The Never Trumpers Have Already WonRoundup
tags: Republican Party, conservatism, books, Iraq War, Donald Trump, centrism, Never Trump
Samuel Moyn is professor of law and professor of history at Yale University. His most recent book is Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World.
What causes people to draw ethical lines and purport to stand on principle? In February 2016, as it became clearer and clearer that Donald Trump was on track to win the nomination of the Republican Party for president, some of its elites took fright. The hashtag #NeverTrump “blew up” on social media, Robert P. Saldin and Steven M. Teles remark in their new book, when the host of The Apprentice won endorsements from the likes of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, his beaten foe in the primaries, and Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, his future attorney general. Suddenly the bad joke of the Republican primary was anything but funny.
Claiming to be torn between principle and loyalty to their party, Never Trumpers rose above the usual careerist opportunism and short-term gain, Saldin and Teles believe. Democracy itself was at stake. In the face of populism, an assortment of normally gray and straitlaced national security experts, political operatives, and “public intellectuals” (scare quotes for those unsure Jonah Goldberg and Kevin D. Williamson should count) felt called upon to go rogue. They could not shirk the grave responsibility of the moment: Sacrificing their influence in their own party, they resolved to criticize its leader from the outside in hopes of winning it back. Aiming to save the country from ruin, some even voted for Hillary Clinton.
We should pity these upstanding few, Saldin and Teles insist: Understanding them requires grasping how difficult a time 2016 was to be a principled conservative. And it is in part because the risks to their careers were so substantial that those who volunteered to defend basic values deserve our thanks. Even if the Never Trumpers failed in the short term—both in the Republican presidential primary and in the general election in November 2016—they may yet cast the die for the sustenance of American democracy for the future. Or at least this is how the principals in this drama, in interviews with Saldin and Teles, tell the tale of their righteous campaign for democracy itself.
“The louder he talked of his honor,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once drily remarked of a self-promoting guest, “the faster we counted our spoons.” The Never Trumpers’ account of their own movement in its early years is, not surprisingly, self-congratulatory and incomplete. They claim they were attempting to save the soul of conservatism and set up a bulwark against tyranny. In fact, their brand of conservatism had long been tarnished, and they gained little traction within their own party for that reason. Instead, they would join with centrist Democrats, exercising greater power against a growing egalitarian and noninterventionist left than they would ever wield against the extreme right.
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