Remember the never, never, never Trump movement? Who’s still in it?
Mitt Romney: Harshest GOP critic. Then rejected Cabinet pick. Then Senate antagonist?
Yesterday, James Bloodworth profiled the continuing ‘Never Corbyn’ resistance in Britain but what happened to ‘Never Trump’, the groups of Republicans who opposed Donald Trump’s hostile takeover of their party? In some places, it has receded to almost a whisper. Elected Republicans in Congress and the Senate have mostly kept their skepticism to themselves. Arguably this tactic has worked, as President Donald Trump’s has adopted the old Republican agenda that he campaigned against as his own. But even this relative calm is easily disturbed. Senator Bob Corker moved swiftly from angling for a position in Trump’s Cabinet, to passionately decrying him as an corrupting interloper, a threat to the party and country.
In America, the Never Trump movement was concentrated in the vast archipelago of conservative intellectual institutions: magazines, think tanks, and political consultancies. I’ve tried to highlight figures that show the variety of ways Never Trumpers have responded to Trump as president. The Some who opposed him have warmed up to his policies – or at least to the sense of disruption Trump brought to a staid political scene. Some have allowed their disgust with Trump to spill over onto their former party, and find themselves moving left. And others have found that if they can’t quite bring themselves to defend Trump, they can at least defend Trump’s fans. Our list starts with Mitt Romney.
Mitt Romney’s relationship with Donald Trump has had more plot twists than anyone else’s. Romney flew out to receive Donald Trump’s endorsement for president in the 2012 election, even though he had little taste for Trump’s conspiracy theories about Barack Obama. Four years later, as Trump closed in on the nomination, Romney dramatically intervened, “His domestic policies would lead to recession,” Romney, intoned in a speech, “His foreign policies would make America and the world less safe. He has neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president and his personal qualities would mean that America would cease to be a shining city on a hill.”
But when Trump won the presidency, Romney interviewed for the Secretary of state position. His wife, Ann Romney later said that her husband Mitt would have accepted the job if it had been offered. Rumours still persist that adviser Steve Bannon wanted Romney brought in only to humiliate him further, but that Trump thought Romney “looked the part.”
But now Romney is thought to be interested in the Senate seat from Utah – being vacated by Orrin Hatch. Trump critic Jennifer Rubin believes Romney would swiftly become the focus of anti-Trump opposition within the party. “If elected, Romney would have instantaneous gravitas on a range of issues, including the Russia investigation,” she wrote, “It’s no exaggeration to say that he would be the leader of the #NeverTrump Republicans in the Senate and maybe the country. “
All the drama leads one to ask: who, in Romney versus Trump, really possesses the virtue of constancy?
Rich Lowry: Editor of the "Against Trump" magazine
Rich Lowry edits National Review, the flagship magazine of the modern conservative movement, and fielding one of the largest stables of Trump-critical conservatives, including Jonah Goldberg, David French, Kevin Williamson, and Charles C W Cooke.
After publishing the very notable “Against Trump” issue of National Review, and while many people still believed Trump likely to lose, Lowry described the Never Trumpers as “a motley collection of conservative commentators, political professionals, policy experts and a handful of politicians who had the (not particularly stunning) foresight to see that Trump would be the weakest and most vulnerable of the Republican general-election candidates and the (not particularly acute) discernment to recognise in him qualities unsuited to the presidency.” In the same column he also said that NeverTrumpers would never exert as much influence over the election as Trump himself did, and could not be blamed for a Trump loss.
In recent months, Lowry has urged Republicans to recognise Trump’s faults and self-inflicted wounds as well as the uncomfortable fact that Donald Trump has been pushing forward successfully with the conservative agenda as it existed before Donald Trump entered the scene. It’s not just the instalment of Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court – fulfilling one of conservative America’s top motivations for voting – but a small army of conservative justices have been appointed to the judiciary, the rolling back the Title IX policies that stoked a sex panic on college campuses, deregulation, and tax cuts. We are far from the “worker’s party” that Trump promised, we have Paul Ryan’s party instead.
Lowry writes: “President Donald Trump is compiling a solid record of accomplishment. Much of it is unilateral, dependent on extensive executive actions rolling back President Barack Obama’s regulations, impressive judicial appointments, and the successful fight against ISIS overseas. The tax bill is the significant legislative achievement that heretofore had been missing. For much of the year, Trump’s presidency had seemed to be sound and fury signifying not much besides the welcome ascension of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court; now, it is sound and fury signifying a discernible shift of American government to the right.”
(Full disclosure, I joined National Review after the election, but before it appeared Trump would pass much of the Paul Ryan agenda.)
Max Boot: The foreign policy wonk
Although many mocked him for saying it, Max Boot’s pithy announcement, “I would sooner vote for Josef Stalin than vote for Donald Trump,” expressed a very real strain of Never Trumpism. Not only was Trump wicked and corrupting, he was so embarrassingly oafish as to make one half-jokingly long for the seriousness of utopian dictators. For Boot, worst of all, Trump was unleashing something new and ugly in American life.
Boot, a centre right foreign policy hawk who descends from Russian Jewish emigres, wrote a moving account of the new kind of harassment that greeted his political opinions in the age of Trump. “Last year I experienced the first sustained anti-Semitism I have ever encountered in the United States. Like many other anti-Trump commentators, I was deluged with neo-Nazi propaganda on social media, including a picture of me in a gas chamber, with Herr Trump in a Nazi uniform pulling the lever to kill me. This was accompanied by predictable demands that I leave this country to “real” Americans and go back to where I came from — or, alternatively, to Israel.”
Boot lamented the way a blood and soil nationalism seemed to replace the “old idea that anyone who embraces America’s ideals can become an American.” This process was insidious because it inevitably forces even civic nationalists like Boot to reconsider and dwell on their ethnic identity.
Boot’s assessment of Trump’s first year in office admits that in some ways it wasn’t as bad as he feared, but this was in large part due to Trump’s own failures to be faithful to his words, his incompetence, and the political brake on Trumpism that senior appointees in the administration provide. Still, Boot charges that Trump is running “easily the least ethical administration since Nixon’s” and will go down in history as corrupt figure who further divided a nation desperately in need of reconciliation. Boot now hopes to see Republicans lose, and is testifying to a new raised consciousness on racial issues, denouncing his former attitude toward political correctness as glib, even ignorant.
R R Reno: Catholic convert to disruption
R R Reno is a Catholic theologian and editor of First Things, a journal that unashamedly takes religious ideas into the public square. Reno joined many conservatives in National Review’s “Against Trump” issue, assessing that in his self-presentation as a Strong Man, Trump “has a lot more in common with South American populist demagogues than with our tradition of political leaders.” But after Trump won the nomination, Reno signed a “Scholars and Writers for America” statement endorsing Trump over Clinton.
Since then, Reno has taken on a position of critical sympathy for populist critics of a decadent and deformed globalist consensus. Under his leadership First Things has a new urgency. In May, Reno began to outline the changes he observed in this new era: “The political establishment quarrels over a great deal, but it shares the metaphysical dream of a more open and fluid world,” he wrote, “The left leans in the direction of multiculturalism, where political correctness operates as an obligatory ideology of inclusion. The right tilts in the direction of free markets, even to the point of describing national citizenship as rent-seeking. But the root idea is the same. When in doubt, open things up! “
Now, with Trump that vision was being challenged, “A quite different metaphysical dream now runs counter to globalism. It prizes loyalty and wishes to re-consolidate around something solid and tangible. Trump’s political genius was to recognize this desire.” Reno acknowledged the great dangers of nationalism, but concluded, “The greatest threat to freedom is our dissolving society. Voters sense this, which is why they’re tilting in the direction of nationalism, however inarticulately and tentatively.” Reno’s turn may be emblematic. As the post-Cold War liberal consensus gripped tighter to its own orthodoxies in the face of a Trumpian challenge, some who were once party to it found themselves allied with the heretics.
Ben Shapiro: The podcaster and campus provocateur
Ben Shapiro is a young man in a hurry, who seems to put together a decade’s worth of media accomplishments in a single year. During the last election cycle Ben Shapiro publicly broke with the Trump-y media outlet Breitbart.com, launched a very successful daily conservative podcast, and even snatched a respectful profile in the New York Times. He’s become one of the most popular conservative speakers on American campuses. He was an early and emphatic “NeverTrumper” charging that Trumpism stands for amoral foreign policy and “nastiness toward women and tacit appeals to racism and unbounded personal power.”
Now Shapiro has concluded that the Trumpism is an incoherent rhetorical populism, attached to a mostly conservative agenda. “And, as it turns out, there was no philosophical Trumpism. It was all a hollow intellectualization of candidate Trump’s contradictory campaign statements; it was an attempt to mold a system of thought around one man’s political impulses. Thankfully, we were left with conservatism,” he wrote, “President Trump’s governance this year has been more conservative than that of George W. Bush or even Reagan.” Shapiro still mocks the president’s more outlandish Tweets, but was impressed with the “moral courage” and “political bravery” of Donald Trump when he announced the US would move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
David Frum: The intellectual vanguard for Never Trump
This former Bush speechwriter and conservative intellectual has long wanted the GOP to break with its outdated economic orthodoxies but David Frum had no interest in a Trump presidency. He turned into one of Trump’s most forceful critics during the campaign. Week by week, he offered advice to Republican candidates looking to stop Trump. He practically pled with conservatives not to support Trump, not even for the Supreme Court nominees. To no avail.
Unlike others conservatives who have slowly warmed up to Trump, Frum has continually redoubled his criticism, warning that American society is ripe for an autocratic turn brought about by Trump. He cautioned Republican policy wonks and advisors – friends almost certainly among them – about the ethical challenges of serving a president like Trump.
His new book, Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic, documents the ways in which Trump’s administration is eroding the normal constraints that Americans have placed on the presidency, and joining America to the baleful anti-democratic trends Frum spies in Hungary and Poland. Even before its release date, Frum’s book reached Amazon’s #1 New Release in the category of “Fascism.”
Senator Lindsey Graham: From critic to confidante
The South Carolina Senator was the most quotable Trump critic among elected Republicans, calling Trump a “kook” during the primaries. “I think he’s crazy,” Graham said, “I think he’s unfit for office.” Like other hawks in the party he vociferously opposed the Trump’s nomination. In the days after Trump’s election, Graham called him a “fool” on Russia, saying he has “no idea” how to defeat Islamic state, and doesn’t know anything about foreign policy. In a recent interview Graham recalled his litany of Trump criticisms. “I said he was a xenophobic, race-baiting, religious bigot. I ran out of adjectives.
But Graham started golfing with the president. And, like many hawkish Republicans, he recognises that Trump has come a long way toward his direction. “I think he’s made good foreign policy choices,” Graham said on Face the Nation. “He’s now arming the Ukraine. Long overdue. He’s got the right policy to deny North Korea the ability to hit America with a nuclear-tipped missile. And he is now on the side of the Iranian people.” He has even criticised the media for launching the same critique he once advanced, “What concerns me about the American press is this endless, endless attempt to label the guy as some kind of kook not fit to be president.”
Senator Ted Cruz: Friend, enemy supplicant?
Although the drama of Trump’s presidency has long since overshadowed it, Ted Cruz’s 2016 convention speech was a rare surprise in a party event that is usually stage-managed. “We deserve leaders who stand for principle, who unite us all behind shared values, who cast aside anger for love,” Cruz said. The implication was obvious: We deserve a better candidate. After endorsing “conscience”, Ted Cruz left the stage while much of the convention booed him.
The relationship between Trump and Cruz never lacked drama. At first Cruz tried to embrace Trump. “The Establishment’s only hope: Trump & me in a cage match. Sorry to disappoint — @realDonaldTrump is terrific. #DealWithIt” he tweeted.
But as the campaign started to narrow, Cruz practically admitted the cynicism of that tactic. He prefaced his remarks, “I’m gonna tell you what I really think of Donald Trump.” Then he unloaded: “This man is a pathological liar. He doesn’t know the difference between truth and lies. ” Cruz added that Trump was a narcissist, serial philanderer, and “utterly amoral.”
Trump had richly merited Cruz’s convention backstab. Trump had made fun of Cruz’s wife. He put forward the loony theory that Cruz’s father was involved in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Cruz has had to explain to disgruntled Republican loyalists that he refused to be Trump’s “servile puppy dog” after such treatment, a sentiment that anyone would understand outside of politics. Cruz finally endorsed Trump in September of 2016.
During the Trump presidency, Cruz has kept a notably lower profile than he had during the Obama years. His criticism, when he gives it, is almost memorably unmemorable. Trump “speaks in ways that I wouldn’t” on North Korea, Cruz lamely offered.
Russell Moore: Here he stands, he can do no other
As President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Moore champions conservative causes for religious liberties in an America still sorting through the implications of same-sex marriage. He also has been widely praised for representing a new generation of Evangelical politics, one that seeks racial reconciliation within America and seeks to affirm the dignity of the immigrant, even as it continues to stand for the traditional causes of the religious right, especially on the ‘right-to-life’.
Moore had an occasionally acerbic presence in social media when it came to politics. When other Evangelical leaders met with Trump, Moore joked that he was “allergic to Kool-Aid,” a reference to the mass suicide of the Jim Jones cult. This truth-telling was not without some cost.
After Trump’s election more than one hundred member churches of the Southern Baptist Convention threatened to cut off financial support for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission over Moore’s politics. It was a relatively small but noisy rebellion and that eventually resolved in Moore’s favor. But as with Ted Cruz, there is a sense that Moore has responded to the Trump era by offering fewer quotable opinions, and tending more to his own garden.
Dana Loesch Populist firebrand comes around
I genuinely like him, “ Dana Loesch said of candidate Donald Trump, “But not as my presidential pick.” His story about his conversion to conservative causes didn’t pass the test with the conservative radio and television personality. She asked why it was that other Republican politicians are bashed for flip-flopping, but Trump’s turnarounds “are accepted uncritically.” It was an unusually brave position for Loesch whose audience, attracted to her own populist tone, and confrontational approach, was a strong match for Donald Trump.
Since then, Loesch has followed her audience into supporting him. And she frames her support of Trump as way of supporting her followers and fans. Even protecting them. In a scorching video produced for the NRA she denounced those who questioned the legitimacy of his election. “We are witnesses to the most ruthless attack on a president and the people who voted for him, and the free system that allowed it to happen, in American history,” she said, “From the highest levels of government, to their media, universities and billionaires, their hateful defiance of his legitimacy is an insult to each of us.” Her turnaround is a neat illustration that American conservatives who believe politics is war by other means must eventually fall in line.
George W Bush: Former president and proximate cause of Trumpism
George W Bush has maintained a quieter post-presidency than others, writing a memoir in which he gave voice to his regrets, and turning toward painting portraits of world leaders and wounded American veterans. But he hasn’t been shy about his views on Trump when solicited. Bush voted for Hillary Clinton, and told a CNN correspondent that Trump, “doesn’t know what it means to be president.”
In a speech last October, Bush never mentioned Trump by name, but obviously had him in mind as he denounced trends in American politics, where “nationalism distorted into nativism” and declaimed that “our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication.”
Trump’s rise has been partially attributed to Bush’s failures in managing the American economy, and his conduct of foreign policy in the Middle East. But it may also be true that some Republican voters sensed Bush’s now expressed distaste for their priorities and attitudes, and preferred a candidate like Trump would would mirror and amplify their concerns, rather than try to tutor them.