The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Two cheers for the Never Trump conservatives

William Kristol, editor-at-large of the Bulwark, has been a leading voice in the Never Trump conservative movement. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The shameful complicity of Republican leaders in President Trump’s torrent of deceit about our election tells us there is little hope for a more reasonable post-Trump GOP. But what about conservatism as a philosophy? Is it equally discredited?

Let’s begin by just saying it: The country owes the Never Trump conservatives a debt.

Yes, many progressives have been uneasy with these unusual allies. They insist that Trump was not some alien imposition on conservatism but rather the product of long-standing trends in Republican politics. Trafficking in racial division and racism, nativism, extremism, conspiracy theories and voter suppression did not start with Trump.

Progressives are entirely right about this. But the Never Trumpers deserve our respect precisely because so many of them stood against these tendencies and, in more cases than not, undertook a deeper critique of their own side.

Actor John Lithgow, author of the 'Trumpty Dumpty' poetry books, explains how he got mean — and empathetic — to write about the "despotic age" of Trump. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Design: Danielle Kunitz; Art: John Lithgow; Photo: Getty/The Washington Post)

This applies to many of my conservative Post Opinion colleagues; the folks over at the Bulwark, the online journal that owes its existence to the right-of-center rebellion against Trump; and many of those ad-makers at the Lincoln Project.

For those of us arrayed from the center to the left, the awfulness of Trump is so obvious — it was brought home again on Saturday night by his 100-minute ranting ode to victimhood in Georgia — that we can underestimate how hard it is to walk away from the people who were your comrades for so long. In journals progressives don’t pay much attention to, television networks we don’t watch and Twitter feeds we don’t follow, the Never Trumpers were denounced as renegades and traitors — and also saddled with far uglier, unprintable monikers.

True, these rebels-with-a-good-cause were a minority in their camp, but they were far from alone. Exit polls are imperfect, but the Edison survey suggests that perhaps 8 million of President-elect Joe Biden’s more than 81 million votes came from self-described conservatives, and 3 million from Republicans (which doesn’t include those who left the party because of Trump).

But what happens now? Some of the anti-Trump conservatives never lost their old faith and were simply repelled by Trump’s odiousness. For them, there is no temptation to join the other side. They are unlikely to give much support to Biden and will go off in search of a more conventional Republican to champion in 2024.

For a significant part of the anti-Trump Right, however, the moral corruption of the conservative movement over the past four years is a source of genuine anguish and has prompted a crisis of belief.

As it should have. Conservatism has its attractive sides. But it is often a creed that devotes itself simply to the preservation of the power, wealth and privilege of existing elites. This view was outlined brilliantly by the scholar Corey Robin. He argued in his 2011 book “The Reactionary Mind” that when you dig down, conservatism ends up being about keeping the “subordinate classes” subordinate.

The pro-Trump conservatives offered a lot of evidence for Robin’s point by rallying to a man entirely unsuited to power in a democracy because he gave them what they wanted. Trump consistently served the interests of the best-off and sought to lock in their gains by tilting the judiciary rightward.

A more humane conservatism can suit the elites, too, but its central purpose is to call our attention to those aspects of an existing order that are worth preserving because they serve not just the fortunate but all of us.

The British philosopher Michael ­Oakeshott was one of the most formidable exponents of what you might call ­gratitude-based conservatism. “To be conservative,” he wrote, is “to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to Utopian bliss.”

Even this lovely set of commitments can lead to complacency about a society’s injustices and resistance to needed reforms and adjustments. These are among the reasons I am not myself a ­conservative.

But with a humane Oakeshottian conservatism, progressives can either make common cause at times of crisis (after all, we on the left and center-left are preservationists in our own way when it comes to protecting liberal democracy) or engage in good-faith debate (the “actual” often isn’t good enough, and what is “sufficient” for some is often insufficient for the many who are left out).

Of course, I’d like the anti-Trump conservatives to admit the error of their ways and fully join my side of politics. But failing that, I still appreciate what they did. And I hope at least they can now champion a brand of conservatism that is about more than making the rich richer and the powerful more powerful.

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Read more:

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Biden reaches out. The GOP slaps him in the face.

Max Boot: Never Trumpers played a critical role in beating him. The numbers prove it.

Michael Gerson: Republicans, it isn’t too late to stand up for the nation

E.J. Dionne Jr.: The destructive myth about divided government

Jennifer Rubin: NeverTrump becomes NeverRepublican