More Concerted Effort and More Organizational Depth: the Never Trump Movement in the 2020 Election

Geoffrey Kabaservice, Director of Political Studies at the Niskanen Center, on Republican opposition to Trump and prioritizing country over party.

As the U.S. Presidential campaign moves from the primary phase to the general election campaign, new and vocal Republican opposition to Trump is increasingly noticeable. This broad coalition of “Never Trump” Republicans was once considered politically irrelevant: too little, too late in opposing Donald Trump and his allies in Congress. But campaign advertisements and efforts from groups including The Lincoln Project, Republican Voters against Trump, and 43 Alumni for Biden have been provocative in criticizing the Trump administration and its domestic political allies, calling for the election of the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and in some cases, for the election of opponents to incumbent Republicans in down-ballot races. In this interview, Geoffrey Kabaservice, Director of Political Studies at the Niskanen Center provides some perspective on the Republican opposition to Donald Trump and support for prioritizing the country over party.  

This interview has been condensed and edited. 

How would you characterize and explain these groups of conservative and Republican opposition to Trump?

I think there is a great unknowable here, which is: why did Republican elites who had been active in foreign policy, campaign, electioneering, and think tank circles – why did some of them resist Trump consistently, why did some initially resist Trump and then give in, and why did some offer no resistance to Trump in the first place?  I don’t know the answer to that. But there are a number of people who for different reasons have opposed Trump fairly consistently since he announced his candidacy in 2015, and still do. 

What might be different now is that there wasn’t effective resistance put up to Trump from these Never Trump Republican circles in 2016. That was partially because people were skeptical he would win the nomination, let alone the presidency. And then, Trump was to some extent an unknown. Some people were under the illusion that if he were to occupy the Oval Office, he would behave differently – more presidentially – and they have been grievously disappointed!

So I think what you’re seeing now is more of a concerted effort and more organizational depth of the Never Trump movement – which takes account of those groups you mentioned.


"...why did Republican elites who had been active in foreign policy, campaign, electioneering, and think tank circles – why did some of them resist Trump consistently, why did some initially resist Trump and then give in, and why did some offer no resistance to Trump in the first place?"


So that takes care of the question ‘where were these people for the last five years’ and ‘why did they only come out of the woodwork now’…

It is hard to generalize for a large span of time and a large group of people. My employers at the Niskanen Center have always been consistently anti-Trump, even if they haven’t been consistent Republicans. We’ve been bringing together people of this stripe, so it’s not that we’ve been inactive. You can go through the major constellations of figures of conservative opposition. Bill Kristol has been very consistent in his opposition to Trump, and The Weekly Standard, which Kristol founded, more or less collapsed because it was taken down by pro-Trump backers. The Bulwark has been a fairly big success, its podcast has gotten a lot of attention. Kristol, in connection with Sarah Longwell, brought together the umbrella group “Defending Democracy Together”, and they’ve had very specific initiatives [including] “Republicans for the Rule of Law”, which was very active in conjunction with the impeachment proceedings, and now their “Republican Voters Against Trump” is having an effect on election-related results.
It’s true that, prior to this year, the individual actors of the Lincoln Project were not acting much beyond an individual capacity – writing op/eds all along, being active on twitter, having a following – but now they’ve come together and raised money with the aim of defeating Trump and his enablers in Congress. That’s making a huge splash, simply because it’s newsworthy to see Republicans taking on their own party. The “43 Alumni for Biden” [former George W. Bush administration officials] is a similar story.

Even in the Never Trump world, we have to distinguish between Republicans who oppose the president but still feel loyalty toward the party and therefore won’t take part in campaigns against incumbent members of Congress, versus those who think that defeating Trump’s enablers in Congress is an equally if not more important important goal.

People are Never Trump for different reasons. Some are consistent conservatives who think Trump has betrayed their principles, and that’s why they oppose him. Others are people who want the Republican Party to go in a more progressive direction or in the direction of a big-tent party, and they object to Donald Trump’s divisiveness and his wish to fracture the country along racial lines. And there are some people who are coming in for specific policy or issue-area reasons: people who think climate change is an overriding issue, people who think racial justice reform issues are most important.

It is not a unified coalition, but it is having an impact on the current election dynamic.


"...we have to distinguish between Republicans who oppose the president but still feel loyalty toward the party and therefore won’t take part in campaigns against incumbent members of Congress, versus those who think that defeating Trump’s enablers in Congress is an equally if not more important important goal."


So it’s a broad coalition, much more heterogeneous than a monolithic block of Republicans. But how much of this is a call to hold one’s nose and vote for someone who – for a conservative –would otherwise be a non-palatable option? How realistic is it to hope for or anticipate some support from some of these groups or individuals provided Biden picks a more progressive Vice-Presidential candidate as his running mate? Would that coalition coalesce behind Biden after the election? 

Again, there’s a broad range of responses here. There are some Never Trumpers who will not vote at all in the election – they’re a relative minority.

I’d say most will be voting for Joe Biden. For some of them, they’ll be holding their noses while they cast that vote. Many have maintained all along they will vote for anybody who is not Donald Trump.

But there are also many who like Joe Biden. Some would not have voted for Bernie Sanders, but many would be willing to vote for Biden, and some are even enthusiastic about the prospect. In many ways, Biden was one of the most centrist of the Democratic primary candidates. And there is a feeling among many Never Trumpers that what is at stake are the [classically] liberal principles of the country, and these are under threat from both extremes, from the left and the right. Therefore, it would be better to have someone like Biden as the Democratic nominee rather than some of the alternatives.

I think there will be some people who fall away from voting for Biden if, say, he picks someone to the left like Stacey Abrams as his VP candidate. And it’s a concern because Biden would be the oldest president ever sworn in if he does win the election, and it is possible that his VP would succeed him if he were to die before his term was complete. But, generally speaking, very few elections are influenced by the selection of a VP candidate. And I think everyone understands that Biden has a need to secure the college-educated suburban swing voters who will be critical in this election, but that he also needs to placate the progressive wing of his party.  

It wouldn’t be surprising if he selects a woman of color whose opinions are considerably to the left of his. I don’t think this will be a major consideration to most Never Trumpers. Mainly they want Trump out. They want the Republican Party to lose badly in this election to drive home the fact that Trump is a danger to the Republican brand, that the party has to change. The Republican Party cannot regain the majority in the House of Representatives or anything like the popular vote in the presidential elections unless they pay attention to college-educated suburban swing voters. And this constituency is entirely turned off by Trump’s racism, his protectionism, his incompetence… go on down the list of transgressions.

Some Never Trumpers are concerned, for strategic reasons, that Biden not select too left-wing a VP running mate, because that could cost Republicans in down-ballot races, particularly at the Senate level. But these are fairly abstruse considerations of strategy. Most simply want Trump out.

"I think everyone understands that Biden has a need to secure the college-educated suburban swing voters who will be critical in this election, but that he also needs to placate the progressive wing of his party."  


Do you think some of these organizations are trying to claim or construct the future of American conservatism?

I don’t think so. These are mostly political operatives, some of whom would like to serve in a future Republican administration. Their primary concern is with the Republican Party, and not with the conservative movement or the definition of conservatism.

But there are a lot of people who don’t want the Republican Party to return to the kind of conservative party the way it was before Trump’s election. There are relatively few Never Trumpers who want or expect a return to the status quo ante. I think what they want is for the Republican Party to return to being a factional party, with some breathing room for more moderate candidates – since they have learned these are the only viable candidates to win college-educated suburban areas that decide elections, that are the swing districts that decide control of Congress.


Given that a return to the status quo ante is not being sought, what would Bush administration alumni see in a Biden administration?

I wrote an entire book [Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party] on how the Republican Party suffered grievously by getting rid of its moderate wing, but that wing and those impulses were not entirely absent at the turn of this century. George W. Bush ran on a platform of compassionate conservatism. […] One of the greatest accomplishments of the Bush White House was the passage of PEPFAR [the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief], which saved millions of lives in Africa – not a negligible consideration. There are reasons why the “43 Alumni for Biden” are for Biden – they feel there was a lot of good under the Bush presidency which was undone by Trump.


Do you think that definition of conservatism has been reconsidered or re-drawn as a result of the Trump presidency?

The development of ‘national conservatism’ is the biggest ideological development on this front in quite some time. Their big kick-off, under the auspices of the Edmund Burke Foundation, was last July, when they brought together many conservative luminaries in a conference under the organization of Yoram Hazony and others to talk about “American nationalism.” I viewed it as their attempt to ‘retcon’, to impose a kind of retroactive intellectual framework on the Trump presidency, attempting to give it a coherent ideological impulse. There is no doubt that nationalism is something that they connect with, and they see allies in places like Hungary and Poland. The ideology is involved with ethnonational pride, anti-immigration, protectionism, natalist policies, reindustrialization and maybe some level of state industrial policy.

Trump hasn’t successfully governed that way, of course, but he talked that way and it was part of his critique of the Republican Party and the conservative movement generally. The thing that got the most ‘boos’ at that conference was any mention of neo-conservatism, any mention of libertarianism, and yet those were two of the three legs of the stool that defined American conservatism as it coalesced into a clear movement in the mid-1950s.

So there’s a lot of contestation about what conservatism means, and to some extent the Niskanen Center plays a role there too. But we’re not really ideological actors. You’d have to look to places like The Bulwark, or to people like Charlie Sykes, or to thinkers like Yuval Levin [founder and editor of National Affairs]. What preceded Never Trumpism on some level were the ‘Reformicons’, who were trying to make conservatism more of an intellectual movement again, more of a policy-oriented, governance-oriented ideology than what American conservatism had turned into, and they wanted it to respond to actual problems, particularly the problems of the white working class.

This is the level at which the battle will be fought in the future. And at the same time, Trumpism is not going to go away. National conservatives will not go away. There will be real struggles at the level of the party for control, and ideologically among the think tanks and magazines for intellectual boundaries.


"...there’s a lot of contestation about what conservatism means..."


But the boundaries of popular conservative intellectual movements are arguably not a well-reasoned or obviously democratic conservatism – what is your assessment of conservatism in America as a serious political philosophy? 

I think some of this has to do with the rise of FOX News and Rush Limbaugh as the leaders of [popular] conservatism. Conservatism looked different when its organ was The National Review with William F. Buckley Jr. at the helm. I’d say below the level that the general public notices that there are a lot of interesting things going on. In some ways, I feel like people who are on the right of center are the more interesting thinkers these days.

The thing that always gets conservatives going is a comment from Lionel Trilling in 1950 that “the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not […] express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” Anger at that quote was in some ways the inspiration for the very origins of the conservative intellectual movement. Important thinkers in the early conservative movement like Russel Kirk built up a reputation by finding conservatism to be a consistent strand of the American experience, intellectual and otherwise. Some of Kirk’s heroes were Confederates, which obviously is problematic from the present perspective, but he also cited the Agrarians, the Anti-Federalists, and the European strands of conservatism brought in by Hayek and Von Mises, the Mount Pellerin Society. There is a legitimate conservative tradition spanning a number of intellectual disciplines.


Will Biden, if elected, form a [bipartisan] unity cabinet?

Biden’s not going to draft a unity cabinet because he has to keep his coalition together, and he may only have two years to do so. Chances are pretty good that the Republican Party will run the same playbook they did in 2008 with Obama. Biden will come into office with a huge congressional majority behind him and will be able to pass some things, but Republicans will oppose him at every turn. And then, like with Obama in 2010 when Republicans regained lost ground with the Tea Party movement behind them, I expect there will be a similar backlash to the Biden administration. That will probably surface in 2022, and I think whoever the Democratic candidate will be in 2024 is going to have a really hard time.

A Biden administration has to do two things at once. It will try to placate a progressive wing that wants to do more, more, more to take the Biden administration in a largely progressive direction. But it knows it will need the support of those largely moderate, suburban college educated constituents who will otherwise go back to the Republican Party. And that’s going to be a very difficult balancing act to achieve. 


"Biden’s not going to draft a unity cabinet because he has to keep his coalition together, and he may only have two years to do so."


Will the 2024 Democrat face a Republican ticket headlined by Tucker Carlson?

That could happen. If you forced me to guess right now, I’d guess the nominee could be Carlson if Trump loses this year. He is the logical inheritor of Trump’s mantle. He’s smarter and more focused than Trump. And – unusually for someone in his position – he is not a sycophant of Trump, which will stand him in good stead if Trump loses this election. It is a depressing possibility.

But you never know. We could see a President Carlson. Or perhaps those turned off by this direction of the Republican Party will never come back, because they have been permanently turned off by the party under Trump. Carlson is, even now, taking up Trump’s banner of racism as well as some other dubious positions and I hope it comes back to haunt him.


So what is relevant in 2020 about the heterogeneous coalition of conservative and Republican resistance to Donald Trump?

What’s relevant is that Never Trumpers had been written off completely as yesterday’s men and women, completely irrelevant to the Republican Party’s current direction and without influence. And now, all of a sudden, these people are taking up real estate in Donald Trump’s head and are seen as very important, producing harder-hitting ads than the Democrats have been able to make so far. These people [specifically at the Lincoln Project] are very good at being incredibly emotionally manipulative. They understand why people who once voted Republican are not voting Republican right now, and that’s actually a fairly important part of the voting population. It’s exactly the part of the population that gave the Democrats the majority in the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterms, and if enough of these people don’t vote, or vote Democrat, then Trump cannot win. This has made them very important.

This doesn’t mean that the Republican Party will become moderate after Trump. It won’t. It doesn’t mean Democrats will welcome Never Trumpers into their ranks in a Biden administration. They probably won’t. But nonetheless, Never Trumpers are an important segment because they understand what is on the mind of erstwhile Republican voters and swing constituencies in the population.

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