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Is Never Trump Forever?
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Is Never Trump Forever?

Yes and no.

Donald Trump. (Photo by Alon Skuy/AFP/Getty Images.)

One of the sharpest treatments of the Trump era in popular art debuted more than 60 years ago, when Donald Trump was a teenager.

The Twilight Zone could be painfully didactic about politics, particularly authoritarianism, but at its best it was eerie, sly, and unforgettable. This episode was the show at its best, one Rod Serling took pains not to politicize in his opening and closing narration. (“No comment here, no comment at all.”) He presented it as a curio, a creepy fantasy that he felt obliged to share but didn’t know what to make of. Yet it’s the shrewdest commentary on tyranny in the Twilight Zone catalog.

Tell me if this sounds familiar. A vindictive child with superpowers demands that the adults around him indulge his every desire. If they refuse, he can wish them away into oblivion with an unkind thought. That leaves the adults trapped in a hostage crisis without an endgame, where the only way to survive is to keep humoring and flattering the captor they despise while waiting for something to change. Maybe the child will die, maybe he’ll mature, maybe he’ll get bored and move on to something else in life. But until fate intervenes to liberate them, they’re at his mercy.

Imagine a political party being so dysfunctional as to replicate a Twilight Zone plot arc.

The analogy with the episode started to break down this year. Eight of the 10 adults in the House Republican caucus who voted to impeach have been wished into the political cornfield, but two survived and won reelection. And needless to say, if the child’s superpowers were as super as they used to be, Brian Kemp would have been turned into a human jack-in-the-box long ago. 

There’s another way in which the analogy has begun to fray. Part of the problem for the adults in the episode was that there was no end in sight to their nightmare. The child could go on tormenting them for decades. The GOP’s hostage situation won’t last that long. In the grimmest scenario, it’s over by 2028. In the rosiest scenario, it’s over next year.

What happens when it ends? Where do the adults go?

We know where the “adults” who spent six years flattering Trump will go. They’ll go on to flatter whichever political or infotainment figures they need to in order to stay on the right side of the base that drives their gravy train. But what about the real adults, the wayward conservatives who refused to support Trump or Trumpism?

Whither the Never Trumpers once the boy tyrant is gone?

Jonathan Last posed a similar question to his readers last week. What does reconciliation with the GOP look like once the authoritarian threat has passed?

We should consider it because the threat may have begun to recede. Apart from Kari Lake, the election deniers on the ballot who lost in November have accepted the results. Lake’s effort to overturn the outcome in Arizona hasn’t energized conservative media. And Trump is no longer a 50/50 proposition to win a second term after MAGA’s dismal performance in the midterms. He might not even be on the ballot in November 2024.

Sometime soon, it may be safe for pro-democracy righties to vote Republican for president again. Picture an America in which you can cast your vote for conservative policies without worrying that you’ll be electing a coup-plotter.

When will Never Trumpers feel safe enough to do so?

The unsatisfying answer, I think, is that it depends on what one means by “Never Trump.”

Many right-leaning voters define themselves in the narrowest sense of that term. They’ll never vote for Donald Trump, but their qualms about him and his “mean tweets” don’t bleed over into qualms about the party writ large. That’s how the GOP managed to win every House toss-up race in 2020 while the man at the top of the ticket was busy losing by 7 million votes. Trump has spent two years struggling to reconcile those results, settling on the outlandish belief that the presidential election must have been rigged to spare his ego the more mundane truth that some right-wingers are willing to support practically any Republican candidate—except one.

By definition, these “narrow” Never Trumpers are in play right now. All the GOP needs to do to get them is nominate someone else in 2024. Give them DeSantis, Youngkin, Pence, Haley, whomever you like. They’re willing to come home. Reconciliation is on the table, near-term.

Other voters define “Never Trump” more broadly. It’s not Trump’s personal circus act that troubles them foremost, it’s the illiberal populism he’s mainstreamed within the party. Trump will pass from the political scene before the end of the decade but this sort of degeneracy will take longer to expunge.

“Narrow” Never Trumpers will hand-wave away things like that, insisting that figures like Marjorie Taylor Greene are marginal and that the solution to bad Republicans is to elect more good ones. “Broad” Never Trumpers will counter that any movement willing to bestow respectability on figures like Greene by electing them, installing them on congressional committees, and inviting them to speak at formal gatherings is too dangerous to empower.

Needless to say, “broad” Never Trumpers are willing to withhold their votes from Republican candidates besides Donald Trump. And many did so last month, per an insightful analysis from the New York TimesNate Cohn. Contrary to popular belief, Cohn noted, turnout among Republicans in the midterm didn’t disappoint. GOP voters showed up. It’s just that some significant percentage of them crossed the aisle to vote for Democrats in key races.

Take Maricopa County in Arizona. It’s home to Phoenix and around 70 percent of the state’s voters. Some Republicans say — without any clear evidence — they faltered in Arizona because some Maricopa voters were unable to cast ballots at the polls on Election Day, but the final turnout data shows that 75 percent of registered Republicans turned out, compared with 69 percent of Democrats. That was enough to yield an electorate in which registered Republicans outnumbered Democrats by nine percentage points. Yet Republicans like Mr. Masters and Kari Lake lost their races for Senate and governor.

Or consider Clark County in Nevada. There, 67 percent of Republicans voted, compared with 57 percent of Democrats, implying that Republicans probably outnumbered Democrats statewide. Yet the Democrat — Catherine Cortez Masto — prevailed in the Senate while Republicans won the governorship and also won the most votes for the House.

The “broad” Never Trumpers won’t be as quick to reconcile with the GOP as the “narrow” ones will. Some might not return to the party at all, driven away indefinitely by disgust at a Republican electorate that would entrust high office to figures as unfit as Trump, Lake, and Doug Mastriano. You can replace the party’s nominees but you can’t replace that electorate.

To the “broad” cohort, it’s not Trump who’s the authoritarian child in the Twilight Zone episode. He has no special powers in his own right, after all, only the powers that the Republican base has granted him. They’re the child.

And so the GOP hostage crisis will wear on even after Trump’s departure.

Even some “broad” Never Trumpers might not be as lost to the party as November’s results suggest. 

They may draw the line at overt election deniers like Lake and Mastriano but not at the broader universe of populists who have more than a whiff of Trump stank on them. Ron DeSantis has shown flashes of authoritarianism in some of his crowd-pleasing political stunts in Florida, for instance, yet he’s stayed away from loose talk about 2020 and he won reelection in a waltz. There may be a cohort of Republican voters who won’t tolerate overt anti-democratic “rigged election” nonsense in a 2024 nominee but is willing to indulge illiberal gestures here and there to keep the wider base happy.

But others in the “broad” group may be gone for the foreseeable future, and it’s that group to whom Last’s question is most interestingly addressed. “The hard part is that even if democracy wins and we go back to normal, we saw what we saw,” he wrote of the Trump-era GOP in his newsletter. “We now know who wanted authoritarianism and who was so committed to partisanship that they were willing to excuse, accept, and even encourage assaults on democracy in order to protect and advance the interests of their team.”

Which brings another Twilight Zone episode to mind.

The Shelter” isn’t as well known as the one I described above, partly because it’s the rare entry in the series in which nothing supernatural happens. It opens on a convivial dinner party among neighbors in the suburbs, replete with joshing about the bomb shelter one of them has built in his basement. Suddenly the party is interrupted by news reports of nuclear missiles inbound. Panicked attendees beg the neighbor with the shelter to let them in but he refuses, as there’s room enough only for one family. In the end their desperation to get in boils over and they break down the shelter’s door with a battering ram, ensuring that everyone will die—only to have a new news report interrupt to say that the “nuclear missiles” were actually falling satellites. It was a false alarm.

The neighbors straighten their ties and make sheepish apologies for their ruthlessness but there’s no going back to how things were. They saw what they saw.

Once you’ve seen that someone is capable of something truly terrible, how can you trust them not to do it again?

This is not a party that rid itself of Trump in a fit of outrage after the insurrection, after all. That would have indicated some civic or moral awakening, however belatedly, that augured a better future. Such improvement would be fertile ground for seeds of trust to grow. Insofar as Trump has lost stature within the GOP, it’s only because his candidates turned out to be losers in the midterm. It’s not illiberalism to which most Republicans object, it’s that illiberalism hasn’t been as effective as they’d hoped at gaining them power.

You empower a party with values like that at your peril.

On the other hand, it’s unclear to me how much the modern conservative base values illiberalism—or any other ideology—on the merits. A movement capable of shifting in a few years from staunch small-government conservatism to a nationalist cult of personality is a movement whose beliefs are confused and malleable. The one supreme conviction held by Republicans is that government by liberals is an existential threat to the country. It may be that whichever ideological content happens to win over enough voters to keep government out of liberal hands is necessarily one to which right-wingers will pledge allegiance in the short term. In 2010 it was the Tea Party, in 2016 it was Trump. Just win, baby.

On this theory, Trump didn’t become a right-wing demigod by being illiberal. He became a right-wing demigod because he won the presidency against a hugely unpopular Democrat following two brutal Republican defeats. And he happened to be illiberal, so illiberalism was cracked up to be a winner. And now, suddenly, it isn’t.

If I’m right that the beliefs of many populists are an inch thin, capable of being remolded by electoral success, then there’s a hopeful—sort of hopeful—scenario for right-wing reconciliation in the years ahead. Should Republicans win the presidency in 2024 with a nominee who’s more or less acceptable to conservative Trump-skeptics, the post-Trump GOP could evolve in a way that unites the right. A President DeSantis might steer the party back toward something recognizably conservative while in office. Populists would go along for the ride because their top priority, beating the libs at the polls, would have been satisfied. And Never Trumpers of all stripes would appreciate the new direction and strain to convince themselves that the whole “supporting a coup” unpleasantness of 2021 is firmly in the past.

The great reconciliation won’t happen with a ceremony on the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri, it’ll happen because the GOP nominated a good-enough candidate for every wing of the party.

Poor choices by Democrats could accelerate the reconciliation. It was easy for Never Trumpers to support a known commodity like generic Democrat Joe Biden in 2020. How much harm could a thousand-year-old man who’s been in politics for 900 years do? It would be harder to make that case with an aggressively ideological leftist like Gavin Newsom or a hapless retail politician like Kamala Harris. A Harris vs. DeSantis race in 2024 is a much trickier call for your average anti-Trump conservative than a Biden vs. Trump rematch is. Many would talk themselves into taking a chance on DeSantis, warts and all.

And if they did, suddenly an uneasy right-wing reconciliation built on keeping bad libs away from the levers of power would be in full swing.

My guess is that comparatively few Never Trumpers have committed to a true “Never Republican” position. They voted Republican for most of their lives so the path back to the right for them is well-trodden. They’re on vacation from the GOP. They haven’t moved away.

What I wonder, though, is whether those voters will be more willing to consider voting Democratic in election cycles to come. Having broken the taboo in 2020 and/or 2022 of supporting the libs over the authoritarians, it stands to reason that they’ll find it easier to break a weakened taboo again going forward. Rather than a full Republican reconciliation, we may have a durable new cohort of swing voters in American elections for the foreseeable future that swings depending on how “Trumpy” the GOP candidate is. 

But in 2024, there are only two paths. If Trump is the Republican nominee, Never Trumpers of all stripes will swing against him in the general election. If DeSantis is the Republican nominee, most Never Trumpers will swing behind him, if only out of joy and relief that their (former) party is finally done with you-know-who. That will create a simulacrum of reconciliation, at least. And a simulacrum is the first step to the real thing.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.