President Donald Trump is ending his first year in office in a worse political position than when he entered.
Republicans have lost statehouse seats, been trounced in the two marquee gubernatorial elections, and squandered their Alabama Senate stronghold. Trump himself has seen his popularity drop, including among conservatives and even watchers of Fox News, a Trumpian media bullhorn if there ever was one.
And yet, even at this particular nadir, the conservative intellectual forces rallying against the president remain dispirited and divided. There is dispute within the ranks, not just over how best to make the case against Trump but whether there is a coherent case at all. Looking forward, they don’t see salvation. It is an article of faith among the ranks that Trump will be challenged by a Republican in the 2020 presidential election.
But there is no agreement on who is best to do it, save for the emerging consensus that he (or she) will almost assuredly be trounced.
“We are going to have another primary election at some point and someone is going to run against him, that’s a lock. And the question then is going to be: Are all those people going to fight over who the best person to oppose him is, or are they going to support the person who could best beat him in a primary?” said Rory Cooper, a former staffer to onetime House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. “If there was a movement, there would be some definition of what the goals are rather than just screaming from the highest rooftop about how terrible Trump is.”
But, as Cooper added, “There is no movement.”
#NeverTrump was born during the 2016 campaign out of a sense of anguish and fright. The notion that a reality-TV star who, not so far back in his life, was a cosmopolitan elite, politically minded New York City liberal would manage to win the Republican presidential primary first seemed far fetched and then frighteningly real. At some point in between, a contingent of operatives, conservative-media personalities, and a smattering of lawmakers claimed that they would resist Trump’s rise, either by denying him the nomination or facilitating his defeat.
None of that transpired. And, as Trump’s presidency progressed, the #NeverTrump ranks have dwindled. Lawmakers who once called Trump unhinged have become golfing buddies. Those who have spoken up against Trump have done so in the context of announcing their retirements. “They flat out quit on us,” one #NeverTrumper said of Sens. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Bob Corker (R-TN).
More recently, a smattering of skeptical conservative intellectuals have begun making the case that the outcomes of Trumpism—at least on policy grounds—haven’t been as horrifying as they once predicted.
The totality of it all has been a joy to watch for the president. During and after the campaign, Trump was known to privately fixate on anti-Trump and #NeverTrump conservative pundits he saw on TV, calling them any number of names and knocking their intelligence or qualifications to aides and associates: “Pathetic” “morons” who “don’t know anything and don’t know what they’re talking about” and “can’t win,” among many other epithets and put-downs, as two former senior Trump officials recalled to The Daily Beast. That he, and not they, have increasingly defined the modern Republican Party has provided no small bit of vindication.
“Establishment Republicans understand that they need to bear-hug President Trump for their own political survival,” Andy Surabian, a former White House official who continues to work closely with Steve Bannon, the president’s former chief strategist, told The Daily Beast. “At the end of the day, this has to do with electability. You can’t get elected in the Republican Party today being opposed to Trump.”
For those remaining #NeverTrump diehards, Surabian’s point is not wholly contested. Trump’s imprimatur, they concede, does define the party, from the legislative pursuits, to the primary elections, to the daily, often-outrageous scuttlebutt that has persisted through this administration. What’s proven tricky is not overcoming that but, rather, adjusting to the reality that Trumpism often overlaps with their own agenda, whether it be the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, the declaration of Jerusalem as the U.S.-recognized capital of Israel, and the passage of a massive tax bill that opened up swaths of Alaska for drilling and undermined Obamacare.
In the wake of these accomplishments, #NeverTrump-ism has splintered. A faction of the “movement” has made the case that, legislatively, the administration’s mark hasn’t been philosophically off-key. A few have argued that some of the accomplishments have not been conservative-minded at all. Virtually all insist that any Republican president with a pulse could have had the same record of achievement, absent all the adjoining horrors.
“I think that nitpicking the differences between the minority of the minority contingent of us who are Republicans against Trump is not the best use of people’s times,” said Tim Miller, former spokesman for Jeb Bush. “It is stupid. No one actually cares... It doesn’t do any good to nitpick the differences of approach. My mind-set is if you are against Trump, I am with you. It’s as simple as that. And once he’s gone, if he is ever gone, we can hash out our different views and approaches.”
Getting to that point, however, seems more and more remote. The embarrassing defeat of Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate race would seem to have galvanized the #NeverTrump movement since Trump—unlike nearly every other Republican—had rallied to the candidate’s side after he was accused of preying on teenage girls. But as Miller argued, in some ways Moore’s loss saved the president from having someone so universally loathed become the face of his political brand.
“There would have been this horrible human stain in Washington, D.C., ruining news cycles every week and giving us something to point to,” Miller explained.
The 2018 midterms represent another potential reflection point. But even then, #NeverTrump-ers face a difficult balancing act. They are conservatives still and don’t want to see Democrats prevail. But the one place where their influence could be felt—a Republican primary—is also the place where their clout is increasingly diminished.
“If Trumpism is successful, the fear... is that it will reshape the movement, at least in the way it looks, and sounds, and behaves, and takes its public posture,” conservative Seth Mandel, the op-ed editor for the New York Post and a habitual anti-Trump tweeter, said on Tuesday. “You don’t want Trumpism to succeed, but you want Trumpism to get conservative victories.”
This is Trump’s party, after all. And what remains of the internal opposition has begun to come to grips with its ineffectualness in operating within it.
“My biggest regret over the past year… or the saddest thing for me was, I started out thinking that Trump won because Hillary [Clinton] was really weak and basically anyone could’ve won,” Mandel said. “But a few months after the election, [I started thinking] he won because he was Trump… You can’t discount his worst instincts from what made him successful [in the GOP].”