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Elba or St. Helena? The Future of NeverTrump.
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Elba or St. Helena? The Future of NeverTrump.

And other possibilities for conservatism in 2021.

I normally don’t like to do what my colleague Jonah Goldberg calls “rank punditry,” especially when that rank punditry gets predictive. Predictions are perilous. How many people predicted when Trump came down the escalator that he’d be a formidable candidate, much less win the Republican nomination? How many people predicted Trump’s ultimate victory in 2016? I was worried about both. I predicted neither. 

But despite this failure, one of the questions I’m asked most often by readers and listeners—and even by friends and family—is, “What will the Republican Party and conservative movement look like after the election?” That’s often accompanied by other questions—will there be reconciliation between the NeverTrump and pro-Trump conservatives? Is Reagan conservatism dead and gone? Is Tucker Carlson the face of the Republican future?

Before I try to answer these questions, I’m reminded of an anecdote. As George Will told the story in a 2002 column, “When Harold Macmillan became Britain’s prime minister, he was asked what would determine his government’s course. He replied with Edwardian languor: ‘Events, dear boy, events.’” As Will said, events “are in the saddle, riding mankind.”

Indeed, barring extraordinary changes between now and November, it’s likely that events—or, more precisely, Trump’s response to events—may well ride Trump right out of office. His response to coronavirus is driving a steady decline in public support. If the election were held today, he faces the prospect of the worst Electoral College loss since Bob Dole’s defeat in 1996. 

We can’t talk about the future of conservatism without talking about events. We know one key event is coming—the presidential election. But we don’t yet know how that event will play out, and it’s the single-most influential factor in determining the short-to-medium term course of the GOP. All the answers flow from the outcome. And even as we walk through the possibilities, keep in mind we’re likely underestimating the psychological impact of victory or defeat. (For example, many observers underestimate the extent to which the surprise joy of defeating Hillary Clinton bonded Trump even with reluctant voters in the Republican base.)

So let’s walk through the three most likely outcomes of the presidential election and ponder the impact of those events. One can reasonably foresee a narrow Trump victory, a narrow Trump loss, and (based on present polling trends) a decisive Trump loss. A decisive Trump victory seems off the table, at least for now. Two of the outcomes lead to predictable consequences. The third gets very, very interesting indeed. 

Analyzing a close Trump victory is easy. It would not only decisively reaffirm the bond between Trump and the GOP, it will represent a second consecutive national political earthquake. In the eyes of his voters, he will be the orange-hued Harry Potter of the Republican Party — the “politician who lived.” The Death Eater elites of the media, Hollywood, NeverTrump, and the academy blasted all their dark magic at him, yet Trump endured. He prevailed. 

He’ll be the man who survived a pandemic, urban unrest, impeachment, and a special counsel. He’ll stand astride the GOP like a colossus. His family will emerge as his most likely successors, his combative style will be entrenched as the paradigm of Republican discourse, and given the absence of a true second-term political agenda, the ideology of the party will likely become almost entirely personal (support Trump) and oppositional (fight the left). The adoration for Trump might look a little like LeFou’s love for Gaston:

What about the remnant of conservative Trump critics? I hear that St. Helena is quite lovely  in winter. (St. Helena, for those who don’t remember, is the place where the allies exiled Napoleon after his defeat at Waterloo. The island is 1,200 miles from the coast of Africa, and he spent his last days in Longwood House, “a property said to have been particularly cold, uninviting and infested with rats.”)

If Trump loses narrowly, expect a viciously toxic atmosphere—with furious Trump partisans blaming enemies within and without for Trump’s loss, and opportunistic populists delicately positioning themselves to serve as better standard-bearers for the new, truly populist Republican Party.  

Trump’s core will blame the pandemic, the media, and NeverTrump. The pandemic dealt him a bad hand, the corrupt media fought him from the beginning, and NeverTrump bled him of vital support at the margins. The anger will be intense, and loyalists will speak openly of running Trump again, or one of his kids. 

The Tucker Carlson/Josh Hawley wing of the GOP will (carefully, lest they trigger Trump’s base) step in with an argument that essentially says, “Right message, wrong messenger.” The electoral coalition is right there. Combine social conservatism with economic nationalism, immigration restrictionism, and “America first” foreign policy, and you have a majority—especially against a radicalizing left. 

They won’t necessarily say that “Trump tweeted victory away,” but make no mistake—they’ll mount a strong argument that a better version of Trump would have won. Take Trump’s nationalism and combativeness, add a dash of competence and a hint of discipline, and the GOP has its key to power. 

In fact, I believe in those circumstances Carlson/Hawley wing of the GOP would quickly eclipse Trump and Trump’s family. The stench of defeat still clings to losing candidates no matter the grievances of their core. And neither Carlson nor Hawley (or a politician like them) would have to offend a single Trump supporter to make the case that they could represent Trumpism 2.0. They’d essentially reaffirm the ideological and dispositional choices they’ve made since 2016. 

In fact, if you spend much time on Twitter (a bad life choice), you can see a preview of the new alignment. Criticize Tucker Carlson, and a swarm of high-profile MAGA accounts will leap to his defense. The devotion to Tucker is orders of magnitude more intense than the devotion to Tucker’s Fox prime-time colleagues, Laura Ingraham or Sean Hannity. Already populist/nationalists are hedging their bets, and while their head might be with Hawley, their heart belongs to Tucker. 

And what of the erstwhile Reagan Republican, even those Reagan Republicans who served the president? It would be hard to argue that a narrow loss (during a pandemic, no less) would represent a clear repudiation of Trumpist nationalism and populism. Indeed, it would still be seen as a better performance than Romney’s, in worse circumstances. A politician like Nikki Haley would be down, but not out. Her path forward would be challenging. 

In this scenario, the conservative NeverTrump remnant stays in ideological St. Helena. If anything, we would be even more despised. After all, we were the architects of the party’s doom. Our betrayal contributed to his defeat. A serious Trump loss, however, leads to interesting, branching possibilities—but all against the sad (for conservatives) backdrop of progressive energy that could well surpass anything Hillary Clinton could have accomplished had she won in 2016.

First, the Trump die-hards will still play the victim (“It was the pandemic!” “It was the media!”), and the smaller GOP left over after a blowout loss will hail mainly from the deepest red states and districts, so there will be an audience for Trump apologetics. But the bond with Trump built by victory will be gone, fear of him will dissipate, and a rush of new information about his dysfunctional administration will give reluctant Trump voters an excuse not to necessarily repudiate their 2016 vote (they’ll still be glad Hillary lost) but to simply say, “We can’t do that again.”

But what, exactly, was “that”? Was it simply Trump? Or was it also nationalist populism? If the dominant struggle after a close Trump loss will be between Trump and/or Trump’s family and the other factions of nationalism populism, the dominant struggle after a serious Trump loss would range across the full spectrum of Republican temperaments and ideologies, with no one in the clear lead.

One could imagine a potpourri primary in 2024, with every single branch of Republicanism competing. It’s easy to imagine a race featuring Ben Sasse, Nikki Haley, Tom Cotton, Josh Hawley, Greg Abbott, Ron DeSantis, Tucker Carlson, and a variety of players to be named later. Who’s the favorite? I can’t begin to guess. 

But let’s circle back to events. Here is one thing that’s almost certainly predictable after a decisive Trump loss—Democratic overreach. Democrats would invariably read their victory not just as a negative referendum on Trump, but also as a positive referendum on the party’s progressive agenda. Unless Joe Biden has the discipline to hold his party back, progressives would likely reach as far as they possibly could to seize the moment.

I’d expect the legislative filibuster to fall if Republicans try to block Biden’s signature legislative initiatives. I don’t expect court-packing, but I’d then expect a rush of legislation on health care, climate change, and gun rights that could well eclipse anything Obama was able to accomplish back when both parties played by the old rules. 

The triumphalism of the Democrats would stretch across the full spectrum of politics and culture. The left would likely view Trump’s single term as the last gasp of a dying right—a fluke born of Hillary Clinton’s singularly and historically bad campaign. Far from stopping the left, the Trump term will have supercharged and energized it. It would have made possible progressive gains that Hillary could never have achieved.

But that progressive momentum will be artificial. It will be the fruit of the poisonous tree of Trump’s nomination and election. It will not be the result of a genuine transformation of the American electorate. And so, expect the GOP to come back. Perhaps not as quickly as it did in 2010, but our nation is still too polarized for true political and ideological dominance. Any party that reaches too far pays the price. 

We don’t know how the GOP will come back, and under whose banner. In this circumstance, the remnant of Trump skeptical conservatives might find themselves on Elba, not St. Helena. They can return (and pray for no Waterloo). 

But note carefully that for Trump skeptics in the conservative remnant, there is no good electoral outcome. A narrow Trump victory or a narrow Trump loss leaves a formerly conservative party in nationalist/populist hands. For the time-being, there would not be a viable conservative party in American national politics. And what is the contrast between conservatism and nationalism/populism? This:

The word “conservative” has to mean something. And in the modern era it meant an ideological movement that was more or less united around the famous “three-legged stool” of “social conservatism, fiscal restraint, and muscular internationalism.” The GOP’s commitment to fiscal restraint (or limited executive authority) has waxed and waned depending on whether it controls the White House, but that was the “consensus” that the populist right has now declared dead. 

The populist right has chosen to unscrew two of the legs, balance conservatism on culture alone, and then demand that the rest of the movement fall in line. But right-wing populism looks a lot more like pro-life progressivism than it does anything recognizably conservative. It’s centralizing rather than localizing. It celebrates big government rather than attempts to restrict its reach. And it’s hostile to a global order that has not only kept the world from a third world war, it has helped safeguard an extraordinary and historically unprecedented decrease in poverty and increase in economic opportunity. 

In response, conservatives would ideally find themselves living like libertarians—homeless in the two-party system but willing to work with anyone who will join with them to advance shared goals. 

A decisive Trump loss, however—while giving Trump skeptics a chance to make their ideological argument for the future of the GOP—still means that conservatism loses. Progressives will run the country, and the future of the GOP will be in doubt.  Still, however, it’s too soon to write conservatism’s obituary. 

It’s a belief system built around the idea that it presents the best means for uniting a pluralistic nation, preserving the systems that have empowered an unprecedented amount of human flourishing, and maintaining a long peace between the world’s great powers. It has the virtue—we conservatives believe—of being fundamentally correct in its assertions about what’s best for this nation and its place in the world. And how will that be established? Let’s call back to Harold Macmillan—“Events, dear boy, events.”

One last thing … 

Y’all know by now that this last bit lurches between my obsessions—basketball, college football, pop culture, history, and space. Earlier this week, I blessed you with a highlight reel of the best young team in the NBA, the Memphis Grizzlies. Now, here’s a short documentary about the coolest aircraft ever constructed. Enjoy: 

Photograph by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.