If you ask her, President Donald Trump didn’t deserve any votes, let alone millions. And still, Mona Charen made it all the way to 11:09 on Election Night without swearing.
The conservative columnist was perched on a dining-room chair, Zooming into an Election Night panel for The Bulwark, the Never Trump conservative website for which she writes. As Joe Biden lost Florida and then appeared to lose North Carolina, Charen sighed and muttered, “Nightmare.” Another Bulwark writer said that although the prospect of Biden losing Pennsylvania was not what “we wanted,” the Democratic nominee could still win the presidency if he won Arizona, plus two electoral votes in Maine and two in Nebraska. At that point, Charen lost the rest of her chill.
“Right now, we are facing the possibility of not only not getting that, but having that fucker in office for four years!” Charen cried.
This surprised me because although the Bulwarkers had been dropping more f-bombs as more states went for Trump, Charen, a nice Jewish woman in her 60s, seemed too prim for that. She had done her makeup and dressed in a blazer. She had corralled her dog, Ike—like Dwight D. Eisenhower—away from the camera. She had made printouts of various polls and bellwether counties.
It was an evening of people breaking with tradition, though. The Bulwark was launched last year by prominent anti-Trump Republicans, including the GOP strategist Sarah Longwell and the former Republican National Committee spokesperson Tim Miller. Most were now rooting heartily for Biden, and some didn’t even want Republicans to keep the Senate.
After Charen’s outburst, the Zoom chat window filled with “MONA!” cheers from Democrats and Republicans alike who were watching the panel, feeling “physically sick” and “completely panicked” at the thought of a Trump victory.
Around 10:45, Charlie Sykes, The Bulwark’s editor in chief, begged everyone to remain calm. “We’re all freaking ourselves out here,” he said.
“Well, for good reason, Charlie,” said Miller, who once served as communications director for Jeb Bush. “Trump might be the president for four more years. That’s something to be concerned about.”
I don’t know whether that was the last time Charen swore that night, because I drove home about an hour later, when things were still not looking great for Biden. But as I left, Charen said that she was feeling bad, and that she hadn’t felt good about a presidential election since 2004.
I went to Charen’s house on Election Night because she once considered herself too conservative for George H. W. Bush, yet she committed herself so wholeheartedly to booting Trump out of office that she even voted for Democrats in down-ballot races this year.
“I want the Republican Party to feel spanked, so that it reforms and makes a U-turn,” she told me. She struggled to name the one thing that most disgusts her about Trump and his Republican enablers. It came down to “Are you a decent human being? Do you mostly tell the truth instead of mostly not?”
People like Charen are a tiny sliver of the GOP. Just 6 percent of Republicans supported Biden this year, according to a late-October Economist/YouGov poll. However, some anti-Trump Republicans might no longer consider themselves Republican, which would mean the true number of Never Trumpers like Charen is actually higher.
They are repulsed by the president’s boorish behavior (“shithole countries”), his ineptitude at governing (“a big, beautiful bill”), and his rejection of fiscal conservatism (sad!) However, by far the biggest turnoff about Trump, says Dan Judy, a Republican pollster with North Star Opinion Research, is “just who he is.”
Switching parties, in general, is a rare phenomenon in American politics. True, Ronald Reagan attracted some working-class “Reagan Democrats,” but we’ve since had four long decades of ideological sorting. In that time, Americans have been “dividing with increasing distinction into two partisan teams,” as the political psychologist Lilliana Mason writes in her book, Uncivil Agreement. Political parties have become Americans’ entire identity, to the point that voting for an opposing party’s candidate is less like picking a different tax policy and more like betraying your family.
And betrayed is just how some Republicans feel about Charen. In 2018, she appeared on a panel at the Conservative Political Action Conference. When asked about feminism, she attacked her own tribe, saying, “I’m disappointed in people on our side for being hypocrites on sexual harassers and abusers of women who are in our party, who are in the White House, who brag about their extramarital affairs, who brag about mistreating women. And because he happens to have an R after his name, we look the other way; we don’t complain.”
The crowd erupted in jeers and shouts of “Not true!” Charen had been a speechwriter for Nancy Reagan! This was CPAC, Republican prom! Security guards escorted her out for her own protection.
She continued to tell her truth throughout the Trump presidency. Though she is opposed to abortion, she feels that abortion ought to be viewed alongside other elements of morality—and Donald Trump, she wrote, “is a daily, even hourly, assault on the very idea of morality.”
Like other Never Trumpers, she’s lost friends over her views. Some people have told her that Republicans like her were responsible for Trump; others sent her images depicting her being stuffed into a Nazi oven, with Trump closing the door.
A few months ago, she said, National Review, the old-guard conservative magazine with which she had been associated since her early 20s, dropped her column. (National Review editor Rich Lowry told me the magazine had scaled back on several columnists at once.) Charen migrated over to The Bulwark, where she is edited by her son Benjamin Parker.
The Bulwark’s mission is “a defense of liberal democracy against extremists on both sides, a doubt that simple ideology would answer important questions, a willingness to try to think some of these issues through,” says Bill Kristol, a Bulwark editor at large who established the conservative Weekly Standard and whose nonprofit now helps fund The Bulwark. (I prefer the description offered by a fan in the Election Night Zoom chat: “The Sane Clown Posse.”)
In 2016, Charen voted for the third-party candidate Evan McMullin, but this year, she went even further. After spending her entire adult life writing columns advocating against reparations for slavery; saying she does not believe that someone’s being “born a man” but choosing to “dress as a woman” “makes him a woman”; comparing the Green New Deal to Stalinism; and arguing that the movement for same-sex marriage “forwards a damaging conception of marriage,” Charen wrote one announcing she was voting for Biden. Even though a Biden administration would likely try to pass policies that Charen mostly disagrees with, “when you compare the state of the two major parties today, the Republicans are more frightening,” she wrote in August.
Charen even phone-banked for Biden. She was surprised that some of the Democrats she called said they didn’t really blame Trump for his mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic. They just planned to vote with their party like they always did.
“As painful as this experience has been, I highly recommend it for expanding your mind,” she told me. It’s good for you, she said, to occasionally reevaluate whether you still believe all the stuff you always have.
On Saturday, the day TV networks announced Biden’s victory, Charen drank champagne and cooked a feast for her family. The core Bulwarkers joined another live-stream that night, and some cried tears of joy. Charen felt flooded with relief—but worried that Trump hadn’t conceded and that some Republicans were backing his baseless claims of fraud.
Both Kristol and Charen told me they have mixed feelings about the fact that Republicans will likely retain control of the Senate. Charen worries that Biden will simply be blocked by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at every turn, making the public even more cynical about government. But if moderate Republican compromisers, such as Maine’s Susan Collins, turn out to be the ones calling the shots, Charen will be pleased. Kristol leaned toward preferring a Democratic or split Senate, with the goal of “cleaning out the [GOP] more and making them pay more of a price for Trumpism.”
Eventually, though, Trump will be gone, and the future of The Bulwark, of Never Trump Republicans, and even of the GOP is a thicket of unanswered questions.
Charen told me that post-Trump, the site plans to keep an eye on QAnon and other conspiracists, and that she personally plans to speak up about Biden-administration policies she opposes. But the site’s role as a shared water cooler for Democrats and Republicans might end with the Trump era. This year, these two tribes formed a temporary pact to defeat a common enemy, like the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. during World War II. But other than their Trump hate, the founders of, say, the Lincoln Project have little in common with Democrats. Charen admitted that once The Bulwark starts criticizing the Biden administration, the site’s liberal fans might say, “To hell with you.”
And just where is the permanent ideological home for a Reagan Republican like Charen in 2020?
I’m not sure it’s with mainstream Democrats. Just two years ago, Charen released a book called Sex Matters, in which she argues that “for decades, feminists have urged women to flee from what they love and who they are, and rigidly to copy men.” Throughout its chapters, she criticizes government-funded child care, casual sex, and other societal changes she feels the left advocates for. “Most single mothers are deserving of praise,” she writes. “But isn’t it also clear that, in many cases, they’ve made poor decisions?” And that’s before you get to the part about transgender people.
In other words, intersectional she is not. While reading Sex Matters, I imagined Charen at a party with all my liberal friends, forlornly nursing a Pinot and getting canceled whenever she said anything.
If a more typical Republican runs in 2024, people like Charen may simply migrate back to the GOP—she’s fond of Senator Mitt Romney and Maryland Governor Larry Hogan. The same could happen if President Biden “takes marching orders from the Squad,” says Judy, the pollster, referring to a liberal foursome of young representatives.
Indeed, Charen said her vote this year doesn’t mean she’s become a lifelong progressive. “Even if I vote Democrat for the rest of my life, which I find hard to imagine,” she told me, “it will not be with the kind of blind loyalty that I showed to Republicans.”
Rejoining the Republicans will be difficult, though, if Trumpism hangs around D.C. even after Trump leaves. Some congressional Republicans have supported Trump in his refusal to concede the election, suggesting the president has, during his four years in office, taught Republicans a thing or two about being loud and ruthless. That’s off-putting to people like Charen and Kristol. “If the GOP seems given over to Trumpism, then perhaps this small number of Republicans will leave the party for good,” John Sides, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University, says.
It’s possible the Republican party will go back to normal after Trump is gone, but just what a cleaned-up GOP will look like is also unclear. “I don’t know if the Republican Party is salvageable,” Charen told me at one point. Not every political party lasts forever. When your leader is a chaotic bully, that might be a sign of your party’s end times. As Bulwark editor Jonathan V. Last, referring to the QAnon supporter who won a congressional seat last Tuesday, put it during the Zoom panel, “This is the Marjorie Taylor Greene party now.”
And yet, there don’t appear to be enough Never Trumpers to compete with Trumpism. Throughout Election Night, the Bulwarkers referred to themselves as “ostracized” and “excommunicated” because most other Republicans chose a different path. “You can’t have the Bill Kristol, Sarah Longwell, and Mona Charen party,” Charen said.
Well, you can. But only for one night.