The lost cause of the Never Trump Republicans
Those on the losing side of a revolution always confront a choice: Will they seek to restore the old order as if nothing had happened? Or will they undertake the harder, more painful work of examining how their own deposed rule contributed to provoking the revolution in the first place, and evolve as a result?
So far, the most prominent and outspoken Never Trump Republican pundits seem inclined to take the first and easier road. That is unfortunate. Their principled stand against the ascendency of a morally compromised and temperamentally unfit man to the head of their party and the presidency showed courage and good judgment. (For just one example of Trump's manifest unfitness, consider the new revelations about his campaign's quid pro quo-style outreach to Vladimir Putin.) But the Never Trump Republicans' unwillingness to examine and adjust their long-settled views in light of Trump's electoral victory shows that they are ill-prepared to chart a path forward for their party and the country.
Take the example of Peter Wehner, a veteran of three Republican administrations (Reagan, Bush 41, and Bush 43) who has written a series a blistering attacks on Trump for The New York Times over the past two years, beginning soon after Trump's poll numbers placed him at the head of the field of Republican candidates seeking to succeed Barack Obama in the White House. Drawing on his extensive experience in government as well as the moral depth of his evangelical faith, Wehner has never let up in his relentless assault on the 45th president.
In his latest volley, in which he anonymously quotes a Republican member of Congress calling Trump America's "child king," Wehner goes further than normal, to propose that those within the GOP who recognize the danger that Trump poses to the country and the party form a "shadow government" of opposition to the president defined by its embrace of "opportunity, openness, mobility, and inclusion."
That sounds nice in the abstract, but what policies does it entail? Wehner gestures toward the need for fresh thinking with a call for "a new intellectual infrastructure to address what may prove to be one of the largest economic disruptions in history." But would this intellectual infrastructure be free to advise breaking from the plutocratic policies favored by Wehner's long-time ally, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan? Or would it merely provide a new rationale for Ryan's longstanding agenda of giving steep tax cuts to the wealthy, replacing ObamaCare with a market-based system that covers insurance for far fewer people, and otherwise providing breaks for big business at the expense of the poor and working class?
The questions are crucially important because these and similar policies have been at the core of the Republican Party's domestic agenda since the 1980s, and the failure of that agenda to improve life prospects for the GOP rank-and-file over the past several decades are a big part of the reason Trump was able to triumph over his rivals during the 2016 primaries and ultimately win the presidency against Hillary Clinton. Does Wehner recognize this? Is he prepared to abandon or at least adjust significant parts of the Ryan agenda in light of the populist rebellion the GOP has undergone over the past two years?
Some of Wehner's colleagues on the intellectual right, such as David Frum, Ross Douthat, and Reihan Salam, have been calling for just such a rethinking to transform Trump's intellectually incoherent and morally offensive populism into something truly defensible. Is Wehner advising his fellow Republicans to join them in this task? Or is he promising to resist their efforts in the hopes of reverting to business-as-usual the moment Trump departs the political scene? It's impossible to tell from Wehner's column. If he hopes to have a significant influence on the future shape of the Republican Party, the answer will need to become less mysterious.
An even clearer refusal to reckon with recent events can be seen in the otherwise admirable and very public stand against President Trump taken by Wehner's longtime friends Bill Kristol and Max Boot. Though both Kristol and Boot are very good at pointing out Trump's many flaws and the dangers he poses to constitutional government in the United States, the moment either of them raises the subject of what the center-right might do or stand for in the future, they begin to propose … exactly the same ultra-hawkish foreign policy they've been championing for the past 20 years.
Nothing, it would seem, can shake either man's support for a foreign policy of perpetual war, occupation, and nation-building — not the catastrophic consequences of the Iraq War, not the collapse of the Arab Spring, not the incapacity of the United States to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan after 16 years of trying, not the bloody rise and spread of ISIS, not the chaotic aftermath of the Libyan intervention, and not the political success of a populist at home who won, in part, by describing this laundry list of failures as the "disaster" it clearly is.
Then there's Kristol's role in persuading the presidential campaign of John McCain to tap Sarah Palin as his running mate back in 2008. It's not like the Republican base was sitting around pining for a candidate like the little-known governor of Alaska. But once those voters got a taste of a proudly know-nothing, trash-talking rabblerouser, they never really let go of the idea. Trump ultimately ended up succeeding because he did cultural populism even better than Palin herself, amping up her mockery and wrath, and turning it on the GOP establishment along with Hillary Clinton and the leadership of the Democratic Party.
If Kristol has said or written anything at all reflecting on his former fondness for empowering populists, I haven't seen it. He certainly wasn't the only one to follow this electoral strategy. Flattering the ill-informed prejudices of GOP voters in the hopes that they will put Republicans in charge to enact policies that the party's establishment and donors favor has been pursued for decades, and it worked quite well for a long time. But it eventually gave us Trump. It would be great to know if Kristol now considers this strategic (if not cynical) deployment of rhetorical populism to have been a mistake.
Until we know the answer to that question, critics will be fully justified in suspecting the Never Trump Republicans of fighting a futile battle in the name of their own lost cause.