by Victor Davis Hanson
NeverTrump was a loose term for lots of different Republican apostates. First, were a small cadre of self-described conservatives and doctrinaire Republicans, who under no circumstances would have ever voted for Trump or embraced his agenda, or in some extreme cases, ever voted for any who would vote Trump.
So there are gradations of “NeverTrumpers.” But mostly the general pique comes down to cultural, comportment, class – and often careerist – concerns, rather than policies per se. After the election, we can now see better the contours of who and what these NeverTrump cliques were.
Give the hardcore tiny credit for consistency: they hated candidate Trump. They swore that he would never be nominated, never be elected, never finish his term, and never be reelected. Since 2015 most of their lives have been consumed by joining everyone from the Anonymous nonentity to the Mooch in damning Trump.
A few claimed that they still remained conservative, but their venom prompted them to oppose almost all Republican Senators and House members for their apostasy of Trump support. Some claim they want names of Trumpers as if they are Stalinist prosecutors. In fact, they are akin to nerds in high school who snooted about the people on their no-invite lists for parties none of those people wanted to attend, anyway.
They did not just vote against Trump, but voted enthusiastically for Biden and raised many millions for their affiliated firms and friends to work toward his victory. A few have now become unapologetic liberal Democrats, or perhaps returned to their earlier selves. How strange that in their fury against a purported racist, corrupt, and mentally enfeebled Trump, they voted for a race-jabbering, segregationist-praising careerist, of a corrupt family syndicate, and someone who would likely flunk the much-ballyhooed Montreal Cognitive Assessment Test.
But again, many insist they are still Republicans. In narcissistic fashion, these activists, lobbyists, consultants, pundits, grifters, and ex-politicians envision a Phoenix scenario, with themselves of course at the center of the rebirth.
In the ashes of a Trump defeat, the Republican NeverTrump Phoenix bird of prey would arise with a new doctrinaire creed under sober and judicious leadership—maybe someone like a younger Romney, a wonkish clone of Paul Ryan, a rebranded and reenergized Jeb Bush – or a MAGA-veneered, reverse-engineered Marco Rubio or Nikki Haley, who now claims to be suspicious of China or wants fair rather than just free trade.
More likely, they believe that the Trump agenda could be repudiated and replaced with a new NeverTrump “contract with America” – détente with China, an end to the Israel-Arab alliance with the Palestinians again funded by the United States at the center of all negotiations; NAFTA resurrected; the wall torn down and borders again porous, along with blanket amnesties; an end to presidential jawboning about outsourcing and offshoring; more moderate judges than polarizing jurists like Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett.
The NeverTrumpers likely never envisioned themselves in their fading moments as orphaned grifters begging for left-wing cash to play the role of useful idiots – only to be cast off by their paymasters after their inept roles have been played out—which is now their immediate fate. Yet they were never able to capture any popular constituency, largely because of their incoherence. Trump received 93 percent Republican support in some 2020 exit polls – increasing in party support the more Republican gatekeepers damned him.
Now Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) is demanding to see the figures on Lincoln Project effectiveness and, in good socialist fashion, wants the bunch to hand over their cash on hand to more deserving leftists. Almost on spec, just hours after the election ended, the NeverTrumpers were derided by the Left as impotent scam artists, and undeserving suctions of left-wing money.
Why exactly did they oppose all the agendas that Trump enacted that they had once sworn were their own – originalist justices, deregulation, global warming skepticism, pro-growth trade and tax reform, a beefed-up military, a pro-Israel, anti-Iran Middle East policy, more gas and oil development?
Apparently to endorse the reification of their lifelong agendas was to concede that an unwelcome agent had skills beyond their own to push through the laws of their dreams. To paraphrase Cicero, they would rather Trump fail with their own agendas failing with him, than see him succeed enacting all that they had once demanded.
They cited Trump’s pre-White House crudity and uncouthness, but without any historical context whether such assumed pathologies emulated or exceeded those of a sitting president Roosevelt, Truman, JFK, LBJ, or Bill Clinton, or were the artifacts of the tell-all age of the Internet and social media, or the hyped dividend of a 93 percent negative media.
NeverTrumpers had no recollection that their current allies in the media once damned George W. Bush as a recovering alcoholic and Texas frat boy, who with his cabinet officers had “no-blood-for-oil” stains on their hands as would Nazi-like criminals. They turned John McCain into a supposedly adulterous conniver, and redefined him as near-senile who could not remember how many houses he had leveraged in his second marriage by leaving his wife to court a young rich heiress.
They reduced Mitt Romney into a teenage snot-nosed hazer, a vulture capitalist, an animal torturer, a callous rich kid who had grown up with an elevator in his house, who shunned even a simple word of his kindness to his garbage collector.
Nor could hard-core NeverTrumpers ever explain how their own brilliance and insight were going to recapture the lost 6-10 million working-class voters of the Midwest, or to increase black support to 12 percent or Latinos to 35 percent or to win over seniors who did not wish to have their Social Security pensions privatized, or how those whom they mocked and smeared would welcome them back as saviors. Instead, we are left with the “racist” Trump getting support from more minorities than any other Republican since the pre-civil Rights movement.
A second, saner group of NeverTrump realists was also more polished and practical, and avoided both the crudity and the apostasy of the unhinged Lincoln bunch. They, of course, secretly hoped that the Democrats’ constant melodramas of the past four years might rid them of Trump. So they kept mostly mum during the Russian collusion fraud, the Mueller hoax, the 25th Amendment joke, or the whistleblower Ukraine set-up. In their world, the crime was not so much fabricating a Russian collusion narrative, as Trump complaining that his wires were “tapped” – the former was a lie, the latter true, given the surveillance of his national security advisor and campaign aides.
But all the same, they cheered on the good judicial appointments and were outraged at the Democrats’ treatment of Kavanaugh and Barrett. By threading the needle, they never would give Trump much credit for either being in the position of a Republican president to appoint such stellar justices or refusing to repeat the error of appointing a John Paul Stevens, Harry Blackmun, or David Souter.
They praised the Middle East breakthrough, the exits from the Iran deal and the Paris Climate accord, but felt they were marred by Trump’s braggadocio or merely spontaneously generated without Trump’s parentage.
They clapped for record-low minority unemployment, and conceded that the Trump recovery boom was historic, but seldom to the extent they connected cause and effect. They faulted Trump for his “sloppy” rhetoric during the COVID-19 pandemic, the quarantine lockdown, and the rioting and looting, but otherwise offered no alternative policies that might have produced better results.
They cheered Trump’s singular effort to champion religious liberty and to protect the unborn, but from the sidelines and without having to lend their overt support to his messy thankless efforts to enact their lifelong agendas. Others more deplorable and irredeemable might do that.
They see occasional bouts of advantage with Trump, but are happy to cut him loose when they feel his utility has now ended. They envision a failed Biden presidency, and hope for a Republican and obstructionist Senate that by 2024 can show the pathway to a more mannered Republican nominee. When Biden begins to issue his left-wing executive orders and a billion dollars soon pours into the Georgia races from Bloomberg, Steyer, and Soros affiliates, few will listen to the NeverTrump light gnashing of teeth.
But like the hardcore, the realists have no plan for how to keep MAGA stalwarts in the party. They have no real idea how or why Trump won more minority support. They don’t buy into fair trade rather than “free trade.” And they are OK with some, but not massive, illegal immigration, with jawboning, but not tariffing, China, with encouraging, but not hectoring, industries to stay in the heartland.
They were indifferent to Robert Mueller, impeachment, and the current voting mess – calibrating their views on whether Trump implosion would or would not hurt their own Republican agendas. At best, they would say they found Trump at times useful in the “calling balls and strikes” sense, without accepting that a viable president who rams through agendas one feels are central to the republic needs support in extremis and when it is unpopular to offer it.
Finally, there were a third group of quasi-NeverTrumpers who likely voted for Trump. They saw the world in more pragmatic terms of 51 percent advantage when they collated his deficits and assets. At times, they were amused that Trump’s bull-in-a-china-shop energy could be directed in the right direction.
But they were “ambiguous” about Trump. If he got himself in trouble with sloppy talk that won him a Bob Mueller investigation, or mishandled the whistleblower gambit and thus earned a railroaded impeachment, or found himself in the present fix of losing an election to possible voter fraud – well, then, he was damned well on his own, and should have known the eventual wages of his trash talking.
When they wrote reluctant endorsements for him, they usually spent three-quarters of their essays throat-clearing by first listing the various crudities, their own past renunciations of Trump, and the pervasive callousness of Trump before finishing the last quarter of their op-eds with a reluctant “he’s better than the alternative right now.”
They were happy that Trump made good judicial appointments, but were not ready to concede that no other Republican in 2016 would likely have been in such a position of power to have made any; or, if they had been, would have made such good ones. They saw themselves as sort of free riders, to board and depart the Trump train, depending on whether his accomplishments in any given week outweighed his tweets.
So the NeverTrump Trumpers are not the hardcore, who actively worked to destroy Trumpism as payback for their own inert careers. They are not realist NeverTrumpers who see advantage in Trump’s anti-Left animus but never so much as to vote for or condone it.
The NeverTrump Trumpers liked almost everything about the actual Trump record, indeed more so than anything the two Bushes accomplished. But they feel they are under no compulsion to defend the agenda’s author. Somehow they believe that better, kinder, and more gentler surrogates will pursue many of Trump’s policies, equally blast them through, and rally the troops in the arena – but can do all that in the fashion of a Ronald Reagan II: a happy warrior who would never joke of civic unrest about getting the bloodbath over with, or dreaming that forced free food handouts to the poor might be infected with botulism, or recklessly on a hot mic jesting about bombing Russia.
And the pro-Trumpers? It was simply a question of whether the livelihoods of the middle classes were better off before or after Trump, whether the Middle East and Israel in particular will be safer now or before Trump, whether the U.S. economy was better or worse for Trump’s efforts, and whether the progressive cultural agenda is stronger or weaker for his presence. Perhaps bad men can do a few good things, but they cannot do a lot of good things. And Trump did a lot more good for the country than had prior supposedly good presidents.
Oh, and they saw Trump the target as a strange illuminator of those targeting him, as the public finally grasped the toxic nature of the mainstream media, the Washington political establishment, and the bureaucratic elite at the FBI, CIA, and Justice Department.
In the end, most Trumpers appreciated that Trump took risks to enact a populist agenda that could save conservatism from its theorists and unite the formerly suspicious of different backgrounds and races, in a common belief in an America worth conserving.
Or maybe it was simply the ancient idea that the cinematic Pike Bishop reminded his crew of deplorables in “The Wild Bunch”: “When you side with a man you stay with him. If you can’t do that, you’re like some animal! You’re finished! We’re finished! All of us!”
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Victor Davis Hanson is an American military historian, columnist, former classics professor, and scholar of ancient warfare. He was a professor of classics at California State University, Fresno, and is currently the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He has been a visiting professor at Hillsdale College since 2004. Hanson was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 by President George W. Bush. Hanson is also a farmer (growing raisin grapes on a family farm in Selma, California) and a critic of social trends related to farming and agrarianism. He is the author most recently of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict was Fought and Won (Basic Books).