Never Trump Republicanism isn't quite dead, but it sure is getting close.
Ever since President Trump burst onto the political scene and quickly shot to the top of the polls months from the start of the 2016 primary season, mainstream Republican politicians and pundits have been forced to respond. First there was dismissal and condescension. Then, once the voting began, there was concern mixed with certainty that Trump's support would soon collapse. This was followed by panic when it didn't.
By the summer of 2016, the institutional GOP was deeply divided between those who favored rallying around the unorthodox nominee and others who favored sabotage — before, during, or after the Republican convention. The latter camp — the Never Trumpers — lost out that summer. It lost far more decisively when Trump defied their (and nearly everyone else's) predictions by winning the election against Hillary Clinton. And it's gone right on losing for the past three years.
The latest defeats, coming as a brutal one-two punch over the past few days, have come from former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and former South Carolina Gov. and Congressman Mark Sanford. Haley has been at or near the top of many Never Trump wish lists of candidates to challenge Trump for the nomination in 2020 or (less fancifully) to lead efforts to retake control of the party in 2024. Yet over the past week, Haley has made clear in a flood of interviews that she stands foursquare behind the president — on efforts by members of the Trump administration to undermine him, on impeachment, and on pretty much everything else.
Sanford, meanwhile, announced on Tuesday that he's suspending his campaign to challenge Trump for the Republican nomination next year. That leaves former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld and former Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh as the longest of long shots to take a stand against and stop Trump in the upcoming GOP primaries — at least in those contests that haven't been canceled altogether by state Republican parties.
Why has Haley come out so strongly in favor of Trump? Why has Sanford given up the fight for the nomination? Because both of them accept something that the remaining Never Trump Republicans simply refuse to admit to themselves: The party they once knew and loved, the party that I once admired (while also dissenting from it in numerous areas of policy), is dead and gone, replaced by a party whose voters strongly, overwhelmingly support the presidency of Donald Trump.
Haley defends and backs Trump because she wants to have a political future in the Republican Party. Sanford has given up on his primary challenge because he realizes that it's utterly futile. I understand why this would be difficult for a life-long Republican to accept. Hell, it's pretty difficult for lots of Americans of either party to accept. But it's still a fact.
Trump won his party's nomination in 2016. He won the presidency in part because Republicans overwhelmingly voted for him. Since then they have stuck with him through the firing of the FBI director, the interminable Russia investigation, dozens of policy fights and defeats, hundreds of embarrassing leaks, thousands of offensive tweets, countless acts of incompetence and cruelty, the Mueller Report, and now an impeachment probe into how the president used extortion "to get a foreign country to sabotage a U.S. election in his favor."
The result of all this? Trump currently enjoys 89 percent approval from Republicans. He is exceedingly unlikely to be removed from office at the conclusion of the impeachment process — because Republicans in the Senate almost certainly won't turn on him. Why? Because their constituents don't want them to.
You can lament this. You can try to fight it. But the fighting needs to be undertaken with intelligence, with a clear-sighted acknowledgement of reality. That means recognizing that the struggle for control of the Republican Party is over. The faction that ran the show from 1981 until 2016 — the faction of Reagan and (George H. W.) Bush and (George W.) Bush and (Jeb) Bush and John McCain and Mitt Romney and Jeff Flake and James Comey and Bill Kristol — is finished, caput, dead, and buried. It has been overthrown. The voters are done with it. Even Romney — a former presidential nominee and current Utah senator who has long been revered in Utah — finds himself with his approval rating underwater because he dared to speak out against the president for treating his office like a racket run by a two-bit mob boss.
Jonah Goldberg, Michael Gerson, and George F. Will could talk the ghost of Ronald Reagan himself into challenging Trump in 2020, and Trump would trounce him.
The sooner the remaining Never Trumpers accept this, the sooner they'll stop indulging in fantasies and start putting their talents and commendable moral revulsion at the president and state of the party to more productive use.
What would that look like? Well, for one thing, they could drop the pretense that the remaining primary challenges to Trump are serious efforts at winning the Republican nomination with a more acceptable candidate when they are actually kamikaze missions out to take the president down regardless of the consequences. Since this effort is bound to fail in the primaries, the next step would be for one of these candidates, or someone else, to launch a third party run designed to divide the Republican vote and help ensure that Trump loses in the general election. The Never Trumpers might not have anything close to the numbers to take back the party, but they might have enough to inflict serious damage in a tight race.
But this would of course turn the Never Trumpers from mere nuisances into mortal enemies of the GOP as it is currently constituted. They would thereby forfeit all hopes for future influence in the party.
The same fate would await them if they went just a step further and became Democrats, as their colleagues Max Boot and Jennifer Rubin have, in effect, done (I don't know if either pundit has literally joined the Donkey Party) — actively working to elect Trump's Democratic opponent. That's a perfectly fine thing to do. But then they would no longer be Republicans at all and would have to accept in an even more profound way that their influence on and within the party is finished.
That's hard. But sometimes life and change are like that. This is one of those times, whether or not the Never Trump no-longer Republicans have the courage to accept it.
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