Magazine August 10, 2020, Issue

Who Were the Never Trumpers and What Motivated Them?

At the close of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, July 21, 2016 (Rick Wilking/Reuters)
Never Trump: The Revolt of the Conservative Elites, by Robert P. Saldin and Steven M. Teles (Oxford University Press, 304 pp., $27.95)

Slogans and labels serve a crucial purpose in politics, like banners on the battlefield: They rally the faithful to join a particular cause, and to know what cause they are joining. As soon as a cause acquires a name, however, the name becomes equally a term of abuse by its foes. Eventually, the name itself becomes a matter of contention, for both those who claim its ownership and those who seek to avoid its associations. So it is with “Republican,” so it is with “conservative,” so it is with “neoconservative,” and so it is today with “Never Trump.”

For those seeking to understand how the “Never Trump” banner was first raised and why some still claim it for their cause, Robert Saldin and Steven Teles have written an important and useful book. It is not a polemic. The reader will not find a brief against Donald Trump, or an attack on the Never Trumpers — though the book provides fodder for either point of view. Saldin and Teles have a perspective of their own, of course: They clearly believe that standing against Trump’s presidential campaign was the righteous thing for Republicans to do in 2016, and they want to tell the story of why some people did it and others did not. They cite, albeit with a footnoted quibble, political-science work claiming that democratic systems depend for their survival on the Right’s but not the Left’s curbing extremists. Still, the book will not be intolerable for conservative readers, whether they love Trump, hate him, or fall somewhere in between.

It helps to start with what “Never Trump” means or at any rate, meant: no more and no less than that the people invoking it would never be persuaded to vote for Trump in the 2016 general election. Never Trumpers were Republicans — generally long-standing, professional Republicans or conservatives — and in most cases voted for other Republicans in the 2016 primaries. Some stayed in the party; others left and renounced everything and everyone they ever believed in. Developed ad hoc as a slogan at the height of the 2016 primaries, “Never Trump” was never meant to be a catch-all for Trump opposition, incorporating people who were not Republicans. It was never, as Saldin and Teles are careful to observe, a single, cohesive group or faction, much less a conspiracy. It had no policy agenda, and emanated from groups of people concerned about a variety of different policy issues, all of whom were making their minds up at the same time. It was not intended as some sort of blood oath to reject Trump’s legitimacy should he win the election — something most Never Trumpers did not expect to happen.

As political scientists, Saldin and Teles principally set out to answer a few related questions: Who were the Never Trumpers in 2016, why did they become Never Trumpers, and why didn’t others follow them? The book is less interested in what they have done since the election, although it does follow a few of the Never Trump people and organizations through subsequent efforts. For example, Saldin and Teles use the legal group Checks and Balances to illustrate the difficulty that conservative lawyers faced in taking any sort of collective anti-Trump action. In no area has Trump’s presidency been more in line with the pre-Trump goals of conservative elites and populists alike than in his judicial nominations, and, for the most part, the legal Never Trumpers admit they are happy with Trump’s actions on their chief priority.

For purposes of defining “Never Trump,” Saldin and Teles confine themselves to “conservative elites,” by which they mean people and groups that have traditionally played an important role in Republican campaigns and in policymaking by Republican administrations. These are some of the same constituencies — other than party officials themselves — that political scientists speak of when they talk about how “the party decides” whom to nominate. They decided against Trump, and he was nominated anyway.

The authors make an important narrative decision that shapes the book: to treat Never Trump as multiple separate movements, occurring simultaneously among different groups. We follow national-security professionals, political operatives, public intellectuals, lawyers, and economists. Saldin and Teles have interviewed an impressively broad array of prominent Never Trump figures from different walks of life, including Evan McMullin, Bill Kristol, George Will, David French, Erick Erickson, Mike Murphy, Stuart Stevens, and Jonah Goldberg. Many of the interview subjects offer pithy insights tinged with bitterness or wistfulness. David Frum and Ross Douthat reflect on how Trump presented cases they had been trying to make for policy shifts within the party, but was a messenger they feared would discredit their ideas. Bret Stephens compares Trump to “the porn of the right” for how he debased public arguments. Kristen Soltis Anderson reflects on Trump’s turn away from efforts to broaden the Republican tent.

National Review is prominently featured in the book for the “Against Trump” issue (which was aimed at preventing the nomination; National Review took no editorial position on the general election) and what Trump’s nomination said about the limits of public intellectuals to set guardrails for the conservative movement. I confess here my own additional biases: I was vocally Never Trump throughout the 2016 campaign, as were a number of my mostly outside-the-Beltway friends who were interviewed for the book. Saldin and Teles address a number of the things that motivated us. One was Trump’s character and his lack of qualifications or knowledge. Another was how his rhetoric legitimated many of the worst false things that conservatism’s critics had said for years (in Stuart Stevens’s words, “he made all the wrong people right”) and turned people away. Another was how his absence of any record of supporting conservative ideas or causes, combined with a long record of betraying everyone who trusted him, made it a poor wager to assume that he would govern as any sort of conservative. As Brent Bozell wrote in these pages in the “Against Trump” issue: “A real conservative walks with us.” Trump had not. A vote for him meant accepting many weighty costs in exchange for promises backed only by hope. Different people can judge how well, or poorly, that bargain worked out.

Saldin and Teles get two big things right about why Never Trumpers reacted as they did. Not everyone saw things the same way, and not everyone valued the same things. Many Republican national-security professionals are less conservative on domestic politics, especially social issues. Republican lawyers and public intellectuals, by contrast, are often on the front lines of culture-war issues. Political operatives, unsurprisingly, tend to be less ideological. Structurally, conservative lawyers tend to value control of the courts, while national-security professionals focus on issues where the president himself is central.

The showpiece for the authors’ thesis, opening the book, is the national-security professionals. They were the loudest and most unified objectors to Trump. Saldin and Teles tick off the cultural as well as ideological and professional reasons. National-security professionals are heavily concentrated around D.C. They are less apt than other groups to see partisan divides as zero-sum struggles and more likely to have working relationships with Democrats in their field. Perhaps most significantly, Trump’s loud and very personal rejection of the Republican foreign-policy ideas that had prevailed since Eisenhower’s defeat of Robert Taft in 1952 meant that Republican national-security professionals were not just worried about Trump’s character; they saw him as actively hostile to their policy agenda and institutions, and unlikely to hire any of them. Thus, Trump was as bad in theory as he would be for them personally. There were no trade-offs, no upsides.

Saldin and Teles offer a fairly balanced picture of the financial and career incentives involved in each group’s decisions. They are realistic about the fact that nobody who makes a living in or around politics will make major decisions without some regard for how it affects his career and wallet. But they also take seriously, as critics sometimes do not, that people who devote their careers to politics typically care a great deal about being right and advancing their causes. Political consultants and conservative lawyers were genuinely conflicted about the pros and cons of a Trump presidency; national-security professionals could tell themselves a cleaner story of why breaking with their own party would lead to better outcomes than supporting a badly flawed and untrustworthy leader. The political operatives in particular divide along age lines, with Stevens and Murphy admitting that it was easier for them to walk away from the party because they were older and had made their money and reputations in consulting already. Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who wrote the name of his old boss John McCain on his ballot, argues that economists had valid reasons after the election to work with Hill Republicans on policy rather than keep up resistance.

A major game-theory theme of the book derives from quite how many actors made their minds up on the assumption that Trump would lose the election (an assumption broadly shared even within Trump’s own campaign). That led some, especially in the political-consulting, legal, and public-intellectual spaces, to be even more vocal as Never Trumpers: They had a desire to be seen as having predicted failure and remained “clean” of the taint of Trump. For others, it was a reason to keep quiet or (like House speaker Paul Ryan) grudgingly endorse Trump in order to blunt claims of having caused Trump’s defeat by disloyalty to the party. Some who stayed quiet did so because they saw the prospect of a Trump presidency as fanciful. The book recounts the increasingly desperate efforts of Kristol and others to recruit a serious third-party candidate, ranging from sober courtships of French, James Mattis, and Mike Rowe to ridiculous feelers to Oprah Winfrey, Mark Cuban, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

The book leaves out some parts of the story. Saldin and Teles choose to focus on unelected party elites rather than elected officials. A chapter on social- and religious-conservative leaders might have been called for. They are party actors every bit as important as the other groups, albeit tilted more towards the grassroots than towards the sorts of people who staff administrations. While some supported Trump early and most fell in line in the end, this was not without a certain amount of debate and deliberation. Russell Moore, a prominent Southern Baptist leader who absorbed significant blowback for remaining Never Trump all the way to the election, is mentioned only in passing. By contrast, there is an enlightening discussion of why the cultural and religious backgrounds of Jewish conservatives — from family histories with demagogy and the Holocaust to differing theological traditions about separating man’s and God’s laws — caused more Jewish than Christian conservatives to feel alarm about Trump.

Media figures who opposed Trump are also less examined as a group. Ben Shapiro, who cut ties with Breitbart and took an enormous amount of grief for his Never Trump stance, is not mentioned and was not contacted by the authors. Glenn Beck is given only a cursory reference. Saldin and Teles give the microphone to Erickson and Charlie Sykes to discuss the pressures particular to talk-radio personalities (Goldberg compares talk radio to sports-talk hosts who reflexively cheer the hometown team), but give little attention to the thought processes of figures such as Mark Levin, who embraced the “Never Trump” label during the primary but came around to Trump in the fall.

The tawdry saga of the Steele dossier and its origins with some of the figures discussed in the book goes wholly unmentioned. Examining the involvement of Never Trump figures in dirty tricks would complicate the book’s crisis-of-conscience narrative.

Saldin and Teles conclude that Never Trumpers might form new institutions and factions within the Republican Party, replacing the old fusionist party with something more closely resembling the faction-ridden Democrats. With the 2020 election yet to be decided, it is premature to say; both the internal party arguments and the party’s membership may look quite different if Trump pulls out reelection than they will if he suffers a Carteresque blowout. Even now, members of the various Never Trump factions from 2016 are in different places regarding the party’s agenda and the desirability of reelecting Trump and down-ticket Republicans. Time will tell who says “Never again,” and to whom.

Slogans and labels serve a crucial purpose in politics, like banners on the battlefield: They rally the faithful to join a particular cause, and to know what cause they are joining. As soon as a cause acquires a name, however, the name becomes equally a term of abuse by its foes. Eventually, the name itself becomes a matter of contention, for both those who claim its ownership and those who seek to avoid its associations. So it is with “Republican,” so it is with “conservative,” so it is with “neoconservative,” and so it is today with “Never Trump.”

 

For those seeking to understand how the “Never Trump” banner was first raised and why some still claim it for their cause, Robert Saldin and Steven Teles have written an important and useful book. It is not a polemic. The reader will not find a brief against Donald Trump, or an attack on the Never Trumpers — though the book provides fodder for either point of view. Saldin and Teles have a perspective of their own, of course: They clearly believe that standing against Trump’s presidential campaign was the righteous thing for Republicans to do in 2016, and they want to tell the story of why some people did it and others did not. They cite, albeit with a footnoted quibble, political-science work claiming that democratic systems depend for their survival on the Right’s but not the Left’s curbing extremists. Still, the book will not be intolerable for conservative readers, whether they love Trump, hate him, or fall somewhere in between.

 

It helps to start with what “Never Trump” means or at any rate, meant: no more and no less than that the people invoking it would never be persuaded to vote for Trump in the 2016 general election. Never Trumpers were Republicans — generally long-standing, professional Republicans or conservatives — and in most cases voted for other Republicans in the 2016 primaries. Some stayed in the party; others left and renounced everything and everyone they ever believed in. Developed ad hoc as a slogan at the height of the 2016 primaries, “Never Trump” was never meant to be a catch-all for Trump opposition, incorporating people who were not Republicans. It was never, as Saldin and Teles are careful to observe, a single, cohesive group or faction, much less a conspiracy. It had no policy agenda, and emanated from groups of people concerned about a variety of different policy issues, all of whom were making their minds up at the same time. It was not intended as some sort of blood oath to reject Trump’s legitimacy should he win the election — something most Never Trumpers did not expect to happen.

 

As political scientists, Saldin and Teles principally set out to answer a few related questions: Who were the Never Trumpers in 2016, why did they become Never Trumpers, and why didn’t others follow them? The book is less interested in what they have done since the election, although it does follow a few of the Never Trump people and organizations through subsequent efforts. For example, Saldin and Teles use the legal group Checks and Balances to illustrate the difficulty that conservative lawyers faced in taking any sort of collective anti-Trump action. In no area has Trump’s presidency been more in line with the pre-Trump goals of conservative elites and populists alike than in his judicial nominations, and, for the most part, the legal Never Trumpers admit they are happy with Trump’s actions on their chief priority.

 

For purposes of defining “Never Trump,” Saldin and Teles confine themselves to “conservative elites,” by which they mean people and groups that have traditionally played an important role in Republican campaigns and in policymaking by Republican administrations. These are some of the same constituencies — other than party officials themselves — that political scientists speak of when they talk about how “the party decides” whom to nominate. They decided against Trump, and he was nominated anyway.

 

The authors make an important narrative decision that shapes the book: to treat Never Trump as multiple separate movements, occurring simultaneously among different groups. We follow national-security professionals, political operatives, public intellectuals, lawyers, and economists. Saldin and Teles have interviewed an impressively broad array of prominent Never Trump figures from different walks of life, including Evan McMullin, Bill Kristol, George Will, David French, Erick Erickson, Mike Murphy, Stuart Stevens, and Jonah Goldberg. Many of the interview subjects offer pithy insights tinged with bitterness or wistfulness. David Frum and Ross Douthat reflect on how Trump presented cases they had been trying to make for policy shifts within the party, but was a messenger they feared would discredit their ideas. Bret Stephens compares Trump to “the porn of the right” for how he debased public arguments. Kristen Soltis Anderson reflects on Trump’s turn away from efforts to broaden the Republican tent.

 

SMALLCAPSNational Review is prominently featured in the book for the “Against Trump” issue (which was aimed at preventing the nomination; SMALLCAPSNational Review took no editorial position on the general election) and what Trump’s nomination said about the limits of public intellectuals to set guardrails for the conservative movement. I confess here my own additional biases: I was vocally Never Trump throughout the 2016 campaign, as were a number of my mostly outside-the-Beltway friends who were interviewed for the book. Saldin and Teles address a number of the things that motivated us. One was Trump’s character and his lack of qualifications or knowledge. Another was how his rhetoric legitimated many of the worst false things that conservatism’s critics had said for years (in Stuart Stevens’s words, “he made all the wrong people right”) and turned people away. Another was how his absence of any record of supporting conservative ideas or causes, combined with a long record of betraying everyone who trusted him, made it a poor wager to assume that he would govern as any sort of conservative. As Brent Bozell wrote in these pages in the “Against Trump” issue: “A real conservative walks with us.” Trump had not. A vote for him meant accepting many weighty costs in exchange for promises backed only by hope. Different people can judge how well, or poorly, that bargain worked out.

 

Saldin and Teles get two big things right about why Never Trumpers reacted as they did. Not everyone saw things the same way, and not everyone valued the same things. Many Republican national-security professionals are less conservative on domestic politics, especially social issues. Republican lawyers and public intellectuals, by contrast, are often on the front lines of culture-war issues. Political operatives, unsurprisingly, tend to be less ideological. Structurally, conservative lawyers tend to value control of the courts, while national-security professionals focus on issues where the president himself is central.

 

The showpiece for the authors’ thesis, opening the book, is the national-security professionals. They were the loudest and most unified objectors to Trump. Saldin and Teles tick off the cultural as well as ideological and professional reasons. National-security professionals are heavily concentrated around D.C. They are less apt than other groups to see partisan divides as zero-sum struggles and more likely to have working relationships with Democrats in their field. Perhaps most significantly, Trump’s loud and very personal rejection of the Republican foreign-policy ideas that had prevailed since Eisenhower’s defeat of Robert Taft in 1952 meant that Republican national-security professionals were not just worried about Trump’s character; they saw him as actively hostile to their policy agenda and institutions, and unlikely to hire any of them. Thus, Trump was as bad in theory as he would be for them personally. There were no trade-offs, no upsides.

 

Saldin and Teles offer a fairly balanced picture of the financial and career incentives involved in each group’s decisions. They are realistic about the fact that nobody who makes a living in or around politics will make major decisions without some regard for how it affects his career and wallet. But they also take seriously, as critics sometimes do not, that people who devote their careers to politics typically care a great deal about being right and advancing their causes. Political consultants and conservative lawyers were genuinely conflicted about the pros and cons of a Trump presidency; national-security professionals could tell themselves a cleaner story of why breaking with their own party would lead to better outcomes than supporting a badly flawed and untrustworthy leader. The political operatives in particular divide along age lines, with Stevens and Murphy admitting that it was easier for them to walk away from the party because they were older and had made their money and reputations in consulting already. Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who wrote the name of his old boss John McCain on his ballot, argues that economists had valid reasons after the election to work with Hill Republicans on policy rather than keep up resistance.

 

A major game-theory theme of the book derives from quite how many actors made their minds up on the assumption that Trump would lose the election (an assumption broadly shared even within Trump’s own campaign). That led some, especially in the political-consulting, legal, and public-intellectual spaces, to be even more vocal as Never Trumpers: They had a desire to be seen as having predicted failure and remained “clean” of the taint of Trump. For others, it was a reason to keep quiet or (like House speaker Paul Ryan) grudgingly endorse Trump in order to blunt claims of having caused Trump’s defeat by disloyalty to the party. Some who stayed quiet did so because they saw the prospect of a Trump presidency as fanciful. The book recounts the increasingly desperate efforts of Kristol and others to recruit a serious third-party candidate, ranging from sober courtships of French, James Mattis, and Mike Rowe to ridiculous feelers to Oprah Winfrey, Mark Cuban, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

 

The book leaves out some parts of the story. Saldin and Teles choose to focus on unelected party elites rather than elected officials. A chapter on social- and religious-conservative leaders might have been called for. They are party actors every bit as important as the other groups, albeit tilted more towards the grassroots than towards the sorts of people who staff administrations. While some supported Trump early and most fell in line in the end, this was not without a certain amount of debate and deliberation. Russell Moore, a prominent Southern Baptist leader who absorbed significant blowback for remaining Never Trump all the way to the election, is mentioned only in passing. By contrast, there is an enlightening discussion of why the cultural and religious backgrounds of Jewish conservatives — from family histories with demagogy and the Holocaust to differing theological traditions about separating man’s and God’s laws — caused more Jewish than Christian conservatives to feel alarm about Trump.

 

Media figures who opposed Trump are also less examined as a group. Ben Shapiro, who cut ties with Breitbart and took an enormous amount of grief for his Never Trump stance, is not mentioned and was not contacted by the authors. Glenn Beck is given only a cursory reference. Saldin and Teles give the microphone to Erickson and Charlie Sykes to discuss the pressures particular to talk-radio personalities (Goldberg compares talk radio to sports-talk hosts who reflexively cheer the hometown team), but give little attention to the thought processes of figures such as Mark Levin, who embraced the “Never Trump” label during the primary but came around to Trump in the fall.

 

The tawdry saga of the Steele dossier and its origins with some of the figures discussed in the book goes wholly unmentioned. Examining the involvement of Never Trump figures in dirty tricks would complicate the book’s crisis-of-conscience narrative.

 

Saldin and Teles conclude that Never Trumpers might form new institutions and factions within the Republican Party, replacing the old fusionist party with something more closely resembling the faction-ridden Democrats. With the 2020 election yet to be decided, it is premature to say; both the internal party arguments and the party’s membership may look quite different if Trump pulls out reelection than they will if he suffers a Carteresque blowout. Even now, members of the various Never Trump factions from 2016 are in different places regarding the party’s agenda and the desirability of reelecting Trump and down-ticket Republicans. Time will tell who says “Never again,” and to whom.Slogans and labels serve a crucial purpose in politics, like banners on the battlefield: They rally the faithful to join a particular cause, and to know what cause they are joining. As soon as a cause acquires a name, however, the name becomes equally a term of abuse by its foes. Eventually, the name itself becomes a matter of contention, for both those who claim its ownership and those who seek to avoid its associations. So it is with “Republican,” so it is with “conservative,” so it is with “neoconservative,” and so it is today with “Never Trump.”

 

For those seeking to understand how the “Never Trump” banner was first raised and why some still claim it for their cause, Robert Saldin and Steven Teles have written an important and useful book. It is not a polemic. The reader will not find a brief against Donald Trump, or an attack on the Never Trumpers — though the book provides fodder for either point of view. Saldin and Teles have a perspective of their own, of course: They clearly believe that standing against Trump’s presidential campaign was the righteous thing for Republicans to do in 2016, and they want to tell the story of why some people did it and others did not. They cite, albeit with a footnoted quibble, political-science work claiming that democratic systems depend for their survival on the Right’s but not the Left’s curbing extremists. Still, the book will not be intolerable for conservative readers, whether they love Trump, hate him, or fall somewhere in between.

 

It helps to start with what “Never Trump” means or at any rate, meant: no more and no less than that the people invoking it would never be persuaded to vote for Trump in the 2016 general election. Never Trumpers were Republicans — generally long-standing, professional Republicans or conservatives — and in most cases voted for other Republicans in the 2016 primaries. Some stayed in the party; others left and renounced everything and everyone they ever believed in. Developed ad hoc as a slogan at the height of the 2016 primaries, “Never Trump” was never meant to be a catch-all for Trump opposition, incorporating people who were not Republicans. It was never, as Saldin and Teles are careful to observe, a single, cohesive group or faction, much less a conspiracy. It had no policy agenda, and emanated from groups of people concerned about a variety of different policy issues, all of whom were making their minds up at the same time. It was not intended as some sort of blood oath to reject Trump’s legitimacy should he win the election — something most Never Trumpers did not expect to happen.

 

As political scientists, Saldin and Teles principally set out to answer a few related questions: Who were the Never Trumpers in 2016, why did they become Never Trumpers, and why didn’t others follow them? The book is less interested in what they have done since the election, although it does follow a few of the Never Trump people and organizations through subsequent efforts. For example, Saldin and Teles use the legal group Checks and Balances to illustrate the difficulty that conservative lawyers faced in taking any sort of collective anti-Trump action. In no area has Trump’s presidency been more in line with the pre-Trump goals of conservative elites and populists alike than in his judicial nominations, and, for the most part, the legal Never Trumpers admit they are happy with Trump’s actions on their chief priority.

 

For purposes of defining “Never Trump,” Saldin and Teles confine themselves to “conservative elites,” by which they mean people and groups that have traditionally played an important role in Republican campaigns and in policymaking by Republican administrations. These are some of the same constituencies — other than party officials themselves — that political scientists speak of when they talk about how “the party decides” whom to nominate. They decided against Trump, and he was nominated anyway.

 

The authors make an important narrative decision that shapes the book: to treat Never Trump as multiple separate movements, occurring simultaneously among different groups. We follow national-security professionals, political operatives, public intellectuals, lawyers, and economists. Saldin and Teles have interviewed an impressively broad array of prominent Never Trump figures from different walks of life, including Evan McMullin, Bill Kristol, George Will, David French, Erick Erickson, Mike Murphy, Stuart Stevens, and Jonah Goldberg. Many of the interview subjects offer pithy insights tinged with bitterness or wistfulness. David Frum and Ross Douthat reflect on how Trump presented cases they had been trying to make for policy shifts within the party, but was a messenger they feared would discredit their ideas. Bret Stephens compares Trump to “the porn of the right” for how he debased public arguments. Kristen Soltis Anderson reflects on Trump’s turn away from efforts to broaden the Republican tent.

 

SMALLCAPSNational Review is prominently featured in the book for the “Against Trump” issue (which was aimed at preventing the nomination; SMALLCAPSNational Review took no editorial position on the general election) and what Trump’s nomination said about the limits of public intellectuals to set guardrails for the conservative movement. I confess here my own additional biases: I was vocally Never Trump throughout the 2016 campaign, as were a number of my mostly outside-the-Beltway friends who were interviewed for the book. Saldin and Teles address a number of the things that motivated us. One was Trump’s character and his lack of qualifications or knowledge. Another was how his rhetoric legitimated many of the worst false things that conservatism’s critics had said for years (in Stuart Stevens’s words, “he made all the wrong people right”) and turned people away. Another was how his absence of any record of supporting conservative ideas or causes, combined with a long record of betraying everyone who trusted him, made it a poor wager to assume that he would govern as any sort of conservative. As Brent Bozell wrote in these pages in the “Against Trump” issue: “A real conservative walks with us.” Trump had not. A vote for him meant accepting many weighty costs in exchange for promises backed only by hope. Different people can judge how well, or poorly, that bargain worked out.

 

Saldin and Teles get two big things right about why Never Trumpers reacted as they did. Not everyone saw things the same way, and not everyone valued the same things. Many Republican national-security professionals are less conservative on domestic politics, especially social issues. Republican lawyers and public intellectuals, by contrast, are often on the front lines of culture-war issues. Political operatives, unsurprisingly, tend to be less ideological. Structurally, conservative lawyers tend to value control of the courts, while national-security professionals focus on issues where the president himself is central.

 

The showpiece for the authors’ thesis, opening the book, is the national-security professionals. They were the loudest and most unified objectors to Trump. Saldin and Teles tick off the cultural as well as ideological and professional reasons. National-security professionals are heavily concentrated around D.C. They are less apt than other groups to see partisan divides as zero-sum struggles and more likely to have working relationships with Democrats in their field. Perhaps most significantly, Trump’s loud and very personal rejection of the Republican foreign-policy ideas that had prevailed since Eisenhower’s defeat of Robert Taft in 1952 meant that Republican national-security professionals were not just worried about Trump’s character; they saw him as actively hostile to their policy agenda and institutions, and unlikely to hire any of them. Thus, Trump was as bad in theory as he would be for them personally. There were no trade-offs, no upsides.

 

Saldin and Teles offer a fairly balanced picture of the financial and career incentives involved in each group’s decisions. They are realistic about the fact that nobody who makes a living in or around politics will make major decisions without some regard for how it affects his career and wallet. But they also take seriously, as critics sometimes do not, that people who devote their careers to politics typically care a great deal about being right and advancing their causes. Political consultants and conservative lawyers were genuinely conflicted about the pros and cons of a Trump presidency; national-security professionals could tell themselves a cleaner story of why breaking with their own party would lead to better outcomes than supporting a badly flawed and untrustworthy leader. The political operatives in particular divide along age lines, with Stevens and Murphy admitting that it was easier for them to walk away from the party because they were older and had made their money and reputations in consulting already. Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who wrote the name of his old boss John McCain on his ballot, argues that economists had valid reasons after the election to work with Hill Republicans on policy rather than keep up resistance.

 

A major game-theory theme of the book derives from quite how many actors made their minds up on the assumption that Trump would lose the election (an assumption broadly shared even within Trump’s own campaign). That led some, especially in the political-consulting, legal, and public-intellectual spaces, to be even more vocal as Never Trumpers: They had a desire to be seen as having predicted failure and remained “clean” of the taint of Trump. For others, it was a reason to keep quiet or (like House speaker Paul Ryan) grudgingly endorse Trump in order to blunt claims of having caused Trump’s defeat by disloyalty to the party. Some who stayed quiet did so because they saw the prospect of a Trump presidency as fanciful. The book recounts the increasingly desperate efforts of Kristol and others to recruit a serious third-party candidate, ranging from sober courtships of French, James Mattis, and Mike Rowe to ridiculous feelers to Oprah Winfrey, Mark Cuban, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

 

The book leaves out some parts of the story. Saldin and Teles choose to focus on unelected party elites rather than elected officials. A chapter on social- and religious-conservative leaders might have been called for. They are party actors every bit as important as the other groups, albeit tilted more towards the grassroots than towards the sorts of people who staff administrations. While some supported Trump early and most fell in line in the end, this was not without a certain amount of debate and deliberation. Russell Moore, a prominent Southern Baptist leader who absorbed significant blowback for remaining Never Trump all the way to the election, is mentioned only in passing. By contrast, there is an enlightening discussion of why the cultural and religious backgrounds of Jewish conservatives — from family histories with demagogy and the Holocaust to differing theological traditions about separating man’s and God’s laws — caused more Jewish than Christian conservatives to feel alarm about Trump.

 

Media figures who opposed Trump are also less examined as a group. Ben Shapiro, who cut ties with Breitbart and took an enormous amount of grief for his Never Trump stance, is not mentioned and was not contacted by the authors. Glenn Beck is given only a cursory reference. Saldin and Teles give the microphone to Erickson and Charlie Sykes to discuss the pressures particular to talk-radio personalities (Goldberg compares talk radio to sports-talk hosts who reflexively cheer the hometown team), but give little attention to the thought processes of figures such as Mark Levin, who embraced the “Never Trump” label during the primary but came around to Trump in the fall.

 

The tawdry saga of the Steele dossier and its origins with some of the figures discussed in the book goes wholly unmentioned. Examining the involvement of Never Trump figures in dirty tricks would complicate the book’s crisis-of-conscience narrative.

 

Saldin and Teles conclude that Never Trumpers might form new institutions and factions within the Republican Party, replacing the old fusionist party with something more closely resembling the faction-ridden Democrats. With the 2020 election yet to be decided, it is premature to say; both the internal party arguments and the party’s membership may look quite different if Trump pulls out reelection than they will if he suffers a Carteresque blowout. Even now, members of the various Never Trump factions from 2016 are in different places regarding the party’s agenda and the desirability of reelecting Trump and down-ticket Republicans. Time will tell who says “Never again,” and to whom.Slogans and labels serve a crucial purpose in politics, like banners on the battlefield: They rally the faithful to join a particular cause, and to know what cause they are joining. As soon as a cause acquires a name, however, the name becomes equally a term of abuse by its foes. Eventually, the name itself becomes a matter of contention, for both those who claim its ownership and those who seek to avoid its associations. So it is with “Republican,” so it is with “conservative,” so it is with “neoconservative,” and so it is today with “Never Trump.”

 

For those seeking to understand how the “Never Trump” banner was first raised and why some still claim it for their cause, Robert Saldin and Steven Teles have written an important and useful book. It is not a polemic. The reader will not find a brief against Donald Trump, or an attack on the Never Trumpers — though the book provides fodder for either point of view. Saldin and Teles have a perspective of their own, of course: They clearly believe that standing against Trump’s presidential campaign was the righteous thing for Republicans to do in 2016, and they want to tell the story of why some people did it and others did not. They cite, albeit with a footnoted quibble, political-science work claiming that democratic systems depend for their survival on the Right’s but not the Left’s curbing extremists. Still, the book will not be intolerable for conservative readers, whether they love Trump, hate him, or fall somewhere in between.

 

It helps to start with what “Never Trump” means or at any rate, meant: no more and no less than that the people invoking it would never be persuaded to vote for Trump in the 2016 general election. Never Trumpers were Republicans — generally long-standing, professional Republicans or conservatives — and in most cases voted for other Republicans in the 2016 primaries. Some stayed in the party; others left and renounced everything and everyone they ever believed in. Developed ad hoc as a slogan at the height of the 2016 primaries, “Never Trump” was never meant to be a catch-all for Trump opposition, incorporating people who were not Republicans. It was never, as Saldin and Teles are careful to observe, a single, cohesive group or faction, much less a conspiracy. It had no policy agenda, and emanated from groups of people concerned about a variety of different policy issues, all of whom were making their minds up at the same time. It was not intended as some sort of blood oath to reject Trump’s legitimacy should he win the election — something most Never Trumpers did not expect to happen.

 

As political scientists, Saldin and Teles principally set out to answer a few related questions: Who were the Never Trumpers in 2016, why did they become Never Trumpers, and why didn’t others follow them? The book is less interested in what they have done since the election, although it does follow a few of the Never Trump people and organizations through subsequent efforts. For example, Saldin and Teles use the legal group Checks and Balances to illustrate the difficulty that conservative lawyers faced in taking any sort of collective anti-Trump action. In no area has Trump’s presidency been more in line with the pre-Trump goals of conservative elites and populists alike than in his judicial nominations, and, for the most part, the legal Never Trumpers admit they are happy with Trump’s actions on their chief priority.

 

For purposes of defining “Never Trump,” Saldin and Teles confine themselves to “conservative elites,” by which they mean people and groups that have traditionally played an important role in Republican campaigns and in policymaking by Republican administrations. These are some of the same constituencies — other than party officials themselves — that political scientists speak of when they talk about how “the party decides” whom to nominate. They decided against Trump, and he was nominated anyway.

 

The authors make an important narrative decision that shapes the book: to treat Never Trump as multiple separate movements, occurring simultaneously among different groups. We follow national-security professionals, political operatives, public intellectuals, lawyers, and economists. Saldin and Teles have interviewed an impressively broad array of prominent Never Trump figures from different walks of life, including Evan McMullin, Bill Kristol, George Will, David French, Erick Erickson, Mike Murphy, Stuart Stevens, and Jonah Goldberg. Many of the interview subjects offer pithy insights tinged with bitterness or wistfulness. David Frum and Ross Douthat reflect on how Trump presented cases they had been trying to make for policy shifts within the party, but was a messenger they feared would discredit their ideas. Bret Stephens compares Trump to “the porn of the right” for how he debased public arguments. Kristen Soltis Anderson reflects on Trump’s turn away from efforts to broaden the Republican tent.

 

SMALLCAPSNational Review is prominently featured in the book for the “Against Trump” issue (which was aimed at preventing the nomination; SMALLCAPSNational Review took no editorial position on the general election) and what Trump’s nomination said about the limits of public intellectuals to set guardrails for the conservative movement. I confess here my own additional biases: I was vocally Never Trump throughout the 2016 campaign, as were a number of my mostly outside-the-Beltway friends who were interviewed for the book. Saldin and Teles address a number of the things that motivated us. One was Trump’s character and his lack of qualifications or knowledge. Another was how his rhetoric legitimated many of the worst false things that conservatism’s critics had said for years (in Stuart Stevens’s words, “he made all the wrong people right”) and turned people away. Another was how his absence of any record of supporting conservative ideas or causes, combined with a long record of betraying everyone who trusted him, made it a poor wager to assume that he would govern as any sort of conservative. As Brent Bozell wrote in these pages in the “Against Trump” issue: “A real conservative walks with us.” Trump had not. A vote for him meant accepting many weighty costs in exchange for promises backed only by hope. Different people can judge how well, or poorly, that bargain worked out.

 

Saldin and Teles get two big things right about why Never Trumpers reacted as they did. Not everyone saw things the same way, and not everyone valued the same things. Many Republican national-security professionals are less conservative on domestic politics, especially social issues. Republican lawyers and public intellectuals, by contrast, are often on the front lines of culture-war issues. Political operatives, unsurprisingly, tend to be less ideological. Structurally, conservative lawyers tend to value control of the courts, while national-security professionals focus on issues where the president himself is central.

 

The showpiece for the authors’ thesis, opening the book, is the national-security professionals. They were the loudest and most unified objectors to Trump. Saldin and Teles tick off the cultural as well as ideological and professional reasons. National-security professionals are heavily concentrated around D.C. They are less apt than other groups to see partisan divides as zero-sum struggles and more likely to have working relationships with Democrats in their field. Perhaps most significantly, Trump’s loud and very personal rejection of the Republican foreign-policy ideas that had prevailed since Eisenhower’s defeat of Robert Taft in 1952 meant that Republican national-security professionals were not just worried about Trump’s character; they saw him as actively hostile to their policy agenda and institutions, and unlikely to hire any of them. Thus, Trump was as bad in theory as he would be for them personally. There were no trade-offs, no upsides.

 

Saldin and Teles offer a fairly balanced picture of the financial and career incentives involved in each group’s decisions. They are realistic about the fact that nobody who makes a living in or around politics will make major decisions without some regard for how it affects his career and wallet. But they also take seriously, as critics sometimes do not, that people who devote their careers to politics typically care a great deal about being right and advancing their causes. Political consultants and conservative lawyers were genuinely conflicted about the pros and cons of a Trump presidency; national-security professionals could tell themselves a cleaner story of why breaking with their own party would lead to better outcomes than supporting a badly flawed and untrustworthy leader. The political operatives in particular divide along age lines, with Stevens and Murphy admitting that it was easier for them to walk away from the party because they were older and had made their money and reputations in consulting already. Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who wrote the name of his old boss John McCain on his ballot, argues that economists had valid reasons after the election to work with Hill Republicans on policy rather than keep up resistance.

 

A major game-theory theme of the book derives from quite how many actors made their minds up on the assumption that Trump would lose the election (an assumption broadly shared even within Trump’s own campaign). That led some, especially in the political-consulting, legal, and public-intellectual spaces, to be even more vocal as Never Trumpers: They had a desire to be seen as having predicted failure and remained “clean” of the taint of Trump. For others, it was a reason to keep quiet or (like House speaker Paul Ryan) grudgingly endorse Trump in order to blunt claims of having caused Trump’s defeat by disloyalty to the party. Some who stayed quiet did so because they saw the prospect of a Trump presidency as fanciful. The book recounts the increasingly desperate efforts of Kristol and others to recruit a serious third-party candidate, ranging from sober courtships of French, James Mattis, and Mike Rowe to ridiculous feelers to Oprah Winfrey, Mark Cuban, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

 

The book leaves out some parts of the story. Saldin and Teles choose to focus on unelected party elites rather than elected officials. A chapter on social- and religious-conservative leaders might have been called for. They are party actors every bit as important as the other groups, albeit tilted more towards the grassroots than towards the sorts of people who staff administrations. While some supported Trump early and most fell in line in the end, this was not without a certain amount of debate and deliberation. Russell Moore, a prominent Southern Baptist leader who absorbed significant blowback for remaining Never Trump all the way to the election, is mentioned only in passing. By contrast, there is an enlightening discussion of why the cultural and religious backgrounds of Jewish conservatives — from family histories with demagogy and the Holocaust to differing theological traditions about separating man’s and God’s laws — caused more Jewish than Christian conservatives to feel alarm about Trump.

 

Media figures who opposed Trump are also less examined as a group. Ben Shapiro, who cut ties with Breitbart and took an enormous amount of grief for his Never Trump stance, is not mentioned and was not contacted by the authors. Glenn Beck is given only a cursory reference. Saldin and Teles give the microphone to Erickson and Charlie Sykes to discuss the pressures particular to talk-radio personalities (Goldberg compares talk radio to sports-talk hosts who reflexively cheer the hometown team), but give little attention to the thought processes of figures such as Mark Levin, who embraced the “Never Trump” label during the primary but came around to Trump in the fall.

 

The tawdry saga of the Steele dossier and its origins with some of the figures discussed in the book goes wholly unmentioned. Examining the involvement of Never Trump figures in dirty tricks would complicate the book’s crisis-of-conscience narrative.

 

Saldin and Teles conclude that Never Trumpers might form new institutions and factions within the Republican Party, replacing the old fusionist party with something more closely resembling the faction-ridden Democrats. With the 2020 election yet to be decided, it is premature to say; both the internal party arguments and the party’s membership may look quite different if Trump pulls out reelection than they will if he suffers a Carteresque blowout. Even now, members of the various Never Trump factions from 2016 are in different places regarding the party’s agenda and the desirability of reelecting Trump and down-ticket Republicans. Time will tell who says “Never again,” and to whom.

This article appears as “Getting to Never” in the August 10, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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