New York Times columnist David Brooks recently expressed his concern that “the anti-Trump movement is a failure…. We have persuaded no one…. We have not hindered him…. We have not dislodged him…. We have not contained him.” Brooks then went on to note that “Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party is complete. Eighty-nine percent of Republicans have a positive impression of the man. According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 59 percent of Republicans consider themselves more a supporter of Trump than of the Republican Party.” A recent paper by Vanderbilt University political scientist Larry Bartels reveals a party that is thoroughly united behind Trump’s agenda of “antipathy toward Muslims, immigrants, atheists, and gays and lesbians, and racial resentment and concerns about discrimination against whites.”
Herein lies a significant paradox of our politics. The “Never Trump” brand of Republicanism, especially its neoconservative component, occupies a preeminent place in our political media. Yet supporters of Bernie Sanders–style social democracy with a gig at a mainstream newspaper, newsmagazine, or cable- or broadcast-news station are about as rare as Republican folk singers—despite the fact that Sanders is among the most popular politicians in America. By Brooks’s own estimation, he and his fellow anti-Trump conservatives represent a politically insignificant splinter of the Republican Party. And yet their number includes not only Brooks, but Bret Stephens and Ross Douthat on the Times’ op-ed page; Michael Gerson, Jennifer Rubin, Max Boot, Charles Krauthammer, Kathleen Parker, and George Will on The Washington Post’s op-ed page; Will, Stephens, Michael Steele, Joe Scarborough, Nicolle Wallace, and Peggy Noonan on MSNBC; Brooks, Gerson, Amy Holmes, and, soon, Margaret Hoover (who will be hosting a new edition of William F. Buckley Jr.’s Firing Line) on PBS; as well as Max Boot, S.E. Cupp, and too many others to mention on CNN.
Another paradox lies in the fact that Trumpism represents a rather minor modification of what the Never Trumpers were selling before Trump took over the party. Indeed, most of the differences are matters of style. Rich Lowry, editor in chief of National Review and presumed author of its famous “Against Trump” editorial, recognizes this and explains: “One of the giant ironies of this whole phenomenon for us is that Trump represents a cartoonish, often exaggerated, version of the direction we wanted to see the party go in.”
Lowry was talking about policy, but a better indicator, as libertarian Conor Friedersdorf notes, was the silence of the now–Never Trumpers when, in the recent past, “hugely popular intellectual leaders abandoned the most basic norms of decency.” The inimitable Charles P. Pierce had some serious fun with this weakness when, on Esquire’s website, he offered up a quiz, asking the likes of William Kristol and others where they were when, for instance, Ronald Reagan called Michael Dukakis a “mental patient.” Or when The Wall Street Journal’s editors all but accused Bill (or was it Hillary?) Clinton of having murdered Vince Foster. Where were the condemnations of the “Swift-boating” of John Kerry? I’d go further, asking if they remember when Newt Gingrich swore that “People like me are what stand between us and Auschwitz”? How about the naked voter suppression that has characterized the Republicans’ electoral strategy since Florida in 2000 (including their celebrated “Brooks Brothers riot,” in which paid GOP operatives protested the state’s recount)? Former Fox News pundits had no problem cashing their paychecks when, for instance, Glenn Beck insisted that President Obama had “a deep-seated hatred for white people,” and Rupert Murdoch admitted that, sadly, he was right. And let us not forget that it was Kristol, together with Never Trumper hero John McCain, who elevated Sarah (“obviously, we’ve got to stand with our North Korean allies”) Palin.
Again, one could go on indefinitely, but let’s be honest: Given the fact that it’s nearly impossible to be both pro-Trump and pro-fact, Never Trumpism was a good career move for pundits. But let us recall that barely any of this crew took the one step that might have helped prevent Trump from coming to power—that is, endorse his opponent, Hillary Clinton. This leaves their opposition to Trump in 2016 looking like so much moral preening.
Moreover, as debased as Trumpism has turned our political discourse, the center of political gravity remains in the “both sides do it” zone. Look at the outrage from the likes of journalists Maggie Haberman and Andrea Mitchell directed against the comedian Michelle Wolf for her genteel grilling of Trump press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner—at the very same moment that the president of the United States, speaking at a Nuremberg-style rally, was screeching: “The laws are so corrupt! They are so corrupt!” On a more elevated level, former Bill Clinton adviser Bill Galston, a smart political scientist and member in good standing of what remains of the centrist establishment, recently published a book-length study called Anti-Pluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy. Repeatedly, Galston condemns what he diagnoses as mere “partisanship” or “gridlock” that “has blocked policy responses to core public problems.” Sorry, Bill—the real problem is the deeply diseased, potentially protofascist Republican Party. Trump is the symptom, not the cause. There is only one cure, and that is to defeat it. There is only one way to do that, and that is by supporting its opposition: the Democratic Party. Its conquest of the punditocracy notwithstanding, “Never Trump” Republicanism is about as meaningful an opposition as Jill Stein’s effectively pro-Trump Green Party. Let’s hope CNN isn’t ready to make her an offer as well.