Anti-Trump Conservatives: Forgotten But Not Gone

The Summit on Principled Conservatism grapples with the different ways Trump has affected the movement.

All eyes in Republican politics were on the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) this past week, and for good reason. The slate of speakers at the Gaylord National Resort and Conference Center included the president and vice president of the United States, nearly the entire Cabinet, and some of the biggest names in right-wing media. CPAC was the biggest show in town, but it wasn’t the only one.

On the other side of the Potomac River, a block east of the White House, organizers of the Summit on Principled Conservatism—a gathering billed as a grassroots “discussion about what conservatism means today and where the conservative movement must go from here”—took pains on Saturday to steer the conference, now in its second year, away from some of the excesses of the anti-Trump movement.

Evan McMullin—a former CIA operative who ran against Donald Trump as an independent in 2016 and now helms the Stand Up Republic advocacy organization—kicked off the day’s programming. “We are loyal to principle first,” he said. “Not because we believe ourselves to be better than anyone else; we are not. And not because we’re unrealistic about the world; we are not. … We don’t consider those on the right or the left who have different views than us to be our enemy.”

“This summit is not a Never Trump summit, this is a principles first summit,” Heath Mayo told the 275 registered attendees at the National Press Club (the group outgrew its original space and had to scramble to find a larger venue). “This is about our ideas. We have Trump supporters in the room today, we have old-guard conservatives, new-guard conservatives, libertarians, all across the spectrum. No one was uninvited from this event, everyone was welcome.”

Mayo is a Bain & Company consultant who founded the Principles First movement last year on the side. He’d attended CPAC for years as a college student, but told The Dispatch the conservative conference had “become less of a discussion, less of a debate.”

“CPAC had always been a place where conservatives with a bunch of different ideas, would get together and have sort of debates,” Mayo said. “About how libertarian should we be, how socially conservative should we be? All of those questions were debated, and nobody was sort of booed out of the room or certainly not uninvited. And so it was always a lively discussion. And I think that was sort of the impetus for this gathering.”

The crowd of nearly 300 was a self-selected group. Plenty hailed from D.C., Virginia, or Maryland, but Mayo said nearly half traveled from across the country to join the conversation—South Carolina, Oregon, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, California, and Utah were all represented. Attendees were largely politically engaged (McMullin’s running mate in 2016—Mindy Finn—was brought to the stage as “needing no introduction”), and they were largely white (Shermichael Singleton—one of only two black panelists at the summit*—said “I’m looking in this room, I’ve only counted three African Americans. I’m just being very honest.”). Some said they recognized each other from Twitter profile pictures. Joseph Reynolds—a Marine engineer challenging Sen. Lindsey Graham for the Republican nomination in South Carolina—went table to table introducing himself and giving anyone who’d listen a pitch for his candidacy.

The Summit on Principled Conservatism featured plenty of ideas. A pamphlet distributed to all guests laid out 15 principles “principled conservatives” should abide by, none of which would read as controversial in a different era, but, in this moment seemed to be a clear rebuke of the Trump Republican party. “Integrity, character, and virtue matter.” “Truth, honesty, rationality, and facts are non-negotiable.” “The Constitution and rule of law are paramount.” “Congress passes laws, the executive executes laws, and the courts interpret laws.” “Civic associations, faith communities, and families should be the primary engines of our culture—not the state.”

Five of the six panel discussions—which ran from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. with a quick break for a catered lunch—included the word “conservatism” in the title. Several veterans of the movement worked to define “principled conservatism,” making references to Ronald Reagan, Winston Churchill, Edmund Burke, Hubert Humphrey, Charles Murray, and Allan Bloom. Afternoon panels focused on how to confront nationalist populism, what a conservative foreign policy looks like, and how to bring back the rule of law. The final discussion of the day featured a handful of budding moderate voices—one speaker was just 22 years old—talking about how to make conservatism “sexy” again.

But bubbling beneath the surface of the high-mindedness and magnanimity was a slew of deep-seated resentments and personal grievances. The day’s speakers—at one time vice presidential chiefs of staff, acting attorneys general of the United States, high-level campaign operatives, and some of the most influential writers in the country—have been all but cast aside in Donald Trump’s GOP. And on several occasions, those frustrations came to the fore.

“Who here thought they were coming to group therapy today?” Rina Shah—an anti-Trump delegate at the 2016 Republican National Convention—asked the crowd to applause and laughter. The first question of the day came from Bulwark founder Charlie Sykes: “How did the crazies take over the movement?”

“The idea that Donald Trump is this singular, earth-shattering figure of conservatism is wrong,” former GOP campaign operative and current media figure Rick Wilson said. “Donald Trump is a nationalist, populist with a psychological disorder that leads him to be both mendacious and narcissistic in equal measures.”

“I don’t think in 2016 many of us principled conservatives thought that so many other people would sell their souls,” said Tara Setmayer, current CNN political commentator and longtime aide to former Republican representative Dana Rohrabacher. “We’re not the apostates, but yet, that’s what we’re called, we’re cast out.”

When Will Chamberlain—a pro-Trump agitator and editor-in-chief of Human Events—reached the front of the question line to ask a panel if they agreed with Wilson’s past remarks referring Donald Trump’s supporters as the president’s “credulous rube, ten-toothed base,” Tim Miller, who used to work for Jeb Bush, said he didn’t, referencing his old boss’ views on the dignity, meaning, and purpose of all human life. But Wilson took the bait anyways, giving Chamberlain exactly the soundbite he wanted. “I’m sorry that the f***-your-feelings crowd can’t take the fact that I’m a pirate, and that I talk the way I do. And I’m sorry their delicate little feels are hurt when they get called out.”

Stuart Gerson—assistant attorney general for the Civil Division in the George H.W. Bush administration and acting attorney general under Bill Clinton—introduced the discussion he was a part of as “the Human Scum panel,” proudly owning President Trump’s moniker for Never Trump conservatives the way the president’s own supporters embraced Hillary Clinton’s “deplorable” label. “As much as any of you, I’d like to see [Trump] extricated from American politics and put on the new NASA one-way trip space program,” he said.

Some panelists sought to stay true to the conference’s mission. “It’s just very easy when we talk about the importance of principled conservatism to fall into the error of supposing, ‘Oh, we’re the principled people and everybody else, they’re the unprincipled people,’” National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru said early in the day. “There may be other conservatives who have different principles, or think differently about principles, or have a different hierarchy of principles, or make different judgments about what is to be done at this particular moment. … If we’re honest about it, I think that that mistake has sometimes affected Never Trump conservatives.”

“I believe that principled conservatism is not laughing off Trump voters for their beliefs,” Benji Backer, a senior at the University of Washington, said in his prepared afternoon remarks. “I believe that principled conservatism is not calling Trump voters Nazis. I believe that principled conservatism is not supporting a socialist for president. I believe that principled conservatism is not opposing everything someone does just because you don’t like them.”

Mayo told The Dispatch that striking a balance between principles and criticism of Trump was difficult. “As the person who wrote the agenda and invited the speakers, I think that was our chief challenge, right? And that's why I wanted to be clear framing the summit,” he said on the phone a day after the event. “There's a lot of folks there admittedly, that aren't the biggest fans of the president or the biggest fans [of], for instance, the $23 trillion debt or some of the executive actions that he's taken or what he says, but it's not really a productive discussion, right? It's productive to call it out a couple of times, but to just have a full summit where we just kind of complain about what the president does, it isn't really a productive exercise with respect to reviving conservatism and bringing back an ideology that we all think is sort of on the outs in Washington.”

“There were personalities on our panels as well, but ... not even all the panelists agreed with each other, which was good.”

One of the day’s biggest questions was whether the Republican party remains the proper vehicle to bring about the principled conservatism the conference’s attendees so desire. (At one point, Setmayer referred to CPAC as those “across the aisle” before quickly correcting herself to “across the river” in reference to that conference’s location.) 

Earlier in the day, Tim Miller looked at the failures within the GOP that helped pave the way for Trump in the first place. “I think that a lot of times, people like me who worked for establishment Republicans sort of saw … the illiberal impulses within the media, within some of the members of the party in the base, and some of the politicians themselves, and thought, ‘Well, you know, I guess we’ll just accept some of this stuff as part of the pie for winning elections.’” he said when an attendee, Steven Howard, asked if there was anything the Republican Party should have done differently in 2008 or 2012 to avoid the predicament it is now in. “We’ll just kind of look the other way, or we’ll maybe stoke some of the anti-immigrant rhetoric, just enough to let us win, but then we’ll have guardrails. Us responsible people here in Washington will be the guardrails to make sure it doesn’t get too far, it doesn’t get too out of hand.’ Obviously that was a totally failed endeavor, and one that I was part of.”

Many—attendees and panelists alike—claimed not to know who or what to root for in the coming years.

An audience member from Jacksonville—lamented the “loss of role models” in the GOP. Richard Mullaney told the panel that while he is a Never Trump Republican, he’s really a Never Trumpism Republican. If the 2024 or 2028 presidential fields feature Mike Pence, senators who supported Trump, or Nikki Haley, he asked, “who do I vote for?”

“You don’t vote for them, you punish them,” Rina Shah immediately shot back, receiving one of the largest rounds of applause of the day. We were on a track toward a “more just and more fair America,” she said, “until Donald J. Trump came to office, and I refuse to stop blaming that man for what he has created right now.”

Shah continued: “We have to wait for this moment to pass, and not forget who didn’t stand beside us,” she said. “Because Sen. Susan Collins was a role model of mine, until she didn’t vote to convict. And guess what: Jaime Herrera Beutler—a friend—Carol Miller, both congresswomen in the House. If you look at my FEC donations you see I gave to them last year. Yeah? No more. No more, you’re cut off.”

Backer, from the University of Washington, had earlier argued the opposite. “There are some amazing people in the conservative movement right now,” he said in a tacit rebuke of the Lincoln Project, of which Rick Wilson is a founding member. “I believe Nikki Haley is amazing, I believe Susan Collins is amazing, I believe Cory Gardner is amazing. I believe some of these voices are incredibly amazing, and they are doing amazing work. We need to support those conservatives going forward, because they are the future of the party and they’re actually there right now working hard for our values.”

But he appeared to be outnumbered by his co-panelists.

“I’ll answer your question by talking about Ben Sasse, one of my political role models,” Reed Howard, a seminarian at Emory University, said in response to Mullaney. “I refuse to allow him to become the leader of the principled movement once Trumpism [is gone].”

“Amen,” someone in the crowd shouted.

“I believe in Christian forgiveness,” Howard continued. “We should not punish the millions of Americans who voted for Donald Trump. But I do think there’s something different, if you are in charge of policy for the state, and you put in practices like the Muslim ban, if you put children in cages—which I think is the worst thing that this administration has done and that we’ve allowed this country to do. And so, we can’t forgive the policymakers.”

“I don’t want to wish harm upon anyone, but where were these people [Republican leaders] when courage and magnanimity were necessary?” asked Singleton, who worked on the presidential campaigns of Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and Ben Carson before serving in the Trump administration at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. “Too often, in this country, we allow people to get away with things because, ‘Oh, I didn’t know,’ or ‘I was pressured,’ or ‘I didn’t want to go against the grain.’ That is easy to say when you’re frickin’ comfortable, man. It’s easy! It’s easy as hell to sit in your ivory tower and say, ‘Well, you know, I want to get re-elected again so I have to do what I have to do.’”

Mayo said “there is some real anger and some sense of betrayal” among attendees at Principles First gatherings—some of whom were founders of the Tea Party a decade ago—throughout the year. 

“To hear them in the room expressing some of that same anger and frustration with elected officials that they expressed, that I heard, in 2010 right around the Tea Party's creation,” he said, “I think that's going to be a real anger within the party. And whether that ends up manifesting itself in primaries or not, I don't know. But it exists.”

 A few hundred politically homeless people in a conference room are not going to change the shape of the conservative movement, let alone the Republican Party. But speakers offered some reasons for optimism.

“Once Donald Trump loses, and Bernie Sanders or someone else becomes the president, we’re going to see a lot of principled conservatives all of the sudden,” predicted Howard. “There were a lot of principled conservatives in the Obama administration. And so when that’s cool again, I want to be able to run into that party, grab the levers of power, and take it for principled conservatives.”

“Even if we’re only 5 percent—I think we’re 10 to 15 percent of the party, really—but even if we’re only five percent of the party, that’s still five million people,” Miller said. “That’s something that you can build from.”

Photograph of Sarah Quinlan, Benji Backer, Shermichael Singleton, Rina Shah, Reed Howard by Declan Garvey.

Correction, March 3: The piece originally referred to Shermichael Singleton as the “lone black panelist” at the conference. He was one of two.