Never Trump and the Neoconservative Persuasion
The key to the conservative revolt against Trumpism is its moral component.
Never Trump: The Revolt of the Conservative Elites
by Robert P. Saldin and Steven M. Teles
(Oxford University Press, 295 pp., $27.95)
“Donald Trump is as popular with Republican voters as any president in the modern era,” write Robert P. Saldin and Steven M. Teles, two well-respected political scientists whose command of the polling data is trustworthy. But despite this partisan popularity, Trump has evoked a strain of opposition within his own party fiercer than any other president in memory has faced. To be sure, every election sees the formation of committees of “Republicans for [the Democratic nominee]” and “Democrats for [the Republican nominee],” but these are usually hollow structures. With Trump, however, a vocal contingent of prominent Republicans has declared support for Trump’s Democratic opponent, and many are doing all in their power—publishing, fundraising, convening, putting up biting ads—to deny the president re-election.
This group marches under the banner “Never Trump,” first unfurled during the contest for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. Many of its adherents remained active in their opposition to the man during the general election campaign and throughout his term of office. Now, Saldin and Teles have given us a book-length examination of this unusual movement in its several uneven parts.
Categorizing by policy area or profession, Saldin and Teles note that while a few Republican lawyers formed an anti-Trump group called Checks and Balances, most whose political passion focused on legal issues were happy with the president’s highly partisan and ideological judicial appointments. Republican economists have been still more quiescent even while demurring from Trump’s trade and budgetary policies, perhaps appeased by his approach to taxation and regulation.
A third group, Republican political operatives, generated a flurry of anti-Trump activity in 2016. They feared that he would drag down the party in the general election and disdained his campaign team “as a ridiculous band of degenerates and professional failures who couldn’t find work in respectable Republican circles.” Still, say Saldin and Teles, once Trump started winning primaries, this font of opposition dried up. “With few exceptions, they ended up [supporting] Trump.”
So where did the enduring Never Trump movement come from? Mostly from the ranks of foreign policy professionals and public intellectuals. These two sectors overlap, as Saldin and Teles note, since “members of the foreign policy establishment are also likely to be writers or professors.”
The authors capture the reaction of this group thus:
The Republican foreign policy establishment responded to Trump with open, furious, and mostly unified opposition. . . . [M]any were mortified at Trump’s statements on foreign policy issues. . . . He praised dictators liked Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-Un. He expressed admiration for brutal authoritarian crackdowns in North Korea and in Tiananmen Square. He accused George W. Bush of the treasonous offense of deliberately lying the country into the Iraq war. He was dismissive of key post-World War II alliances and international organizations. He was hostile to free trade. He displayed a fondness for torture and pledged to use it more aggressively. He advocated killing terrorists’ family members. He attacked John McCain for being a prisoner of war. He demonstrated a disinterest in and disregard for human rights and democracy.
Yet, as Saldin and Teles sagely note, weighty as these issues were, they did not add up to the main source of the Never Trumpers animus against the president. “The core objection to Trump wasn’t over issues. . . . It was the lying, the cruelty, the narcissism, the flagrant norm-violations--all the central features of who Donald Trump is as a human being.” As Eliot Cohen, the scholar and former high State Department official who took the lead in organizing Republican experts against Trump, said to them, “This is such a completely despicable character.” Or, as I (begging forgiveness for self-quotation) told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in May 2016, “I can’t say enough bad things about him. His ignorance is staggering, and his personality is revolting.”
Whence this moralism? Saldin and Teles observe that “Jews are overrepresented among the most persistent conservative critics of the president, what we might call the bitter-enders of Never Trump.” Why? A few are quoted at length to the effect that thoughts of the Holocaust sensitize them against Trump’s nationalistic populism. For sure, the specter of the Holocaust lingers forever in the mind of every Jew who thinks seriously about political affairs, and of many non-Jews as well. Still, I wonder if this isn’t too facile an explanation.
We might consider instead another characteristic of the Never Trump forces that is barely mentioned by Saldin and Teles, namely its connection to neoconservatism. They identify Bill Kristol as the “unofficial leader of the . . . Never Trump movement” without mentioning that he was also the unofficial leader of neoconservatism from the time—whenever it may have been--that leadership of that vaguely defined tendency passed to its second generation.
Neoconservatives were liberals who remained Cold Warriors when most liberals turned toward anti-anti-Communism in the face of America’s debacle in Vietnam. Neocons were convinced that Communism remained both a threat to our safety and a moral abomination. For most, the abhorrence of the abominations came first, convincing them that such regime must inevitably pose an outward threat as well.
In other words, neocons were moralists. Most had begun their engagement with politics by embracing or flirting with the ersatz religion of socialism. Eventually, they brought the same passion to their anti-Communism, seeing the defense of the democratic world as a sacred cause and even, in Francis Fukuyama’s article “The End of History?” as a kind of eschatology.
Neoconservative ranks comprised a large proportion of Jews (much as did the socialist and liberal worlds from which many were drawn). Much was made of this in 2003 when the U.S. invasion of Iraq opened the sluices on an outpouring of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, proposing that Jewish neocons had maneuvered George W. Bush into taking down Saddam Hussein for the benefit of Israel. Curiously, Trump, who has tilted U.S. policy more blatantly in Israel’s favor than Bush ever dreamed of doing, is anathematized by Jewish neocons, yet I have not seen a mea culpa from any of those who expostulated against the Bush/neocon/Jews/Israel conspiracy in 2003.
Although some believed that neoconservatism could not outlive the Cold War, Iraq was its third coming. In the 1990s, when Bosnia took center stage, those pushing for U.S. intervention were mostly figures from the neocon world—Kirkpatrick, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Max Kampelman. Once again, their argument mixed U.S. security rationales with a strong moral element, suggesting that while there was no articulable neoconservative ideology, there was what we might call a shared sensibility.
Although “neocons,” real and imagined, became the bêtes noires of the war in Iraq, the men who made the decision to go to war—Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell—were “realists,” tightly focused on American security and the threat of weapons of mass destruction. The neocon contribution was the idea of promoting democracy in Iraq and the wider Middle East. In aiming to marry power to idealism the neocons again showed their moralistic impulse. This enduring moral strand in neocon sensibility, I believe, is central to understanding the revulsion at Trump’s persona that makes neocons central to the Never Trump movement.
But does neocon still mean anything? Perhaps it is an anachronism. When the Iraq war turned into a fiasco, neocons were disgraced. Many fled from the label, and it became again what it had originally been—a term of opprobrium. Today, most of those making up the Never Trump movement were too young to have participated in the intellectual broils from which neoconservatism emerged or even perhaps the debates over Bosnia or Iraq. But it is not hard to trace a direct line of common sensibility from the neocons of the Cold War through Bosnia and Iraq to Never Trump, today.
It is a sensibility that is offended by Trump’s “America first” foreign policy, an approach both repugnant and self-defeating, not to mention redolent of an earlier political movement that was infamous for Nazi sympathies. It is above all offended by the shamelessly amoral person that Donald Trump reminds us he is in almost his every act and utterance.
It is also the sensibility of a limited group. Whether we speak about Never Trumpers or neoconservatives, we are speaking of a coterie of intellectuals with little reach to broader constituencies. Saldin and Teles argue their appeal is fated to remain limited. “Going forward,” they write, “the dominant faction of the GOP is almost certain to be populist and nationalist and have little space for most of the people who stood against Trump.” This, they believe, is the result of the “shifting tectonic plates” of class and technology. Perhaps so, but the weakness in such determinist analyses, which give little weight either to the force of leadership or the impact of ideas, is that political outcomes ought then to be foreseeable from sociology. And yet they rarely are foreseen. Perhaps a Trump presidency was predictable, but who predicted it?
Paradoxically, Saldin and Teles think the impact of Never Trump may somehow grow larger several decades hence. Whether or not their forecasts for the near and long term future of the movement are borne out, they have provided a readable, interesting, and authoritative account of the history of Never Trump.
Joshua Muravchik writes about politics and international affairs. His most recent book is Heaven on Earth: The Rise, Fall, and Afterlife of Socialism.
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