NeverTrump began not as an insurgency but as an act of conscientious objection: We were Republicans who would not vote for Trump even if he won our party’s nomination. He did, and we didn’t, and that was that.
Or so I thought. Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton changed the calculus. Now, our fellow Republicans repeatedly tell us: “The election’s over—move on.” Democrats, meanwhile, tell us our mission is really just beginning. Where they’re both wrong, however, is where most people in this discussion are wrong. It’s not about the president anymore.
My initial verdict on the election was that it was more or less a quirk: Trump won in spite of being Trump. But it’s clear to me now Trump won because he was Trump. That is the alarming reality of my party, because what distinguished Trump from his 16 Republican primary opponents was his outrageousness. There’s no such thing as Trumpism. What there is, instead, is a set of incentives Trump followed to the nomination, a sort of cheat code. And his victory threatens to magnify those incentives a hundredfold.
Conservatives used to stand athwart history shouting stop; now they run alongside history gleefully yelling, “Hit ’em again!” Hit who? Racial and ethnic minorities, much of the time. “Economic nationalism”? That’s a figment of Steve Bannon’s imagination. Rick Santorum spoke downright poetically of the Rust Belt’s forgotten man, and he didn’t come close to winning the nomination. Tim Pawlenty—the Sam’s Club Republican—barely made it to the pregame show. When Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam made “Sam’s Club conservatism” a key theme in their attempt to reform the GOP’s approach to working-class Americans, Rush Limbaugh derided them and any likeminded thinkers as “intellectualoids” who merely wanted the GOP to be a party that “gives money away to the Walmart middle class.”
So how did Trump succeed where they failed? A close look at Trump’s first year makes clear the nature of his appeal. Where’s the economic nationalism? Not in the tax cuts he signed or the Obamacare repeal he wanted to sign. Nor is that what his voters said they wanted. According to a Pew poll taken in the home stretch of the 2016 election, 87 percent of Trump supporters said they “prefer smaller government providing fewer services.”
Instead, they bought into white-grievance politics on a massive scale. Just 11 percent said it’s “a lot more difficult to be black in the U.S. than it is to be white,” and 6 percent agreed that “racial discrimination is the main reason blacks can’t get ahead.” Less than a month before the election, The Atlantic’s Olga Khazan dove into the research on Trump voters and their view of American masculinity. The data suggested that Trump backers were “more likely than Clinton supporters to feel that society punishes men just for acting like men.”
None of this should’ve been cause for surprise. The alt-right’s white-male grievance parade got plenty of airtime during and since the election. The trick, however, is understanding why a heretofore relatively unknown minority suddenly became a political kingmaker.
It’s tempting to judge groups by their numbers. But this misses a key phenomenon of American politics and culture today. Take campus protests. College kids who demand total banishment of anything that conflicts with “intersectional” activism are a minority. But if that minority is able to get nervous administrators to play along and ban speech or speakers, then the numbers don’t tell the full story: We need to know not just the numbers, but the power those numbers project. The same is true of the alt-right and the Republican Party. The president’s victory galvanized the forces of disruption that cater to this powerful undercurrent of racial provocation, which exercises an influence out of proportion to its small numbers.
Trump’s defenders point to conservative policy victories on taxes, judges, and regulations and say his critics are too fixated on his stylistic excesses. But marginal corporate tax cuts aren’t going to tear the country at the seams, nor save it from fracture. Racial and ethnic conflict can. The idea that it’s merely “impolite” to stoke racial tensions is ignorant and dangerous. Trump’s playing with matches whether or not he starts a wildfire, and it’s not a distraction to start fireproofing the house.
Which brings us back to Steve Bannon. Why did he back Roy Moore, the repugnant bigot credibly accused of sexual misconduct, for Senate in a three-way GOP primary? The answer isn’t policy; Moore wasn’t running against squishes. Instead, as Rich Lowry astutely noted in November, Moore was a perfect recruit for Bannon’s mission: “If Moore had well-considered political and legal views, good judgment and a sterling reputation, he’d almost by definition be part of the establishment that Bannon so loathes. Since Moore has none of those things, he’s nearly an ideal representative of the Bannon insurgency.”
And it’s also why Moore won the primary. Even though Trump sided with Luther Strange in the primary, Moore was the Trumpian candidate in the race. He was the outrageous middle-finger to prevailing social norms. His contention that a practicing Muslim would be disqualified from serving in Congress should’ve made him the squish—conservatives are supposed to be repelled by constitutional illiteracy. Instead, it made him more attractive to many primary voters.
Moderate Republicans helped seal Moore’s fate and tip the election to Doug Jones, who became the state’s first Democratic senator in a quarter-century. That’s good, because it shows moderate Republicans aren’t yet entirely powerless, which hopefully will encourage them to break from their party in future such elections. But the goal should be to stop candidates like Moore from getting the nomination in the first place. That’s where the fate of the GOP will be determined. Republicans must undo the incentives that enable unfit candidates to rise to the top of the GOP field precisely because of their unfitness.
And there will be more fights ahead.
Republicans likely haven’t heard the last of Corey Stewart, who nearly beat Ed Gillespie for the GOP nod in last year’s Virginia gubernatorial election. Stewart played footsie with the alt-right and protested the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, which months later became the site of torch-bearing neo-Nazi marches that turned deadly.
In May, Jan Morgan will challenge Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson in the Republican primary. Morgan owns a gun range she declared a “Muslim-free zone” in 2014 (and even enforced it the next year, turning away two Hindu customers she thought looked both Muslim and suspicious). In Arizona, Kelli Ward, a conspiracy theorist who has claimed immigrants are spreading disease across America, is running to replace outgoing Senator Jeff Flake. She’ll be joined in the primary by former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a prominent birther and anti-immigrant enforcer who was convicted of criminal contempt for refusing to abide by a court-ordered injunction against racial profiling. (He was pardoned by Trump.)
Then there’s Paul Nehlen. In 2016, Nehlen lost his primary bid to unseat House Speaker Paul Ryan by a whopping 70 points. Since then, he’s apparently decided going full white nationalist will improve his odds this time around. Nehlen embraced the alt-right favorite “It’s OK To Be White” meme, then began using triple parentheses around Jewish-sounding names (the neo-Nazi Internet version of a yellow star) and accusing opponents of being under the control of Jewish “paymasters.”
In a 2014 Mississippi primary, State Senator Chris McDaniel nearly knocked off incumbent GOP Senator Thad Cochran. McDaniel, egged on by Bannon, seems to be leaning toward challenging the state’s other sitting senator, Roger Wicker, in the primary this year. In 2014, BuzzFeed unearthed blog posts in which McDaniel mocked black victims of Hurricane Katrina and another in which he said of a Muslim activist upset by reports of airport-security profiling, “I can smell the jihad from here.”
My purpose here isn’t to predict doom in these or other races—or to make predictions at all. It’s to say this: These are the battles to be fought if the ideas and the values and, yes, the anger animating what came to be called NeverTrump are to mean anything. I don’t blame those who leave the Republican Party out of disgust. And I don’t begrudge those who put their energy into quixotic independent challenges. But the only fight that’s going to save the Grand Old Party is the one that takes place in the primaries.