What are their legacies? Are they embraced by the Democrats, and if so, what does the future of the Democratic Party look like? How about the GOP? Are they welcomed back with open arms? Or do they achieve their goal, only to end up politically homeless?
It’s easy to dismiss Donald Trump as a norm-busting existential threat. But what happens when he’s gone? Sometimes when you topple a strongman, you end up with something even worse.
This isn’t an argument for stasis, but it is an argument for humility in the face of unintended consequences. So let’s consider a few scenarios.
If Joe Biden wins, only to be pushed to the left or pushed aside and “LBJ’d” (just look at images of progressives tearing down statues and wanting to “defund the police” if you think this is overwrought), prominent Never Trumpers will be culpable to some degree.
Having helped advance the cause of leftism in America, they will be cast by talk radio and the Fox News crowd as dupes or even accomplices when the party they helped install goes off the rails. Indeed, even if Biden behaves like a normal Democrat, they will be seen as having blood on their hands. What happens to Republicans for Biden when Biden’s nominee is the decisive vote to uphold Roe?
A rosier scenario could be that the influx of Never Trumpers into the Democratic Party actually would have a moderating influence. The center (Biden’s coalition of older African-Americans and suburban whites) might actually hold.
Color me skeptical.
If politics is downstream from culture, the progressives on “woke” Twitter will soon emerge victorious, even if that’s in the form of Biden’s running mate/successor.
For those of us hoping to restore the GOP, a radicalized Democratic Party, as dangerous as that sounds, creates a niche for a sane and serious alternative party to emerge. Left-wing overreach could prompt Republicans to get their house in order, purge toxic Trumpism, and quickly return to power as a safe counter to the scary, radical left. Rather than losing power for a generation, bada bing, bada boom, you’re back in business—with a new paint job!
Again, I’m not holding my breath for this storyline to develop—and if it does, nobody will think to thank the Never Trumpers.
Most Never Trumpers believe that the ability to salvage the GOP is contingent on the scale of a Biden victory. If Trump loses narrowly, they fear that Trumpism won’t be fully purged. Their hope is that a massive electoral drubbing will extirpate Trumpism root and branch. If that happens, then Rick Wilson, Mike Murphy, and Bill Kristol et al. could find themselves back inside the GOP tent.
But do people who have been defeated—even (especially?) when utterly humiliated—really want to admit they were wrong? Even if forced to change their ways in order to win future elections in the 21st century, it seems unlikely that Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham and Rush Limbaugh will apologize to the Cassandras and say, “You were right all along!”
Rather than returning to the party of Reagan or Bush, we are more likely to see someone like Tom Cotton or Josh Hawley nominated for president in 2024 against some successor who is to the left of Joe Biden. That is to say, moving on from Trump probably doesn’t mean moving back to the good old days, it means moving on to a more populist and nationalist GOP that is smarter and more eloquent and more disciplined than Donald Trump, while still embracing many of his positions.
And what becomes of the Republicans for Biden? This creates an incredible dilemma.
Given our binary-choice political system, do the Never Trump operatives who have been so effective at helping destroy Trump end up in the Cotton-Hawley camp, or do they end up in the camp that is—even if the Democrats don’t completely radicalize—decidedly to the left of Joe Biden? The latter outcome seems more likely than them joining whatever GOP emerges after 2020.
Note: Here, I’m not talking about rank-and-file conservatives who may simply vote for Joe Biden or abstain, or the center-right journalists like yours truly, who vehemently criticize Trump, but probably won’t vote for Biden, either. Average voters aren’t subject to the same forms of party discipline, and neither are conservative columnists who can be contrarian and nuanced and ornery—and still (if we’re lucky) collect a paycheck.
But political operatives get paid (some of them, handsomely) to do things like create TV ads for or against political candidates. To do this, they need, at the very least, funders. For the most part, that still requires picking a side.
I don’t want to sound too critical of these groups. Their ads aren’t just quick, they’re also hard-hitting. As no less an authority than James Carville declared, “Let me tell you, the Lincoln group and the Bulwark, these Never Trumper Republicans, the Democrats could learn a lot from them. They’re mean. They fight hard. And we don’t fight like that. They don’t fight like that.”
Once dismissed as irrelevant, Never Trumpers have proven to be incredibly significant in 2020. They might even decide the race. But I also suspect that theirs is a thankless endeavor. They may be the convenient scapegoat for whatever horror arises after saving the world from a second Trump term. And fate (and the centrifugal forces of politics) may take them places they never imagined.
In life and in politics, too often this is true: no good deed goes unpunished.