Anti-Donald Trump activism among conservatives — known informally as the “#NeverTrump” movement — started in early 2016 as a way to stop the businessman from winning the GOP nomination. It failed.
Even by the slightly broader standard of influencing Republican politics, #NeverTrump has been largely unsuccessful. Trump won around 90 percent of self-identified Republican voters in 2016, similar to past GOP presidential nominees. About 90 percent of Republicans have approved of Trump throughout his first term, similar to George W. Bush’s standing in his first four years in office. And with Trump as the face of the party, Republican congressional candidates won around 90 percent of the GOP vote in the 2018 midterms, just as in recent midterm elections. There is really only one anti-Trump figure among the 249 Republicans on Capitol Hill: Sen. Mitt Romney.
“Never Trumpers” tried to draft a high-profile Republican like Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan to run against Trump for the GOP nomination. That didn’t pan out either. Facing fairly weak opponents, Trump easily won the GOP primaries that occurred earlier this year. Polls also suggest most Republicans will be strongly behind Trump this November too — he is getting about 90 percent of the Republican vote in head-to-head match-ups with the presumptive Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden.
But “Never Trumpers” are increasingly involved in the Democratic Party and have gradually shifted their tactics in that direction — effectively becoming a “Never Trump” and “Never Bernie Sanders” coalition. And they appear to be having more success shaping their new party than the one that many of them had been associated with for much of their lives. Here’s how that shift has happened.
‘Never Trumpers’ found a home in the media
By pure numbers, the anti-Trump conservative bloc is both fairly small and not that remarkable. The group of Republican voters who disapprove of Trump is similar (but slightly smaller) than Democrats who disapproved of then-President Barack Obama during his first term. Conservatives who really hate Trump probably no longer identify as Republicans — 11 percent of Republicans switched their party affiliation between December 2015 and March 2017, according to Pew. But surveys suggest that the share of Democrats switching affiliation in that same period is about the same. It’s hard to be precise about this: Data suggests at most 10 percent of American voters overall are anti-Trump but generally lean Republican.1 That’s not nothing, but between 40 and 50 percent of Americans are likely to vote for Trump in November.
But while this hard to prove conclusively, anti-Trump conservatives are arguably way overrepresented in elite media, at least compared to their numbers in the general population. The New York Times, for example, has three conservative-leaning but Trump-skeptical opinion columnists — David Brooks, Ross Douthat, Bret Stephens — and no columnists who regularly align with the president. MSNBC has programs fronted by two anti-Trump hosts once closely aligned with the GOP establishment — ex-Rep. Joe Scarborough and Nicolle Wallace, a former communications director for President George W. Bush — and no explicitly pro-Trump hosts. Among the 53 Washington Post opinion writers highlighted on the paper’s website, seven are people who have identified with conservatives and/or the Republican Party in the past but regularly attack Trump. Just four are conservatives who regularly defend the president.2 Numerous anti-Trump conservatives are also featured prominently on CNN.3
How did this happen? Well, from the media perspective, the prominence of “Never Trump” conservatives makes perfect sense. The readers and watchers of The Post, The Times and MSNBC in particular are disproportionately left-leaning.4 So these audiences probably don’t want too much explicitly pro-Trump commentary. At the same time, news outlets usually like to present themselves as both offering a diverse set of voices and not too closely aligned with one party or the other. So by featuring, for example, George Conway, a conservative lawyer turned “Never Trump” leader5 who sharply criticizes the president in his cable news appearances and columns in The Washington Post, the press can essentially suggest, “It’s not just the ‘liberal media,’ even Republicans were angry when Trump did X.”6
But it’s not simply as if the media has hired every Republican who says that they don’t like Trump. Many of the conservatives in high-profile media slots (like Brooks) were there before Trump’s rise. Robert Saldin, a political science professor at the University of Montana and co-author of a new book on anti-Trump conservatives, said the kind of conservatives who get jobs at places like CNN were predisposed to dislike a Trump-style GOP politician.7
Many prominent “Never Trumpers,” Saldin said, operate and make a living in liberal institutions. “They think of their jobs as translating conservative ideas to liberals. They had invested in the idea that conservatism was respectable,” he said. In particular, Saldin said, these figures had worked hard to suggest that racism was not a major feature of conservatism.
“So they were particularly horrified by Trump because he embodied what they had spent their careers saying was not conservatism,” he added.
In my interviews with several prominent “Never Trump” conservatives, they not only suggested the group’s high-media profile was somewhat accidental, but were kind of defensive about it.
Tim Miller, a prominent “Never Trump” activist who worked on Sen. John McCain and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s presidential campaigns, dismissed the notion that “‘Never Trumpers’ are only in green rooms.”
But getting into media consumed by liberals is in some ways the only game in town for anti-Trump conservatives, since Fox News is very pro-Trump and features few critics of the president. And that platform to reach Democrats has been particularly useful for “Never Trump” conservatives because …
They allied with more centrist Democrats
The core argument of “Never Trump” Republicans goes something like this:
- Trump is a much worse person and leader than other recent GOP presidents (the Bushes) or presidential nominees (McCain, Romney).
- Democrats and Republicans who disagree on issues such as abortion and tax policy should put aside those differences for now and unite in opposing Trump because he is a threat to fundamental American values like the rule of law.
- And finally, there is a sizable bloc of Republicans who will join with Democrats to challenge Trump — so long as Democrats don’t move too far ideologically to the left.
This argument may not be totally true. And the “Never Trump” narrative is clearly self-serving — of course a group of conservatives who feel like they don’t fit in the current Republican Party prefer a more conservative Democratic Party that they can align with.
But true or not, this narrative matters because it has mirrored and likely influenced the Democratic Party’s post-Trump strategy. Since Trump’s victory, Democrats have done a lot of soul-searching. Is the party too left? Or is it too establishment and centrist? Are Democrats ignorant of the concerns of the Americans who don’t live on the coasts? Are they too focused on nonwhite voters — or not focused on them enough?
Faced with these complicated questions in 2017 and 2018, Democrats took an approach that was broadly similar to the “Never Trumpers” — attacking Trump as a uniquely dangerous threat to American democracy while resisting more liberal policy ideas and recruiting fairly centrist candidates in key congressional races. This approach led some “Never Trumpers” to get behind Democrats in the midterms — moving beyond simply opposing Trump to fighting the Republican Party more broadly.
“By at least early 2018, if not late 2017, there was general understanding that we needed to build a cross-partisan pro-democracy coalition that could prevail over Trumpism, which meant helping to unite Democrats, independents and principled conservatives,” said Evan McMullin, the anti-Trump conservative who ran for president in 2016 and now runs a group called Stand Up Republic that focuses on defending democratic values.
“Fortunately, Democratic leadership and many candidates in competitive districts naturally understood this opportunity and what it required,” he added. “Unifying candidates like Ben McAdams in Utah and Abigail Spanberger in Virginia were examples of those who attracted the support of principled conservatives and Republicans.”
It’s hard to quantify exactly how many anti-Trump conservatives backed Democrats in 2018 and how big a role they played in Democrats taking the House and winning many key governor’s races.8 But that temporary alliance between “Never Trump” Republicans and Democrats was strengthened in 2019 for two reasons. First, “Never Trump” Republicans found there was little appetite in the GOP for a primary challenge to Trump — another illustration of their declining influence within the party. And second, in a final blow for some of them, Republicans largely stood by Trump even as details emerged about his efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate the Bidens.
“I was so sure there was going to be a handful of Republicans who were going to say it was clearly wrong,” said Sarah Longwell, a longtime Republican strategist who was heavily involved in the effort to recruit a challenger to Trump. She added, “It’s been a slow realization that there isn’t anybody left who is going to say anything.”
In response, many of the “Never Trumpers” decided to get even deeper into Democratic politics, injecting themselves into the party’s fractious presidential primary. And they had an obvious path to take: While Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were pushing Democrats to take more liberal policy stands, several candidates were echoing the views of the “Never Trumpers.” Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg was arguing that a Democratic candidate with fairly moderate policy ideas could win over Republicans in a general election, emphasizing his potential appeal to “future former Republicans.” Sen. Amy Klobuchar made similar arguments. Biden was publicly noting how much he likes the writings of The New York Times’s Brooks, who was calling for Democrats to avoid going too far left.
When Sanders did well in the early primaries and seemed like he could win the Democratic nomination, “Never Trump” conservatives turned into a “Never Bernie” coalition. The “Never Trumpers” argument — that Sanders couldn’t win the general election, in part because anti-Trump Republicans (like themselves) wouldn’t vote for him– was compelling, particularly for a Democratic Party obsessed with beating Trump. And the “Never Trumpers” were already in the ideal positions to make these arguments and reach Democratic Party elites and primary voters — the web pages of The Atlantic, The New York Times and The Washington Post and on MSNBC. Miller, in an anti-Trump publication called The Bulwark, described how he and other Republicans had failed to mobilize effectively against Trump in the 2016 GOP primary and laid out a step-by-step guide for how Democrats could avoid the same fate. (The piece was widely circulated on Twitter.)
Sanders’s allies noticed all of this, of course, and started to publicly complain that MSNBC, in particular, was covering his candidacy too negatively. It’s hard to prove that a lot of Democratic primary voters were “Never Trumpers” or that Democratic voters were particularly swayed by the group’s warning about Sanders. But “Never Trump” conservatives were thrilled with Biden’s victories on Super Tuesday — and think they played a part in it.
“One group that really mattered in the primaries were the high-information voters, the people who watch MSNBC, listen to ‘The Daily,’” said Miller, referring to a popular New York Times podcast. “A lot of these people went from Harris to Warren to Buttigieg and finally landed on Biden. For these voters, it was all an assessment of who could defeat Trump. For them, we [“Never Trumpers”] have a unique experience and insight.”
“Our message before and during the early primary elections was that principled conservatives and Republicans were a winnable bloc and could provide the decisive votes in general election swing states as long as Democrats didn’t nominate a divisive, far-left candidate,” McMullin said. “Appropriately, Democratic voters prioritized replacing Trump in 2020 above other issues.”
They’ve become a faction of the Democratic Party
As I explained earlier, it is possible that 5 to 10 percent of the people who will vote for Biden in November backed either Romney in 2012 or Trump in 2016 and at some point identified as conservative or Republican. So while “Never Trump” conservatives are a smaller and less formal constituency in the Democratic Party than black voters, for example, some of them feel exiled from a Republican Party dominated by Trump, backed Democrats in the 2018 midterms and participated in the 2020 Democratic primaries. Michael Halle, a strategist on Buttigieg’s campaign, said about 50 of the campaign’s county precinct captains in Iowa were former Republicans who changed their party registration to become Democrats so they could participate in the caucuses and back the former mayor.
Those exiled Republicans are already mobilizing behind Biden in the general election. They are urging fellow conservatives not to support Rep. Justin Amash, who left the GOP in 2019 and last week announced an exploratory committee for a presidential run as the Libertarian candidate. They argue Amash’s candidacy might increase Trump’s chances of reelection.
So “Never Trump” conservatives can probably make some demands of Biden, just like any other constituency in the party, and he might feel some need to court them.
And that seems to be happening. The former vice president hinted recently that he might name some Republicans to his cabinet or transition team. Rumors of his consideration of Klobuchar for vice president is no doubt largely about her potential appeal to voters in the Midwest, but her more centrist politics also make her a favorite of some moderate Republicans.
“I don’t know that Biden needs a message for ‘Never Trumpers’ — most ‘Never Trumpers’ are going to vote for Biden,” Miller said. But, he added, “I do think eventually the campaign should have a message for them.”
Mostly, “Never Trumpers” simply want Biden to run a general election campaign similar to his primary run, emphasizing more moderate policies and appealing to more centrist voters.
“I don’t want him to make crazy sacrifices to the left that he doesn’t need to make,” Miller said.
The extent to which “Never Trumpers” become card-carrying members of the Democratic Party might have broad implications for the party’s future. Are we seeing the birth of a new, ex-conservative faction in the Democratic Party or the resurgence of an existing one, with “Never Trump” conservatives joining with longtime Democratic moderates? Could that wing of the party become as strong as it was in the 1990s? The 2018 general elections and the 2020 primaries suggest more centrist Democratic candidates are winning among white, college-educated voters in the suburbs against both Trump Republicans but also Sanders Democrats. That’s an opportunity for Democrats to expand their coalition — after all, white voters are the majority of American voters. It’s also likely to be a challenge: The more liberal bloc of the Democratic Party increasingly favors big, transformative policies on economic issues that longtime moderate Democrats and ex-Republicans are unlikely to ever embrace.
On the other hand, the alliance between “Never Trump” conservatives and Democrats could be a fleeting one. If Trump loses badly in November, perhaps anti-Trump Republicans can regain influence in the party many of them still want to be in.
“If he loses, there is a lot of room for a fight over the soul of the party,” Longwell said.
“If he wins, then it’s pretty definitive.”