Julie Kelly’s new book, Disloyal Opposition: How the #NeverTrump Right Tried and Failed to Take Down the President, is tempting to ignore. She is quite explicit about the fact that she didn’t write it to advance the conservative cause. It is instead meant as an attack on those members of the Never Trump club — and a whole bunch of people she wrongly identifies as part of that club — whom she doesn’t like. I do think a serious and credible treatment of the Right’s various anti-Trump factions would be an interesting read. But Kelly is neither serious nor credible; she occupies a place in the MAGA firmament roughly equivalent to Jennifer Rubin’s place among Never Trumpers, which is to say that she’s a hack.
Those who read this book hoping for useful analysis of what exactly has polarized various figures on the right around their Trumpian positions are sure to be disappointed. What they will quickly learn instead is that treating all of President Trump’s critics as one monolithic group is dishonest, lazy, and ultimately unhelpful.
I should put my cards on the table from the onset: I am not a Never Trumper, nor do I consider myself a “fan” of the president. Like many of those who are now his most ardent supporters, I was opposed to his nomination in 2016, preferring the vast majority of other Republican candidates. Like most people of all political stripes, I did not expect him to beat Hillary Clinton. But when he did, I was grateful that another Clinton administration had been avoided, cautiously optimistic about some of the appointments he made pre-inauguration, and committed to supporting him when he was right and speaking out when he was wrong. I have since written dozens of times in defense of various endeavors undertaken by his administration, and criticized him when I believed he was wrong.
Thus, I review Kelly’s book with no strong bias for or against the Never-Trump movement that she seeks to critique. Like Kelly, I have been disappointed and appalled by the actions of many of the folks associated with the movement. But I also consider some of those she criticizes to be amongst the best and brightest in conservatism. And that is a central flaw of Kelly’s work: If you seek to put Rubin in the same category as, say, Jonah Goldberg, you’re either being lazy or dishonest.
Central to Kelly’s book is the idea that there exists a cabal of figures on the right — some campaign strategists, some op-ed writers, and some think-tankers — who opposed Trump in the primary, opposed him in the general election, and have opposed him since he took office. Her thesis is that these people have betrayed the cause of conservatism, and have become irrelevant to the party, the movement, and American political discourse as a result. Here a reasonable person might wonder how irrelevant a group of people could be if Kelly felt moved to write a book about them, but that question doesn’t seem to have occurred to her. She instead uses charges of irrelevance as part of an ad-hominem rhetorical strategy, alongside endless accusations that this cast of characters has been disloyal, damaging to the conservative cause, and “wrong” on the major political questions of the day.
The parts of the book that are most helpful actually undermine its overall thesis. Anyone who’s been paying attention to the punditry class these last few years knows that public figures such as Rubin, Max Boot, and Tom Nichols have become completely unhinged. Kelly deserves no credit for exposing their abandonment of conservative principles, as they do that every day themselves. Without regret or apology, they have consciously separated from the vast majority of conservative positions they once held, and I did not find myself taking exception to almost anything Kelly wrote about them. But she loses her way when she lumps thoughtful conservatives such as Goldberg and David French in with them.
Kelly would’ve been wise to recognize that Trump’s critics on the right can’t all be painted with the same broad brush. Yes, Boot, Rubin, and Nichols are more or less what she claims they are. And I’m sad to say that Bill Kristol, whom I have benefited immensely from reading over the last 30 years, has been willing to abandon certain long-held conservative principles in his quest to defeat Trump. But there are nuanced differences between Trump’s critics — and between his defenders — that one cannot ignore if one seeks to honestly assess the state of the conservative movement and its future. I may not agree with every criticism leveled at the president by some of Kelly’s targets in this book — I was far, for instance, closer to Andy McCarthy’s view of the Russiagate mess than to David French’s — but I can certainly see that French is not a “Russia hoaxer.” Pointing out that the president’s son tried to get campaign dirt from the Russians and condemning him for that is not the same as believing he was a Russian stooge. But making such fine distinctions doesn’t interest Kelly, perhaps because she finds it easier to argue against a monolithic, straw-man version of the Never Trump movement.
In the service of that mission, Kelly resorts again and again to attacking her targets’ “belief in endless wars” as a means of somehow damning their criticisms of President Trump. (Those ardent Trump defenders and anti-anti-Trumpers who were also publicly supportive of the U.S. military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq are given immunity.) It is true that the likes of Boot and Kristol were prominent public supporters of those interventions, and that they can be criticized for that. But it should also go without saying that the propriety of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has to be adjudicated on its own merits, as does the propriety of support for Trump. There is no inherent connection between the two questions.
It should surprise no one familiar with Kelly’s work over the past few years that National Review itself comes in for special criticism in Disloyal Opposition. She makes much hay of NR’s February 2016 “Against Trump” issue, but fails to give a fair account of the way in which the magazine has grappled with Trump’s rise ever since. If there exists a cabal of people who irrationally and unfairly blast the president for whatever he does, and another cabal that bestows upon him Christ-like qualities, NR has instead chosen the admirable, honest approach of publishing thoughtful, intelligent, Trump-critical content alongside thoughtful, intelligent, Trump-friendly content. But you wouldn’t know that from reading Kelly.
Reading Disloyal Opposition, one begins to suspect that Kelly can’t separate her beef with National Review from her hatred of David French. The book’s treatment of French is a mystery to me; Kelly’s attacks on him seem rooted in something deeply personal. When she criticizes Nichols, Boot, and Rubin, she frequently hangs them with their own words and articles. She can’t do the same to French, so she is forced to misrepresent his views, giving readers the false impression that he has created some sort of moral ideal to which no president could ever live up. She could’ve made an effort to consider and counter French’s anti-Trump arguments. Instead, she continued her long-running, disgusting vendetta against him.
At the end of the day, I do not much doubt that Kelly and many of the president’s most ardent supporters love our nation and what is best for it. I am quite sure that what drives them more than anything else is a fear of the progressive left. I do not disagree that some who have claimed to be driven by patriotism and a defense of movement conservatism have, instead, been driven by ego, hurt feelings, anger, and other personal concerns. But Kelly seems not to recognize that a splintered conservatism is not likely to be up to the task of defeating modern progressivism after Trump exits the White House.
At the end of the day, thoughtful patriots have a generation of work ahead for our cause and country. Indiscriminate pro- or anti-Trump derangement does not facilitate this effort any more than the abandonment of cherished conservative principles and beliefs. Whatever the outcome of the 2020 election, movement conservatives must unite to preserve the principles of America’s founding. And Kelly’s scorched-earth approach can only make that task harder.