The Revenge of the Never Trumpers

Conservatives who have repudiated the president are an essential part of the coalition that could elect Biden—and reshape American politics for years to come.

MANDEL NGAN / AFP /Getty

About the authors: Quinta Jurecic is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, a senior editor at Lawfare, and a fellow at the Brookings Institution. Benjamin Wittes is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, the editor in chief of Lawfare, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Less than a year ago, the so-called Never Trump movement had been left for dead.

President Donald Trump tweeted, in a statement remembered mainly because of its final phrase, that “the Never Trumper Republicans, though on respirators with not many left, are in certain ways worse and more dangerous for our Country than the Do Nothing Democrats. Watch out for them, they are human scum!”

In retrospect, Trump’s reference to respirators seems strange in light of the coronavirus pandemic. But such near-death metaphors were common back then in reference to Never Trumpers, a group of current and former conservatives who, to varying degrees, repudiated Trump as the Republican presidential nominee and then as the president. “NeverTrumpism is not dead, but it is on life-support with no possibility of returning to the vitality it displayed in 2016,” David Azerrad, a Heritage Foundation scholar, wrote in one op-ed. “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.” “Never Trump Republicanism isn’t quite dead, but it sure is getting close,” the columnist Damon Linker wrote in The Week.

Some of these criticisms were attempts to describe what seemed to be a real collapse in conservative opposition to Trump; others were written by authors who, whether on the left or the Trumpist right, were eager to discount the importance of this constituency. Nevertheless, reports of the Never Trump movement’s death turn out to have been exaggerated. In recent weeks, as the coronavirus has continued to tear through the United States, as Trump has continued to behave erratically, and as his poll numbers have continued to slide, Never Trumpers have gained a new significance as part of the political coalition that could help defeat Trump’s reelection effort, and may just prove to have longer-term governance implications. They have also enjoyed an attendant flood of publicity—some of it flattering, some of it tinged with fear and irritation, but nearly all of it acknowledging the faction’s renewed relevance.

The recipient of most of this attention has been the Lincoln Project, a group founded by George T. Conway III—an aggressive Trump critic and the husband of the Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway—and Rick Wilson, Steve Schmidt, and John Weaver, three formerly Republican political operatives. As the organization rolls out ad after no-holds-barred ad against the president, it has garnered criticism from both the left and the pro-Trump right.

The project is “little more than the most brazen election-season grift in recent memory,” wrote a contributor to the conservative National Review, complaining that the ads are “advancing Democratic narratives.”

Meanwhile, writers on the left—many of whom have spent the past several years hoping for the political irrelevance of Never Trumpers—are starting to warn against letting the group become too influential. “The ads needling Trump are often entertaining, but they are pushing a sinister agenda,” Jeet Heer argued in The Nation—namely, “a desire to return to the hard-line military aggression of the George W. Bush era.”

With slightly fewer than 100 days left until the presidential election, how much success the Never Trump campaign is having is unknowable. Yes, the president’s support is eroding, but—given the White House’s failure to contain the coronavirus and Trump’s own erratic behavior—the reason for that is as overdetermined as a variable could be.

One can measure impact in other areas, however. To the extent that the Lincoln Project is aiming to personally troll the president, the ads seem to be working: The Wall Street Journal reported that Trump’s recent firing of his campaign manager, Brad Parscale, was provoked in part by a breathy Lincoln Project ad hinting that Parscale was accumulating personal wealth at the expense of the campaign. In a Twitter exchange with one of us, Conway argued explicitly that the organization’s goal was to “manipulate” the president, presumably to disorient him and throw his campaign into chaos. In an interview with the other, Rick Wilson made similar comments, suggesting that some of the ads are designed to keep the president personally off balance and thereby induce mistakes.

And if it remains unclear whether the Lincoln Project—and a similar group, Republican Voters Against Trump—will actually be able to sway voters, as opposed to just racking up views online, the surge of interest in Never Trump groups is certainly being mirrored in Trump’s sagging polls. The president is facing a loss of support among key constituencies who voted for him in 2016, including white suburban women. If he fails to win back those voters, his reelection is in serious danger. His campaign seems to have realized this—hence his efforts to woo white suburb-dwellers by portraying America’s cities as bombed-out hellscapes, and by calling on the “Suburban Housewives of America” to turn against Joe Biden.

The Never Trumpers’ swift rise from the ashes of history does not have a single cause. There is, as an initial matter, the political savvy of some of the people in question. The Lincoln Project’s searing ads have developed a cult following—though they’ve also drawn criticism on both aesthetic and moral grounds. A series of videos made by Republican Voters Against Trump, which target a different demographic, have been no less engrossing. Made by voters themselves, these videos feature people describing the personal political considerations that lead them to identify as Republicans and yet reject the president. The output of both groups has been gripping and it has been quite different from material released by left-leaning, liberal, or Democratic entities. On a more intellectual level, a new magazine, The Bulwark, which was set up while the movement was still attracting life-support metaphors, has created an institutional home for Never Trump writing. In the drive for mind-share, the Never Trumpers have been tenacious and effective—aided in no small measure by their being the intellectual elite of the conservative movement.

It is possible for Biden to beat Trump without attracting many conservative votes. But it is not possible for him to win in a giant landslide without winning moderate conservative votes. Biden is now running far ahead in the major swing states, and running competitively in solidly Republican states like Georgia and Texas, because a whole lot of people who are traditional Republican voters are thinking about abandoning their party’s nominee. Likewise, if Democrats take the Senate this year, it will probably be because a lot of moderate Republicans threw their lot in with Democrats—exactly as the Never Trumpers have. Such voters are not a group of people Democrats instinctively know how to talk to. They are people Never Trump Republicans know how to talk to. So the more Biden’s and congressional Democrats’ leads grow, the more likely the marginal vote in the election is to belong to someone sympathetic to Never Trump conservatism.

Even though it may prove crucial, conservative support for Biden alarms some people on the left. A broad coalition—and the political space between the former Black Panther Angela Davis and the prominent neoconservative Bill Kristol must count as one of the broadest coalitions in the modern history of the country—is necessarily hard to keep together, particularly if its leader is bent on dramatic structural changes that will cost a great deal of money. If Biden wins with a coalition bound together by opposition to Trump, and he wishes—as any politician would—to keep that coalition together, how will that coalition limit what he can deliver? If a Democratic senator is carried into office in 2020 on a wave of conservative as well as leftist and liberal votes, will that senator be game for the radical changes that some voters demand?

In one common understanding of America’s weird new political alignment, the relationship between the Never Trumpers and the Democrats is a marriage of convenience: Conservatives will snap back to the Republican Party when some semblance of sanity returns to it. This may be true for many voters, but the rupture between the Never Trump intellectuals and the party seems—at least in some cases—irreparable.

The fact is that the coalition forming behind Biden, however uncomfortable it may be, may have some staying power (if it doesn’t get disrupted by some major overseas crisis that splits those who favor active American military interventions abroad and those who oppose them). There are two major reasons to think this.

The first is that, for all the worry among leftists that Never Trumpers might drag the Democratic Party to the right, so far the opposite seems to be taking place—that is, many Never Trumpers have actually moved left, on two crucial issues. The group is far from homogeneous, of course. But many prominent Never Trump voices have become far more sensitive to voting-access issues than they used to be. John Weaver, one of the Lincoln Project’s co-founders, has said that the organization will advocate for automatic voter registration and a revitalized Voting Rights Act. As with any such political promise, we should pay attention to what the group puts money into, but Weaver is far from alone among anti-Trump conservatives in voicing anxiety over voter suppression. Never Trumpers have also, by and large, been hard to distinguish from appalled liberals in the context of police abuse, race, and protest issues in the past several months. It’s not hard to imagine a governing Democratic coalition passing significant voter protections and police reform without any prominent Never Trumpers jumping off the wagon.

Second, the country is currently facing a giant governance challenge that is not ideological in character. There is not a great deal of daylight between sensible conservatives and sensible liberals or leftists on how to handle the coronavirus—and there’s a great deal of agreement across the political spectrum that to protect the economy from its ravages, the country is going to need to spend a lot of money. The more Trump mishandles this constellation of issues, the longer the time horizon on this challenge grows. Addressing these issues will likely dominate the entire first portion of the new administration. If Biden successfully manages this crisis, he will be well into his term before the virus yields as the paramount issue to questions more likely to separate his coalition along left-right lines.

What fundamentally unites the Biden coalition is the demand for decent and competent government. If Biden can display these traits, it is possible that both the left and the right might consider him a success.