The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

#NeverTrump conservatives want to shape the Republicans — and the Democrats, too

In 2016, they tried to persuade Mattis to run against Trump.

(Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
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Robert Saldin (a professor of political science at the University of Montana) and Steven Teles (a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University) have a new book on the #NeverTrump movement, “Never Trump: The Revolt of the Conservative Elites.” Among other things, it explains how Never Trump conservatives tried to recruit Jim Mattis to run against Trump in 2016 (he was interested but worried that he would damage the reputation of the military) and explains why so many foreign policy specialists publicly opposed Trump while very few lawyers did. I interviewed them about their book.

HF — Your book suggests that there are big differences across professions in who decided to become Never Trump and who did not. Many conservative foreign policy people became Never Trump, but relatively few lawyers. What explains this?

RS & ST — There are two basic differences between these groups of professionals. First, by putting out a list of potential Supreme Court justices during the campaign, Trump recognized the role of the lawyers and deferred to their authority. In contrast, Trump directly rejected the authority of conservative foreign policy experts and made clear that he had no place for them in his administration. Second, lawyers are comfortable with the idea that their “clients” aren't always sources of morality and virtue but that working for bad people doesn't necessarily reflect on them. Foreign policy professionals, on the other hand, take the moral authority of their bosses much more seriously, and couldn't shrug off Trumpish boorishness and cavalier approach to the ceremonial nature of the office. Plus, to be blunt, many foreign policy professionals had questions about Trump's loyalty to the United States.

HF — The book describes a little-known episode in which Bill Kristol (a prominent conservative intellectual and Never Trumper) tried to recruit Jim Mattis to run against Trump in 2016. Why did Mattis (and other well known figures like Mitt Romney) decline, and why have none of them run against him in 2020, despite their obvious distaste for Trump?

RS & ST — Our sense is that this was a bit more of a close-run thing than maybe it appears in retrospect. We think part of what explains this is that for most of the campaign no one really thought Trump had a shot at winning. They believed he would blow himself up and everyone associated with him, and then the people who opposed him could come in as the “clean team” and fumigate the party and start over again. If that was the case, then the main reason to run would be to create an honorable alternative for those who couldn’t stomach voting for Hillary, or maybe a very remote possibility of an inconclusive electoral college that threw the race to the House of Representatives. In the end, they imagined that the effort wasn’t worth it, and it would destroy any influence they had in the Republican Party going forward. Where 2020 is concerned, Gov. Larry Hogan did take this possibility very seriously. In the end, though, professional politicians just don’t run races to make a point. They run to win. And Hogan — rightly — thought that he didn’t have a chance to win.

HF — The Never Trumpers seem stranded between a Republican Party that is going ever further toward Trump, and a Democratic Party that doesn’t reflect their conservative preferences. What is their likely future?

RS & ST — We argue in the conclusion of the book, and in greater detail in a forthcoming piece in National Affairs, that the future of both parties may well be more factional. Both parties will have at least two if not more groups within them with distinct organizations, ideas, financial supporters and geographic cores of support. Party decision-making will involve formalized negotiations between those factions. The Never Trumpers will mostly become a part of what we call a “liberal-conservative” faction that will be a minority in the Republican Party, but one without which Republicans cannot attain power. Some will become part of the more market-oriented wing of the mainstream faction of the Democratic Party, which will share power with a minority but highly mobilized socialist faction. That process won’t happen all at once. And it will depend upon conscious, organized action of the kind that the democratic socialists are already pretty far ahead on but the liberal-conservatives have barely begun to build.

HF — Intellectuals like Kristol detest Trump. However, Kristol also played an important role in promoting the career of Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, whom many on the left see as providing a more polished version of Trump’s bellicose nationalism. Is the difference in reaction to Trump and Cotton down to snobbery (you talk about how many intellectual Never Trumpers see Trump as “downscale, tacky and boorish”) or something more fundamental?

RS & ST — There are many Never Trumpers for whom the problem with Trump is, fundamentally, Trump. They think he’s a demagogue and a damaged personality, and they have such distaste for Republicans because of the party’s willingness to excuse his behavior. But they still hold out hope that the party can somehow be brought back to its senses. Kristol fundamentally disagreed with the direction that Trump was taking the party on immigration and foreign policy in particular, directions that Cotton has also been in the vanguard of pushing the party. Kristol supported Cotton earlier because of their shared support for a more hawkish position on Iran and China, and also because he — correctly — sensed that Cotton is very smart and has a sharp political sense. But it’s unlikely that Kristol imagined he’d end up being the vanguard of Trumpism.