In the wee hours of last Monday morning the president of the United States picked up his iPhone and rage tweeted four times at the conservative leaders of a new Never Trump group that calls itself “The Lincoln Project.”
Trump was fuming about a powerful new ad – “Mourning in America” – a takeoff on one of the most famous and effective television spots in presidential history, Ronald Reagan’s 1984 ad “Morning in America.” Rather than Reagan’s claim that he brought to the country a new dawn, the Lincoln Project ad says Donald Trump has made the country “weaker, sicker and poorer.”
“Americans are asking,” the devastating ad concludes, “if we have another four years like this will there even be an America?”
Trump ranted that the ad and the group behind it were “a disgrace to Honest Abe” and he slashed at the husband of White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, calling George Conway, a prominent Never Trump conservative, “a deranged loser.”
For good measure Trump slipped in a slur – Moonface – directed at Conway, whose mother was of Filipino descent. Trump also slashed at long-time Republican operatives John Weaver and Rick Wilson, as “all LOSERS.”
Weaver, a former John McCain guy and adviser to former Ohio governor John Kasich, seemed to revel in the attention Trump brought to the Never Trumpers.
The president’s rage might be understood as another example of his absolute insistence that every Republican bow before him and accept his incompetence and character shortcomings as the Idaho congressional delegation regularly does. But, on another level the incident and the vicious open break with a GOP president by a cadre of conservatives who have been unwilling to accept how Trump has remade – and deeply damaged – the Republican brand illustrates a real and lasting problem for the once Grand Old Party.
An important new book – Never Trump: The Revolt of the Conservative Elites – co-authored by Idaho native Robert P. Saldin, a professor of political science at the University of Montana, explores the conservative push back against Trump that dates back to the 2016 Republican primaries. The book, published by Oxford University Press, will be out soon and is based on extensive interviews with a range of conservatives who oppose Trump. Saldin’s co-author is Steven Teles, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins.
I asked Saldin this week if there were historical parallels to the push back against the president. The answer, of course, is yes, including modern intraparty objections to Barry Goldwater by Republicans in 1964 and Democratic opposition to George McGovern in 1972. But Never Trump still seems unprecedented.
“In the context of these historical parallels,” Saldin told me, “the depth and breadth of the 2016 GOP opposition was remarkable. While objections on policy and ideological grounds were certainly important, it was—and is—Trump’s character that constitutes the central objection of Never Trumpers.”
So how to explain a party where most elected officials claim to honor the legacy of Lincoln and celebrate the probity of Reagan, while embracing a characterless character like Donald Trump?
“Among the political pros, for instance,” Saldin told me, “what initially was a massive contingent of Never Trumpers declined rapidly once he became the apparent nominee. These professionals are uniquely beholden to staying in the party’s good graces. That’s how they pay their mortgage. And they don’t have the other kind of options that are available to other partisan networks. They don’t get to go back to the university or think tank jobs. So the ones who stuck it out as Never Trumpers tended to be the celebrity consultants who’d already made a ton of money, had side gigs, and had the freedom to do whatever they wanted. Obviously, there are always exceptions, and there certainly are in the Never Trump landscape. But the professional dynamics and constraints go a long way toward explaining the degree of flexibility people had.”
This understanding goes some distance to help explain the situational ethics of Republicans like Idaho’s Mike Crapo and Mike Simpson, both of whom effectively disowned Trump in 2016 when he lewdly confessed on videotape to sexual abuse. But gradually and eventually totally they embraced Trump as the leader of a conservative movement that now rejects a vast array of the tenets that once represented core conservative values, from free trade to intellectual honesty, from American leadership of NATO to a rejection of activist judges.
Crapo and Simpson and so many others accepted the character of a leader who many of the party’s political professionals knew would destroy the values that made them Republicans. They got flexible as the price of survival in a party they can hardly recognize any more.
If Trump were to lose in November – a big if, but with his abandonment of leadership against the pandemic and with unemployment headed toward Great Depression levels, not a bad bet today – Saldin believes the Never Trump movement could become an important faction in a Republican Party that will struggle to define itself in a post-Trump world.
“To be sure, it would be a minority faction,” he says. “But that faction could be pretty competitive in places the dominant faction isn’t competitive. Such a faction could find a following among the educated middle-class, business, and upwardly mobile segments of ethnic minority groups. It would likely embrace free trade, constitutionalism, pluralism, law and order, and be pro-market. There’d be stark differences with the Trump-style populists when it comes to issues like trade and immigration.”
If such a thing were to happen it might well mark the resurrection of the GOP as a serious governing party, as opposed to a soap box for Trump’s personality cult and his grievances, and those of his angriest followers, over issues of race and hatred of “elites.” It might also be the salvation of American politics where a new center dominated by moderates willing to compromise on issues like climate change and rebuilding the middle class. It’s a big hope, but it might be all we have.
“In bluer parts of the country where the Democrats’ Left wing is strongest—and where Trumpy populists are a non-starter—such Republicans could find a sweet spot,” Saldin argues. “In fact, we already see examples of something like this in the form of these popular Republican governors in Massachusetts (Charlie Baker) and Maryland (Larry Hogan).”
If the Never Trumpers have done nothing else, they remind us of something we should never forget about politics and political leaders: character matters.