Resistance is futile. Long on life-support, the Never Trump “resistance” movement within the Republican Party was finished off by the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation fight.
Consider the dichotomy that has emerged in the last week: We saw people like Erick Erickson, who once wrote a piece headlined “I Will Not Vote For Donald Trump. Ever,” suggesting they will vote for Trump in 2020, and people like Tom Nichols, formerly of The Federalist, saying Kavanaugh’s confirmation was the final straw (he quit the GOP).
Nichols and Erickson reacted to the exact same news in exactly opposite ways.
The Kavanaugh hearing essentially radicalized Never Trumpers. Some—as part of the GOP base’s backlash against the left’s attacks—are coming home and supporting Trump. Others—perhaps because their hatred of Trump has only intensified—were pushed completely from the fold. This process has been going on for a long time, but one gets the sense that the fight over Kavanaugh was the end of the road.
Where you stand on this probably depends on where you sit. Personally, I see the group who submitted to their Trumpy fate as making an understandable submission to the inexorable forces of tribalism and partisanship. Consider Erickson’s plight. If you are a conservative, you, too, might well be repelled by the left’s behavior last week.
As Erickson writes, “Trump is neither an ambassador for my values nor the articulate champion of my principles I would prefer. But he is a safe harbor in a progressive storm that seeks to both destroy my values and upend our constitutional republic.”
Even if you don’t like Donald Trump, seeing Ted Cruz get chased out of a restaurant by an angry mob—or watching protesters scold and lecture normal Republicans like Susan Collins and Jeff Flake—can spark an expected backlash. (Note to liberals on Twitter: The proliferation of comments like: “Don’t let any Republican politician have any comfort. Chase them out of restaurants. Picket in front of their houses. Shame them!” is counterproductive.)
When under attack, you circle the wagons. This is an understandable emotional response, but there is also a somewhat rational explanation: simple acceptance. As Ben Shapiro (a former Never Trumper who says he’s “more apt” to vote for Trump in 2020) told me a while back, most of the damage Trump could do (to the party's brand and the social fabric of America) has already been done. It’s water under the bridge. If you’re going to suffer the downside of Trump, why not reap the benefits?
It’s not like Democrats are going to seize the ground abandoned by Trump and become the civil alternative, arguing for making peace with conservatives, preserving our republican institutions, and returning to civility. In fact, just days after allegations that Brett Kavanaugh was present at a gang rape were lodged against the Republican nominee, Democrats are wondering if it’s time to be more ruthless.
Of course, for every Erickson, there is a Tom Nichols, a former columnist at The Federalist, who responded to the Kavanaugh battle in an entirely different manner. He officially quit the GOP.
Regarding the Supreme Court nomination fight, Nichols writes: “I initially viewed his nomination positively, as a standard GOP judicial appointment; then grew concerned about whether he should continue on as a nominee with the accusations against him; and finally, was appalled by his behavior in front of the Senate… It was [Susan] Collins, however, who made me realize that there would be no moderates to lead conservatives out of the rubble of the Trump era.”
This puts Nichols now in essentially the same camp with Never Trumpers like Max Boot and Jennifer Rubin—which is to say they believe the party is so compromised and toxic that it must be utterly destroyed.
Never Trump, the name given to conservatives who opposed Donald Trump on various grounds (his lack of character, his liberal policies on trade, his authoritarian tendencies), was always going to be a minority within the GOP. Still, a small group of committed and united intellectuals can make a big difference.
Had the Never Trumpers stuck together (perhaps coalescing behind a Ben Sasse 2020 primary run), they could have at least sent a message (if not a president) to Washington. Instead, the coalition splintered, with some prominent voices within their ranks essentially abandoning the Republican Party, and a contingent abandoning their opposition to Trump.
The death of the Never Trump movement was probably inevitable. It never had a leader or a proactive vision. It turns out that shared dislike for Donald Trump does not a political cause make. The kind of people who are contrarian enough to stand up to their own party’s nominee were, perhaps, not likely to agree on anything.
But where does that leave the Republican Party? With the internecine resistance either purged or co-opted, Donald Trump can expect to face little (or no) opposition on his way to the GOP nomination. This may sound obvious, but one could have easily imagined a scenario where a primary challenge might have wounded or weakened the incumbent president. Similar challenges have mattered (see Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992). For some reason, things keep falling into place for him. Sometimes, it’s better to be lucky than good.