What now, fellow Never Trumpers? How long is “never”? I see three paths ahead.
On the one hand, some people will leave the GOP in disgust. They looked at Donald Trump and his campaign and his supporters and saw a man unqualified and morally unfit for the job running a campaign they wanted no part of, and the prospect of a disastrous presidency ahead, and awaken today saying “not my circus, not my monkeys.” I’ll be sad to see them go, as many are old friends and stalwart conservatives. I hope the party and the conservative movement can bring them home again some day, and deserve to.
At the opposite end are those who opposed Trump mainly because they thought Trump and Trumpism were an embarrassing and politically suicidal dead end. Some of these folks are looking at the election returns and re-evaluating the first GOP wins in the Rust Belt states of Michigan and Pennsylvania since 1988, and Wisconsin since 1984. I think that’s short-sighted, as stormier seas are ahead. Even aside from the nature of the man, Trump’s political coalition may be the most unstable since the waning days of the New Deal.
But for many of us, this is a reminder that movement conservatives are rediscovering that we have a relationship with the Republican Party that is similar to the one our movement had between 1952 and 1976: the party is sometimes on our side, but it’s not consistently guided by our principles, and we have to work to turn it our way. Maybe in retrospect, that was truer in the past 20 years than some of us wanted to admit at the time. We’re in better shape now because the GOP has a lot more depth in the Senate, House and statehouses, and a lot of that depth is more Reaganite than Trumpist. But we will and should view the incoming Trump Administration not as a natural friend but as a transactional ally to be kept at arms’ length, kept honest by criticism, done business with on an issue-by-issue basis, and fought forthrightly when it deserves to be. We can’t fool ourselves: those fights will sometimes be lonely and losing ones.
We don’t need to concede that the GOP will be the Party Of Trump, but for a while at least it will be the Party With Trump, and the best we can do for now is try to work from within to pull it in our direction and curb the darker instincts Trump has brought to the surface. We stay, and we fight, because the fight is never over, and we remind ourselves that the lessons of the Reagan years – indeed, the lessons of Edmund Burke – need to be re-learned and re-taught for every succeeding generation. The torch must be kept lit.
I was “Never Trump” in 2016 because I concluded early on that Trump was unfit and unprepared for the job, untrustworthy on the issues, and morally and politically bad for the party and the movement, and no new information emerged to dissuade me of that view. Other than re-evaluating his ability to win a very close election against a terrible opponent with the wind at his back, none of that has changed. But for better or worse, by 2020 we will have a lot more information of greater relevance: what Trump actually does as President of the United States. If Trump surprises, and does a good job as president, I suspect many Never Trumpers will – and should – swallow our pride and support him. Ideally, that’s how democracy is always supposed to work. If he doesn’t, well, Ronald Reagan’s example of challenging a sitting GOP president in the 1976 primaries looms. Conservatives will need to accept the reality of the new Administration, but we don’t have to be cheap dates.