At Least Never Trumpers Stood and Fought

Courage exercised only when the coast is clear is not courage; it is opportunism.

An illustration of a large megaphone and a small megaphone
Shutterstock / The Atlantic

Shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, the author John le Carré’s most famous creation, the fictional British spy George Smiley, reflected on a career spent fighting a now-vanquished enemy.

“There are some people,” Smiley said at a dinner among young recruits to the Secret Service, “who, when their past is threatened, get frightened of losing everything they thought they had, and perhaps everything they thought they were as well. Now I don’t feel that one bit. The purpose of my life was to end the time I lived in.”

With a bit more pensiveness, Smiley adds: “Or perhaps … our troubles are just beginning.”

I think of this passage often, not only because I spent the first part of my career fighting (in my own small and mostly insignificant way) the Cold War, but also because I have spent the most recent part of my career fighting the possible rise of authoritarianism in my own country. I was a founding member of the band of Republican defectors known as the Never Trumpers, and one way or another, “the times I have lived in”—the movement to protect American democracy from Donald Trump and to stop his reelection—will come to an end in November.

I am not confidently predicting victory. I am too scarred by the horrific outcome of the 2016 election to count any chickens, no matter how alive and clucking they might seem. But win or lose, our goal will become something else. When my friends—including the few I have left among the conservatives—ask what the Never Trumpers will do now, I say with all honesty that I am not sure.

What I do know is that, regardless of what any one of us does individually, two aspects of the Never Trump movement will outlast Trump. First, we will always be able to say that when Trump and his thugs took over the Republican Party and then the elected branches of the United States government, we did not cut and run. We stood and fought.

Second, these four years have confirmed to us that Trump’s moral corruption of the Republican Party is total, from top to bottom. Our current alliances with our liberal friends may not be a permanent realignment. But I don’t believe that those of us who opposed Trump will declare that bygones are bygones with conservatives who supported him and go back to partisanship as usual.

The fact that we didn’t run is more than a point of pride. Other conservatives who spoke privately and sometimes publicly of Trump with utter contempt in 2016 buckled that November. Some had even signed letters during the election saying that they’d never work for Trump, but when he won, they groveled and asked for just one more glimpse of the throne.

I believe that if all of us had caved, Trump would now be much closer to victory, not just at the polls, but over the Constitution itself. Many of us instead held firm and made the case for democracy and the rule of law from the right flank against our own tribe.

We all paid for our dissent, in various ways.

While some lost money, all lost friends. A few needed law enforcement to step in because of threats to their lives and to their families.

For my own part, I naively thought at the start of this madness that no one would much care what I said about Trump, at least any more than they did about my previous writing on politics. Besides, the fight among the conservatives was mostly brewing in Washington, D.C., and I was a middle-aged professor living on the quiet shores of Rhode Island. I was wrong.

Early in 2016, I said (in a conservative magazine, The Federalist, that has since fallen to the Trumpist fever) that I would take Hillary Clinton over Trump. As a lifelong conservative choosing “Crooked Hillary” over the “Swamp Drainer,” I received a short burst of interest, especially from talk radio. Then, that summer, I wrote a piece on how I became a Never Trumper for The New York Times Magazine.

I was at my church’s annual Greek festival, about to grab some souvlaki and baklava with my young daughter, when my phone rang.

“Have you seen Breitbart?” a colleague asked.

“When have I ever read Breitbart?” I responded. (I had been asked some years earlier to be a contributor when the publication launched. I had turned it down flat.)

“Well, because they’re trying to get you fired,” my friend said.

I am a professor. But because I teach at a military institution, I am a Defense Department employee and I am therefore bound by the Hatch Act, which prohibits government employees from using their positions for political purposes. Breitbart claimed I was breaking that law. (This is where I am duty-bound to remind you that I do not speak in any way for the U.S. government or any of its agencies.) As it turned out, even before the Breitbart story dropped, my employer had already determined that I had not violated any laws or regulations.

I spent decades studying repressive regimes, but I always did so with the swagger of a man who holds an American passport. Other people had to fight for their rights, not me. Now I was accused of legal wrongdoing for expressing my political views as a private citizen. For the first time in my life, I felt like a dissident.

That summer, I sat down with my wife and members of my family. Continuing to write about Trump could mean serious financial hardship. I had a lifetime contract with the Navy, but no contract is unbreakable. We were facing real risk, and I wanted to know their feelings.

The people I care most about in the world all told me the same thing: Fight.

So I went on the offensive, writing and speaking out even more. If Trump’s minions were determined to curtail my constitutional rights, I was more determined to exercise them. I became intimately familiar with the Hatch Act and its provisions—and I obeyed it far more scrupulously than anyone in the Trump White House—but that did not stop the regular waves of emails and phone calls over the next four years, usually spurred by some Trump-supporting website or talk-show host, demanding that I be fired.

Over time, my critics moved on to various other charges, including that I was personally unfit to associate with officers of the U.S. military, that I was an agent of the “deep state,” and even that I was a Russian asset and therefore a security risk.

As they did with all of us in the Never Trump camp, the president’s most fanatical supporters accused me of outright treason. They demanded my arrest. Some sent messages telling me that they looked forward to my official execution or other versions of my untimely death. In some cases, I had to pass these threats on to federal law enforcement for assessment of risk not only to me, but to my community.

The Trump faithful also accused us of trying to get rich on our Never Trump status. Yes, the founders of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project are now taking in lots of donations—but that was after burning personal and financial bridges to the Republican Party that sustained them and built their handsome homes over the years. (For the record, I have received zero compensation for my association with the Lincoln Project, but I hope the owners of the organization get plenty rich. They’ve earned it.) For most of us, media appearances came only with a ride to the studio and free coffee. (At 30 Rock in New York, at least it was Starbucks.) The short pieces we all wrote—much like this one—generated a small fee that could pay for a nice dinner and maybe a bottle of wine. I am a successful author, but none of my books are about Trump, and to this day, I don’t even have an agent. If we’d been in it for our own enrichment, we’d have made the smart play and signed on with Trump, because that’s where the money was right from the start.

As we approach Election Day, my career and my constitutional rights remain intact. I have made my case against the president loudly and clearly.

Now that it looks like Trump is headed for defeat, some Republicans feel safe to criticize him again. But courage exercised only when the coast is clear is not courage; it is opportunism. Seeing someone such as Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska or the ever-troubled Senator Susan Collins of Maine rediscover their voices now that the die seems to be cast is not particularly inspiring.

These late conversions to opposing Trump mean nothing, at least to me. The experience of fighting taught the Never Trumpers how much the president had poisoned the Republican Party and long ago exposed the character of many of our former comrades. Some turned out to be as racist and authoritarian as Trump himself, while others merely confirmed that they were little more than vacuous opportunists who were capable of betraying the Constitution at will.

This is why, when Trump is gone (whether after this election or in 2024), I will continue to oppose everyone who had anything to do with inflicting this scar on American history, long after the members of the Trump family are finally bankrupt, in rehab, in jail, or living in seclusion in Manhattan among the neighbors who already despise them.

Whether it is Nikki Haley or Tom Cotton running for president or Fox’s prime-time lineup bolstering Trump’s underlings, for as long as I have a public platform, I will contend that these are people who betrayed the principles of our system of government for their own gain and that my fellow citizens should refuse to give them votes or ratings.

And what if Trump wins? If that happens, America will become a different country, and we will all enter the first iteration of an American dictatorship. At a minimum, I will join with other civil libertarians to limit the speed and depth with which the president will take us into authoritarianism. The fight will be a rearguard action, and we will likely lose. But I didn’t run the first time Trump was elected, and I won’t run if it happens again.

I hope that this is purely alarmism on my part. As Smiley said over his brandy, “if my past were still around today, you could say I’d failed.” But as the election approaches, I prefer to think about my time as a Never Trumper by recalling the old spy’s final words to those young students:

“Never mind. What matters is that a long war is over. What matters is the hope.”