WASHINGTON — It was a calamity. Never Trumpers gathered at an Abraham Lincoln-themed restaurant in Washington, D.C. for what they hoped would be the final nail in Donald Trump’s coffin.
But what was dead, they came to find, was the Republican Party they had known and supported their entire lives.
By 10:30 p.m. it was clear that something had gone seriously wrong with the polls, which before Election Night had indicated a clear Hillary Clinton win. The crowd had been thick with excitement and energy. At midnight, the crowd thinned to almost nothing—no one wanted to be part of the election disaster party.
Politicos opposed to Trump were on the verge of tears. Couples held each other close. The less fortunate were left staring blankly at their glowing smartphones in shock.
Trump’s candidacy created a fissure in the Republican Party that won’t soon be healed—in the men’s bathrooms, Never Trumpers had put Trump buttons in the urinals so that anyone relieving themselves would have to piss on Trump’s face. It was a vulgar statement that reflected deep disdain for the man—one that won’t simply disappear overnight.
The event featured a hodge-podge of anti-Trump voters all all stripes: supporters of independent conservative Evan McMullin, Libertarian Gary Johnson, and Clinton. But they were largely Republicans who felt they could no longer recognize their own Republican Party.
Never Trumpers left the event wondering if they’d ever have a political home again.
“First I won’t consider myself part of the Republican Party anymore,” said Jennifer Lim, the founder of Republican Women for Hillary. She had worked for moderate Republicans in the Northeast, such as Sens. Olympia Snowe and Scott Brown, and had found Trump’s treatment of women abhorrent.
“Republicans like Trump and Republicans like us are not going to be able to be in the same party, because we’ll clearly have very different values and very different ideas for what’s best for the country,” she said.
The location the Never Trumpers had decided to gather at in the capital was no coincidence. For much of the last year, moderate Republicans have been lamenting how a bloviating businessman had become the nominee of the “Party of Lincoln.”
So Never Trumpers decided to hold their Election Night party at Lincoln, a trendy restaurant near downtown Washington’s K Street, to honor “our party’s founding president and the party’s once and future values,” organizers said.
There was no mistaking the message: The bar and restaurant is festooned with portraits of the 16th president of the United States, as well as an homage to the giant chair Lincoln sits in at the D.C. monument that bears his name. And outside, a giant Lincoln mascot—featured frequently at Washington Nationals baseball games—waited to take selfies with eventgoers.
“For Republicans that consider themselves to be part of the party of Lincoln, they are currently homeless,” said John Stubbs, the co-founder of Republicans for Clinton group called R4C16. “The party of Lincoln is now the party of Trump because he has brought in a bunch of people who are not aligned with any of the foundational principles [of the GOP] which include equality for all people, respect for the individual and global engagement.”
The Never Trump movement has been a movement of cascading and frustrating failures—but a principled effort to continue to resist their party’s nominee, despite the odds. It began to emerge in earnest when Rubio dropped out of the Republican primaries in mid-March, following a humiliating loss in his home state of Florida. Supporters of #NeverTrump doubled down months later, when Sen. Ted Cruz conceded that he would not win the nomination, all but guaranteeing Trump the nomination.
Despite overwhelming challenges, Republicans opposed to Trump tried to stop him at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, with a small but substantial number of delegates attempting to fight the businessman’s nomination on the convention floor. This too failed.
For Republicans opposed to Trump, their support of Clinton was bittersweet. Many had spent years opposed to her politics, but the odious nature of Trump’s candidacy was a bridge too far. Never Trumpers cite things like his proposal to ban Muslims, his comments about immigrants, and his willingness to work with Russia as among the reasons they would not vote for the Republican nominee.
“Donald Trump is the least qualified, most dangerous candidate to run for president of the United States,” said Andrew Weinstein, a former spokesperson for Newt Gingrich when he was speaker of the House and an organizer of the Election Night Never Trump event.
The struggle between Trumpism and Never Trumpers does not end on Election Night. In fact, it is only gearing up. While Trump controls the Republican Party, many conservatives will continue to oppose his vision for America—or even create a third party in the process.
“Most of the Never Trump supporters I know are not willing to be a part of a party that is the party of Donald Trump,” Weinstein said. “If they continue to stay on the Trump path that they’re on, Never Trumpers will leave. The party needs to ask itself if it wants to move toward the fringe or toward the mainstream.”
“Donald Trump has taken over my party, and I’m not OK with it,” added Veronica Brown, a lifelong Republican who was attending the event and is opposed to Trump. “I’d like to remain a Republican. But if Trump is the future of the Republican Party I’m not sure I can be affiliated with it.”
The event’s organizers put up a cardboard cutout of Donald Trump wearing a Never Trump sweatshirt, in front of a wall with an inscription of the Emancipation Proclamation. Red, white, and blue balloons bounced alongside it.
But as the crowd began to leave, and the bar closed, and waiters began to break the tables down for the night, someone silently turned the cardboard cutout of Trump against the wall.
Perhaps it hurt too much to look at.