One of the saddest phenomena to emerge in the Age of Trump is the quasi-rehabilitation of some of the most detestable voices on the right, otherwise known as the #NeverTrump movement. Whether it’s “Woke Glenn Beck” appearing on Samantha Bee or the self-serving tweets of CIA flack Evan McMullin, liberals have been eager to dole out forgiveness to conservatives in exchange for mealy-mouthed condemnations of Donald Trump’s behavior. For the most part, these conservative critics of Trump act not out of principle but out of resentment; they are mad that the intellectual sheen they spent decades cultivating and applying to Ted Cruz was proven superfluous by a reality TV-star’s circus-barker showmanship and direct appeals to racial animus. Whether these deathbed conversions are cynical career moves or the result of a mass delusion about the nature of American conservatism, we now live in a world they ushered into being. #NeverTrump conservatives are useful only as living relics of an obsolete rhetorical style; they serve as a reminder that without a complete implosion, the foundations of the Republican Party are unlikely to change.
The home base for these conservative critics of Trump has been the National Review, a publication founded in 1955 by pallid segregationist William F. Buckley and read by the rapidly dwindling conservative intelligentsia. In January 2016, the magazine published a special “Against Trump” issue to moderate fanfare. It contained a variety of unconvincing arguments, many of them directly contradicting each other while all referring to the same vague tradition of American conservatism.
Cato Institute libertarian David Boaz criticized Trump for his racial scapegoating only to contrast him with Barry Goldwater, the failed presidential candidate who famously opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. L. Brent Bozell III, an ultra-Catholic reactionary whose father was a Review editor, criticized Trump’s past support of Planned Parenthood while wishing he would be more like the minimally religious and pro-choice Goldwater. John Podhoretz, son of Commentary founder Norman Podhoretz, blamed Trump’s success on Howard Stern. Bill Kristol (you guessed it — the son of conservative commentator Irving Kristol) quoted neocon saint Leo Strauss as saying “a conservative, I take it, is a man who despises vulgarity; but the argument which is concerned exclusively with calculations of success, and is based on blindness to the nobility of the effort, is vulgar.” As always, Strauss’s already dim philosophy is made dumber when filtered through his admirers. Here, however, Kristol’s use of Strauss is illustrative — it reveals a misguided focus on vulgarity, something that characterizes #NeverTrump as a whole. It also points to the selective memory of Kristol and his ilk, in which they forget that “blindness to the nobility of the effort” may have applied to their Iraq War cheerleading.
#NeverTrump conservatives are useful only as living relics of an obsolete rhetorical style.
In perhaps one of the most futile moves of the campaign season, Kristol went beyond voicing his disapproval of Trump and nominated a candidate of his own in late May 2016: National Review writer David French. This endeavor was doomed to fail for a number of reasons. First, no one knew who French was. Second, he proved unable to withstand the slightest public prodding. It soon came out that when French was deployed to Iraq, he forbade his wife from talking to men on the phone or using her email. His anxiety over his wife’s potential for infidelity made him a perfect target for the “cuck” barbs of the alt-right, and he gave them what they wanted by repeating their abuse verbatim in one of 2016’s many online harassment tell-alls. Third, his views are almost indistinguishable from Trump’s. A few weeks ago, he wrote in defense of Trump’s nominee for secretary of education, Betsy DeVos. The week before that, he endorsed Jeff Sessions, Trump’s pick for attorney general. (“They haven’t bothered to make a real case against Sessions because there isn’t a real case to be made.”) French’s latest article for the National Review downplays the recent executive order barring refugees and dual citizens in Muslim countries from entering the U.S. If the conservative opposition looks anything like French, which it does, it might as well not exist.
The most ludicrous post-Trump transformation was that of longtime Breitbart contributor Ben Shapiro. In March 2016, Shapiro resigned in solidarity from Breitbart with his colleague Michelle Fields after she had an altercation with Trump’s then-campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, and the website’s leadership failed to come to her defense. His much-publicized resignation statement self-righteously revealed the internal conflict that was ripping Breitbart, and the Republican Party, apart: “In my opinion, Steve Bannon is a bully, and has sold out Andrew [Breitbart]’s mission in order to back another bully, Donald Trump,” he wrote.
Luckily Shapiro, already enmeshed in the world of interchangeable conservative publications, had other jobs to fall back on. In 2015, he founded a site called Daily Wire, which appears to track whatever Lena Dunham says that might be offensive to conservative men. Shapiro also writes a column for the independent group Creators Syndicate, the content distributor that supplies your local newspaper with comic strips, and of course finds space in the National Review. His exit from Breitbart was advantageous for him in other ways; he received an undue press boost from the liberal media. Slate conducted a lengthy interview with him in which he positioned himself as an anti-fascist resistance leader while blaming the left for the alt-right. “You want to empower the alt-right? Keep overstepping. Again, it’s the overstepping by the left that’s driving people into this almost white tribalism,” he said. Shortly thereafter, The Washington Post let him publish an op-ed mourning Andrew Breitbart and the honest “constitutional conservatism” he supposedly espoused.
But the Andrew Breitbart of Shapiro’s recollection never existed. Before his death, the website tycoon built his media empire on racist hoax videos targeting African-Americans. Working with filmmaker James O’Keefe, they managed to destroy the black-led nonprofit ACORN and the career of USDA official Shirley Sherrod, who later settled a libel lawsuit with Breitbart’s widow. Shapiro, who was hired at Breitbart in 2012, easily assimilated into this culture of yellow journalism. His first big story, based on an anonymous source, accused Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel of receiving donations from a group called “Friends of Hamas.” The post was quickly and easily debunked; no one could find a shred of evidence that “Friends of Hamas” existed at all, much less donated to Hagel. Even so, Breitbart stood behind its assertion. With this article, Shapiro cemented himself as an early pioneer in using what we now call “fake news” to garner support for an authoritarian foreign government, in this case that of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (The biggest blind spot for the #NeverTrump brigade is Israel, which always manages to evade critique for its border walls, blatant ethno-nationalism, and violation of international law.)
But the Andrew Breitbart of Shapiro’s recollection never existed.
The purported differences between #NeverTrump conservatives and their Trump-supporting nemeses fall apart upon close inspection. Once Trump was elected, the movement quickly revealed its impure motivations as some of its key figures, like Mitt Romney, vied for Cabinet positions. It was never entirely clear what their issues with Trump were, anyway, besides the fact that he became the Republican nominee instead of Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio. The writings of #NeverTrumpers like French and Shapiro do little to illuminate their concerns, with their most common criticism being that he is insufficiently committed to the principle of small government. Insufficiently committed he may be, but so were neoconservatives when they supported the signing of the PATRIOT Act and the trillion dollars in deficit spending that financed the Iraq War.
What is the real point of contention among the #NeverTrump coalition? It seems to be style and style alone. Donald Trump and his Breitbart cronies found an easier way (blatant lies and incitement of a race war) to advance the same age-old conservative platform of kleptocratic white nationalism. In their response to the new methods, #NeverTrump conservatives are like Luddites; they see the strict constitutionalism and backwoods fundamentalism of Bush-style conservatism as part of a sacred process that should never be simplified. The end result may be the same — Republican control of all branches of government — but something is missing, some intangible mystique that it had in the past when the process was more difficult, the same mystique that drives people to buy artisanal chocolate or carry around a typewriter. The only honorable recourse for the failures of #NeverTrumpers is to follow the path of least resistance and quarantine themselves in the third tier of conservative media, writing love letters to William F. Buckley’s ego while half-heartedly lamenting the fulfillment of his id.