Politics & Policy

Moving Past Never Trump

Trump campaigns in Prescott Valley, Ariz., in October. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)
Acceptance first, then we can look at lessons learned, such as the value of courage under fire.

There were different reasons for being Never Trump.

On the left, the meme that Trump supporters are all the deplorable “–ists” has taken hold. The idea is that this is all this election represents: a triumph of angry, racist misogynists lashing back at a black president and a potential female one. One has to conclude they haven’t actually met any Trump voters; otherwise, the inanity of their analysis is hard to sustain.

In the middle and in the GOP “establishment,” when Trump was doing badly, some became Never Trump (or, more accurately, “Only If He Might Win Trump”) because they like to back a winner and flinch from association with a loser. Their support ebbed and flowed with the changing consensus that Trump might or couldn’t win, and so a number ended on the wrong side of the trade and even if nominally supporting Trump, they didn’t expect success.

Finally, on the right, there were many wonderful, dedicated, principled conservatives who were repelled by Trump personally and saw him as protectionist, isolationist, nativist, and possibly racist. They were concerned that he would do long-term harm to the brand of both their philosophy and their party, and they traveled in circles where everyone they knew and cared about felt similarly. The conviction that Trump not only should not but could not win was one in which they were deeply invested.

Why so invested in that idea? Possibly because if they admitted that he could win (however awful they believed a Trump presidency would be), they would have to explain why a Trump presidency would be worse overall than a Clinton presidency. If Trump wasn’t going to win anyway, they didn’t need to justify not voting for Trump.

Why was voting for Trump a problem? Because they asked the question “What does my vote say about me?” And their answer was that voting for Trump was tantamount to endorsing his beliefs and behavior, which put them on the wrong side of how they wanted to see themselves, and wanted their friends and colleagues to see them, too.

But those who voted for Trump answered that question differently: How they voted was not about endorsing the worst of Trump but about the future of the country. Indeed, in focus groups we did this year, as well as anecdotally, Trump voters were better versed and more keenly aware of Trump’s warts than repelled and consequently undecided voters were. And while most had not favored Trump at the beginning of the election season, they were convinced that the gravity of this turning point for our country superseded their concerns about Trump’s flaws.

Now that Trump is in fact the president-elect, most Never Trumpers will complete the last of the stages of grief — acceptance — that many of their compatriots traveled through just a little faster. They are coming to terms, many with relief and even some exhilaration, that Hillary won’t be president, that the Senate majority has been retained, that we might in fact start to undo the damage of the last eight-plus years.

With that acceptance will come the opportunity for fresh perspectives if they are open to a new point of view.

‐Communications – Trump has confounded all the politicians and pundits with a messaging style that they were sure was disastrous but that proved time and again to be enormously effective. Much of it is unique to Trump, but there are large lessons here: speaking in the vernacular (rather than to one’s own coastal cohorts); starting with real people’s lives, concerns, and problems (versus lecturing people about why they’re wrong or about a bloodless theory of policy); and speaking of aspirations and possibilities (as opposed to stamping the foot and dwelling on “no” without an alternative).

‐Expanding the base — Trump appealed across party lines. The GOP political class assumes that one should either stick to the base or modify GOP policies to sell them beyond the base; this assumption missed the mark. This is a longstanding Republican error: The Left develops and feeds various narratives that connect emotionally with voters in the middle (and mouth conservative talking points while campaigning), while implementing policies for its base. The Right talks policy to the base but offers no narrative, explanation, or emotional connection, so voters in the middle do not understand or trust their intentions. The Right then attempts to shift its policies to get enough support to win, thereby losing the trust of their base as well. See: Rubio, Gang of Eight.

Trump is not Reagan, but he blindsided the establishment in the same way Reagan did. And elites will be as condescending about him as they were about Reagan.

Trump has addressed broad issues and shown that he could empathize with many voters’ deep concerns. As Scott Adams explains it, Trump “paces” the public, “he matches them in their emotional state, and then some.” After earning voters’ trust, Trump pulls most everyone along to a place of broad agreement. Many of his voters may need to be introduced to a wealth of policy ideas and solutions, and the conservative world would do well to talk to them — more effectively, let’s hope, than it has in the past, as noted above.

‐Courage under fire — How many times were we told that Trump could not survive this or that? Yet he did, every time. He didn’t fold or yield, and he apologized only once, when an apology was truly warranted. Perhaps others too will learn and become more brave.

‐Negotiate – This is yet to come, and there will be a balancing between different needs and policy approaches. Conservatives will hope that Trump negotiates deals built on good policy, not just cut any deal to say there is a deal. But the Right has neither 60 votes in the Senate nor the excuse that the president will veto legislation; the era of all or nothing (which inevitably ended with nothing) is over. Conservatives in my lifetime have been surpassingly awful at negotiating. Let’s hope they learn how to continually achieve wins, even if small but in the right direction.

#related#‐Impact — Part of the attraction of Trump was the promise that he would actually do something that affects our lives. Conservatives used to define wins by measuring actual outcomes that affected people’s lives. But in recent years, many have slipped into the mindset of the Left, where all that mattered was the purity of intentions, regardless of outcome. Trump won’t be satisfied with intentions, and conservatives shouldn’t be, either. With luck, Trump will bring us back to Reagan’s approach: not all-or-nothing success, not a whole loaf or no loaf, but success by whatever incremental slices we can get.

Tuesday night was 1980 all over again. Trump is not Reagan, but he blindsided the establishment in the same way Reagan did. And elites will be as condescending about him as they were about Reagan. But we can hope that in the end, we will once again look back and marvel at his eight years as president, and how good he was for the party, the movement, and the country.

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