Where now for the Never Trumpers?

Predominantly Jewish conservatives may have helped contribute to the 8 million conservatives who voted for Joe Biden in the November election


Despite his baseless and increasingly preposterous claims, Donald Trump’s defeat in November’s presidential election wasn’t the result of fraud, malpractice or “interference from big media, big money [and] big tech”.

Instead, among the myriad of his opponents who contributed to Joe Biden’s victory were a group of “Never Trump” conservatives who bolted the Republican party in 2016 and remained totally unreconciled to the president throughout his time in the White House.

Although by no means an exclusively Jewish phenomenon, many of the “Never Trump” movement’s leading lights and most outspoken proponents are Jews with impeccably conservative credentials. Among their ranks are Bill Kristol, a former Reagan and Bush administration official and one of the Republicans’ foremost intellectuals and operatives; David Frum, who, as a White House speechwriter penned some of the George W. Bush’s most memorable lines in the “war on terror”; Max Boot, a foreign policy specialist who advised the presidential campaigns of John McCain, Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio; and the Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin, once described as “one of the right’s most prolific online political writers”. Together, they and others provided the intellectual firepower which last month helped to detach millions of conservatives from their Republican political moorings.

Despite the sniping from Senator Bernie Sanders and the New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the impact of the “Never Trump” movement — which was buttressed by groups such as the Lincoln Project and the Republican Voters Against Trump — is not to be sniffed at. Exit polls indicate that around 8 million of Mr Biden’s 81 million votes came from self-described conservatives and 3 million from Republicans. Across the country, about five percent of voters who backed Republican congressional candidates voted for Mr Biden. “The country owes the Never Trump conservatives a debt,” the political columnist and commentator EJ Dionne wrote in his assessment of the results.

And, as Mr Dionne also noted, many liberals and Democrats perhaps failed to appreciate the sacrifice — personal and political — “Never Trump” conservatives have made over the past four years. “We can underestimate how hard it is to walk away from the people who were your comrades for so long,” he argued. “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.”

But the “Never Trumpers” were no traitors to the cause of conservatism. Instead, they displayed an intellectual and moral consistency which deserted most other Republicans, including many who refused to endorse Mr Trump in the race against Hillary Clinton but then swiftly fell into line when the former reality TV star unexpectedly triumphed and the political and professional cost of opposing him became too high.

Perhaps most impressive, though, is the manner in which these “renegade” conservatives have been willing to engage in potentially painful introspection over the past four years. In his 2018 book The Corrosion of Conservatism, for instance, Mr Boot surveyed the condition of the Trump-dominated American right and admitted to being haunted by the question as to whether his own advocacy of conservatism contributed to “the rise of this dark force in American life”. He bravely concludes that he ignored the “tide of extremism” that was rising on the right long before Mr Trump stepped off the escalator at Trump Tower and announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination in June 2015.

Many leading “Never Trumpers” are not Jewish. But, given their prominence in the movement, it is clear that, from the outset, many Jewish conservatives found Mr Trump — “the worst human being ever to enter the presidency,” as Mr Frum bluntly put it in his book Trumpocalypse this year — particularly unappealing. “The special opposition of Jews goes deeper than policy,” former New Republic reporter Yishai Schwartz argued in 2016. “Trump is not an ideological candidate; he is a cultural phenomenon. And the culture he represents — anti-intellectual, vulgar and angry — is not a Jewish one.” Other Jews detected something still-darker. Robert Kagan, a historian and foreign policy analyst who abandoned his support for the Republican party in 2016, wrote of the “aura of crude strength and machismo” and “whiff of violence” which clung to Mr Trump. Mr Trump, argued the young Jewish conservative writer James Kirchick, was “the candidate of the mob, and the mob always ends up turning on Jews”.

With Mr Trump’s imminent departure from the White House, the future of a movement committed to his defeat is unclear. Some of its foremost voices no longer view themselves simply as exiled Republicans. “Never Trump Republicans are a small but potentially important part of the overall Biden governing coalition,” Mr Kristol told Politico magazine last week. Ms Rubin argued in the summer that the Republican party — whose members, she suggested, had adopted a “noxious brew of nationalism, contempt for truth, xenophobia and an ‘America First’ agenda — was “not worth saving”.

Whatever the future, the “Never Trumpers” are perhaps best seen as heirs to an earlier Jewish intellectual tradition: that of the neoconservatives who, alienated by its leftward drift, abandoned the Democratic party in the 1970s and went on to provide some of the philosophical underpinnings of the “Reagan revolution”. Defined above all by their fierce anti-communism, they went on to help Mr Reagan secure victory in the Cold War.

And, given the threat the president posed to them at home, the “Never Trumpers” may well have helped to save the very values — chief among them liberal democracy and respect for the rule of the law — for which America and the West fought that four-decade conflict.

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