(Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Columnist

Three years ago, I noticed a hashtag trending on Twitter: #NeverTrump. As conservatives began to realize that Trump really might be the Republican Party nominee, they were rushing to dissociate themselves from impending ideological disaster.

It was right around that time that my mother called me to say that my aunt was — dear God, can it be? — actually going to vote for a Democrat if Trump was nominated.

“She’s beside herself,” my mother reported, which was a good description of most of the GOP by that point.

Intrigued, I asked #NeverTrump Republicans to write me about their dilemma. Within hours, I was inundated with cries of existential anguish from hundreds of party stalwarts who vowed that they would never, ever, pull the lever for That Man.

“I abhor the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency,” one wrote, “but I have to choose the lesser of two evils. Conservatism survived FDR; we'll survive Clinton. Will we survive the transformation of the GOP into an ethnic nationalist party?”

That’s a question conservatives are still grappling with today, as the civil war within the movement rages on. The forces of True Conservatism have been forced into humiliating retreats but meet each new setback with an echo of the cry uttered by a few of my correspondents three years ago: “Vive la resistance!”

Yet as the party heads into 2020 with Trump still very much at the helm, a number of people are beginning to ask an obvious question: “What’s the point?” Conservative resistance hasn’t ousted Trump; all it’s done is split the movement. So as political scientist and RealClearPolitics writer Sean Trende recently asked in a Twitter thread, what is the end game for the dedicated holdouts?

As Trende sees it, there are three strategies #NeverTrump can take at this point: concede defeat; position yourself as the “loyal opposition,” criticizing Trump when merited but praising his better moments; or active insurgency.

Each option has considerable drawbacks. Capitulation means abandoning your dearest principles — and if you think the Trump administration is likely to end in some combination of disaster or corruption scandals, it means positioning yourself to be splattered by the fallout.

The problem with the second strategy, which we might call “the straddle,” is that while it’s quite easy to defend on principle, in practice there’s little benefit. Liberals will identify you with all of Trump’s worst excesses, while the Party of Trump will regard you as a fifth columnist.

A strategy of resistance at least offers the pure fire of principle. But Trende argues that it means sacrificing any realistic chance of retaking the helm of the party. If you have been actively working to nuke Trump’s presidency, then if you succeed — or even if external events do the job for you — you can be sure that your faction will be the one group not chosen to rebuild the party out of the rubble.

But as journalist Jonah Goldberg, a #NeverTrumper, replied to Trende, perhaps that’s beside the point. Perhaps #NeverTrumpers are simply less interested in elections than in doing the right thing.

Goldberg said this shortly before announcing that he was leaving National Review to found a new conservative media company with Stephen F. Hayes. National Review is the premier conservative straddle publication, having charted a careful post-election course between conservatism’s two belligerent factions. Hayes is the former editor of the late Weekly Standard, recently shut down by an owner who had apparently tired of the magazine’s feisty opposition to Trump.

In leaving National Review, Goldberg seemed to cast himself into the wilderness. But maybe that’s the right place for a conservative right now.

American politics can be broken down into two categories: politics as coalition-building and politics as principle. Since the Ronald Reagan presidency, those two have been fused in the Republican Party more closely than they generally are, for so long that we take this to be normal.

But that kind of tight marriage between coalition-building and principle is never normal, because most voters simply aren’t that ideological. Their votes are determined by a mix of broad sentiment and narrow self-interest.

Ideological politics is necessary; without it, policy degenerates into apathetic clientelism. But ideological politics is never sufficient without a charismatic figure such as Reagan to divert the party’s focus from the inherent tensions of an ideology-driven coalition.

Without such a figure, if you are committed to politics as principle, then you are also committed to losing a lot of elections. But then, as many of my #NeverTrump correspondents argued three years ago, there are worse things to lose than an election.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: Smart Republicans are already abandoning Trump. But they’re still culpable.

Jennifer Rubin: Republicans are responsible for the Trump fiasco

Video: Republicans are choosing party over country

Henry Olsen: The GOP is the party of Trump — but not for the reasons anti-Trump conservatives think

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Are Republicans abandoning democracy?