the two major parties themselves. In many cases, Never Trumpers were trying to perform this gatekeeper function more with the health of the GOP or the conservative movement in mind, rather than the health of the American political system as a whole. But regardless of their motivation, their actions can be seen as performing a critical role of party elites in a properly functioning liberal democracy. What so frustrated and confused many Never Trumpers is that their fellow Republicans did not see the same necessity for performing these gatekeeping functions.
Yet the behavior of Republican voters in 2016 is consistent with international trends: voters themselves cannot be counted on to engage in system maintenance, especially under conditions of political polarization. Recent work by political scientist Milan Svolic convincingly (p.7) shows that voters in polarized countries care about democratic norms, but not if they are asked to sacrifice too many of their policy preferences.8 Disturbingly, the more a political system polarizes the more there is at stake, in terms of public policy, for a voter placed in the position of deciding whether or not to vote for a demagogue or authoritarian of their own party. While voting on their democratic principles is not a big sacrifice for moderates, who are more indifferent to the ideology of the rival parties, it is a significant sacrifice for strong partisans.
This, of course, is precisely the situation that faced Republican voters in 2016. Many of them were repulsed by Trump, considered him a threat to democratic norms, and voted for other candidates in the primary. For many, Trump was their absolute last choice. But by the time the general election rolled around, the only viable tool at their disposal was a vote for one of conservatism’s great hate figures of the last quarter century. It was Hillary Clinton, after all, who had breathlessly warned about “a vast right-wing conspiracy,” whom conservatives had mocked for saying “it takes a village to raise a child,” and who had, as they saw it, hypocritically covered for her sexually predatory husband. And just as important, in an election in which the fate of the Supreme Court was very much on the ballot, they were asked to defend democracy in a way that would hand the judiciary over to Democratic judges they considered to be a menace to their basic rights. It is precisely this kind of hard choice that is regularly faced by voters in such situations. And confronted with such a scenario, they understandably, if unfortunately, rarely default to protecting democracy.
If the mass of voters cannot be counted on to protect democratic norms, then it is hard to see who else could do so other than party elites. It is for that reason that we focus so intently in this book on the behavior of the elite conservatives who, facing the same paradox as Republican voters, chose to reject their own party’s nominee, knowing that doing so could help elect Hillary Clinton. Their actions during the primary can be understood as an effort to save Republican voters from having to choose between upholding democratic norms or their policy preferences. But having failed, they took the even harder step of forgoing their desire for conservative policy outcomes in order to stop someone whom they sincerely believed was a dangerous demagogue. (p.8) That sort of system maintenance is becoming ever more of a sacrifice, as the Democratic Party moves sharply to the left and the Trump administration (surprisingly for some) delivers major policy victories to conservatives, from corporate tax cuts to conservative judges to deregulation. Conservatives disgusted with Trump are being asked to give up quite a lot in policy terms in opposing him—something that critics to the left rarely appreciate sufficiently.
The evenly matched competition between Democrats and Republicans in recent decades has compounded this problem by raising the stakes in American politics, thereby accentuating polarization and fueling apocalyptic thinking. As political scientist Frances Lee has shown, under conditions of intense, closely matched competition in which the control of Congress and the White House (and, by extension, the judiciary) is constantly up for grabs, the parties have been incentivized to abandon bipartisanship and adopt rhetorical messages focused on differentiating themselves.9 The constant hunt for messaging schemes designed to burnish your own party’s image and tarnish that of your opponent’s encourages the kind of hysterical, end-of-days, “Flight 93” mode of thinking that we saw in 2016. When every election is viewed as a tipping point, and losing means being permanently defeated, democratic norms and niceties will inevitably suffer. Never Trumpers saw themselves as pushing back against these forces of illiberal extremism, hoping that the center would hold.
That Never Trumpers failed is important for understanding the capacity of American political parties to perform the informal constitutional role that liberal democracy requires of them. Trump’s capture of the GOP will have consequences for the party—and for the republic—for years to come. But the cracks in the system that Trump exploited are not unique to the 2016 Republican Party. Indeed, there is no reason to think that Democratic Party elites, faced with a populist demagogue of the left, could exercise this gatekeeping function either. As the Never Trump experience demonstrates, the combined forces of a democratized process of selecting presidential candidates, ideological polarization, the rise of politics as theatrical blood sport, and the anti-elitist temper of our age has eaten away at the social preconditions of (p.9) party gatekeeping. In the coming decades, our institutional antibodies to populist demagoguery will be unlikely to come from elected officials, the kind that proved all too willing to bend the knee to Trump. Instead, as we suggest in the conclusion, what safety we have will need to come from parties that, having broken into durable factions, are no longer willing to march in lockstep behind an illiberal chief executive of their own party.
The chapters to come are organized around the professional or quasi-professional groups that form the core of the Republican extended party network, and one of the key questions we ask is what explains the varying degrees of intensity of Never Trump sentiment among them. Some of the variation turns out to be due to the systems of belief that participants in these governing networks share, while others are shaped by their personal relationships. As social scientists, we are trained to look for structures—and we found them. But we would not be true to what our informants told us if we did not emphasize that there was also an irreducible element of individual choice. There had never been a candidate remotely like Donald Trump, a fact that rendered the choice of response to him only weakly subject to rational calculation. Some conservatives resolved the uncertainty surrounding Trump during the campaign by leaning heavily on the fact—as for many it seemed—that he would never be elected. Opposing Trump thus seemed like the path of least resistance, the one that would allow them to emerge from the rubble as part of the “clean team” that would help put the Republican Party back together again.
For others, the choice was much harder. They were faced with decisions about exactly how aggressively to criticize Trump and, at the same time, had to watch as colleagues and friends, with whom they had not long ago served in the political trenches, made different decisions. These decisions were informed by a combination of personal and professional relationships, temperament, professional advancement, and choice under severe uncertainty. We try to make sense, in the pages that follow, of these complex and often excruciating decisions.
We tell this story by allowing the participants to speak in their own words, often at length. We do that in part to allow the reader to get a sense of the personalities and voices of the participants, but (p.10) also to provide the reader with the raw materials to come to different conclusions than we have.10 We hope that even those who disagree deeply with the Never Trumpers will learn at least a little something about the very human motivations that caused them to make the choices they did.
(1.) Throughout the book, we will refer to the movement as Never Trump, while reserving #nevertrump solely to refer to the Twitter hashtag.
(2.) David Azerrad, “The Never Trump Movement Is on Life Support,” Los Angeles Times April 24, 2019; Henry Olsen, “The Never Trump Dilemma,” American Greatness June 27, 2018; Liz Mair, “Has Republican Resistance to Trump Collapsed?,” New York Times February 19, 2019.
(3.) “Ben Domench Interviews Pat Buchanan on Nixon, Culture Wars and Trumpism,” The Federalist June 14, 2017, https://thefederalist.com/2017/06/14/ben-domenech-interviews-pat-buchanan-nixon-culture-wars-trumpism/.
(4.) Negative partisanship is a concept suggesting that partisan attachments are driven more by hatred of the other party than enthusiasm for one’s own party. Alan I. Abramowitz and Steven W. Webster, “The Rise of Negative Partisanship and the Nationalization of U.S. Elections in the 21st Century,” Electoral Studies 41 (2016), 12–22.
(5.) Andrew Abbott, The System of Professions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988).
(6.) Daniel Ziblatt, Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017). Unlike Ziblatt, we think there’s a parallel issue for parties on the left, for example when they are unable to exercise control over their followers’ extreme demands for, as examples, mass expropriation of property or violations of rule of law in the economic sphere.
(7.) Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Crown, 2018).
(8.) Milan Svolic, “When Partisanship Trumps Civic Virtue: Partisan Conflict and the Subversion of Democracy by Incumbents,” https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3243470; Matthew Graham and Milan Svolic, “Democracy in America? Partisanship, Polarization and the Robustness of Support for Democracy in the United States,” https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3354559.
(9.) Frances E. Lee, Insecure Majorities (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).
(10.) Part of the reason we do this is that we are well aware that we come to this story with our own priors. In addition to our primary academic homes, we are both fellows at the Niskanen Center, a think tank that has taken on a particularly important role as a home for Never Trumpers. Precisely because of that affiliation, we have largely left the role that the Niskanen Center has played in the resistance to Trump as a story for others, who did not participate directly in it, to tell. That should in no way be read as reflecting our own assessment of the Niskanen Center’s significance, which we think has been considerable. But while we strive in the pages to come to give as neutral an account of Never Trump as we can, where Niskanen is concerned our objectivity necessarily reaches its limit. That said, whatever insight the reader finds in these pages is largely due to the access to members of Never Trump that we were able to glean by looking over the shoulders of the people involved.