The Asymmetry of NeverTrumpers

The thing about NeverTrumpers is that there is no Leftist equivalent.

I know that’s kind of an odd statement, but I’ll try to explain.

NeverTrumpers are a bit like Cincinnatus, or George Washington.  “People who are defined by what they are not willing to do to have power” makes it sound as though I am complimenting them.  It makes them sound noble, and in some sense they are.  Only superficially, though.  They aren’t surrenderers of much power themselves.  Washington was powerful and popular and could have been king, and his alternative, the beautiful vision for which he established the precedent of peaceful transfers of American power, was the establishment of real democracy, even though it would mean the election, inevitably, of hacks, and the enactment of folly.  The NeverTrumpers are only giving up mainstream conservative intellectual status, and not for a beautiful and farsighted vision, but to avoid the re-evaluation of their worldview in the face of shocking evidence of its incompleteness.  What they are willing to do is to go back to a pre-2016 situation that amounted to a pack of Mean Girls eating their lunch every day, with compromise, back when such a thing existed, amounting to the Left getting what it wanted only slightly more slowly than its intellectual Young Turks could imagine it.

The Left, too, avoids the re-evaluation of their priors; it’s a human tendency.  But they still aren’t similar to the Right in the main way I am talking about.  During no Democratic administration has there ever been any analogue on the Left to NeverTrumpers.  I can name no time when any significant and prominent component of the Left has visibly refused to go along with some clear moral dilemma to have power.  I can think of no time when they have said, “We want this policy, but this one thing standing in the way that we have the power to get rid of– this part of the Constitution, this pillar of the Rule of Law, the idea of the loyalty of the Loyal Opposition– is too important to sacrifice.”  If they have, it happened in private.

Public or private, the Left is willing to have unity at the cost of the society-poisoning whiny viciousness of victim politics and social media mobbing.  They’re willing to condone the hounding out of office of an executive who, far from even saying anything, had merely donated to a cause opposing gay marriage, or the ruination of bakers and pizza-makers for insisting upon their right not to associate.  They stoop to claiming, in essence, that hurt feelings are on a par with lynching.  They have originated and nourished the idea that foolishness and poor decisions by teenagers are a matter not for a serious discussion and a teachable moment among adults, between the people in question and the people whose feelings were hurt, but for the ruining of lives and decades’ worth of work long after the emigration from the foreign country of the past.  These moral dilemmas lack the personification of a President, but they are none the less equivalent in significance, if not greater, and the Left stands guilty in the spotlight.

By and large, the Left’s capacity for rationalization appears almost completely unfettered, a seemingly infinite intellectualizing force for amoral expedience.   NeverTrumpers and the Left are alike in appearing to be unable or unwilling to see that the Left itself caused the pressures on the Right to come up with whatever seems necessary to counteract it.  To the Right– and to me– the Left winning and getting to terraform the United States is not acceptable– full stop.  NeverTrumpers are like seated passengers on Flight 93 cautioning the chargers of the cockpit to fight fair.

The Broken Overton Window Fallacy

The angst-y topic of the week for conservatives and Republicans appears to be over the future of the party, with Trumpers and NeverTrumpers at odds like Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.

Megan McArdle recently wrote about NeverTrumpers:

“Yet as the party heads into 2020 with Trump still very much at the helm, a number of people are beginning to ask an obvious question: “What’s the point?” Conservative resistance hasn’t ousted Trump; all it’s done is split the movement. So as political scientist and RealClearPolitics writer Sean Trende recently asked in a Twitter thread, what is the end game for the dedicated holdouts?”

McArdle explains problems with each of Trende’s three possibilities.

  1. Conceding defeat, she says, “means abandoning your dearest principles — and if you think the Trump administration is likely to end in some combination of disaster or corruption scandals, it means positioning yourself to be splattered by the fallout.”
  2. She says that “in practice there’s little benefit” to positioning yourself as the loyal opposition.  “Liberals will identify you with all of Trump’s worst excesses, while the Party of Trump will regard you as a fifth columnist.”
  3. Pursuing active insurgency “means sacrificing any realistic chance of retaking the helm of the party,” says McArdle, in paraphrase of Trende.  She continues: “If you have been actively working to nuke Trump’s presidency, then if you succeed — or even if external events do the job for you — you can be sure that your faction will be the one group not chosen to rebuild the party out of the rubble.”

The second of these seems easily the best to me.  Liberals will identify conservatives who choose that with Trump’s excesses, sure, but then again, they’ll do that anyway.  Expecting rationality, fairness and consistency out of the Left these days is a fool’s errand; they often appear a breath’s worth of rationalization away from doing anything they please.  The Party of Trump will regard you as a fifth columnist?  Well, no– a fifth column is almost definitionally a secret organization of fellow-travelers.  They may regard you as “cucks”– a word I hate, incidentally, and not least because it’s used ad infinitum, ad nauseam— but you have to stand for what you stand for, and once their ambition is tempered and the laws the Left proposes to put in place next time they get into power are seen clearly enough to be feared, they may come back.

But my reaction would be to reject this trichotomy.

Politics is a lot like capitalism, in being a system intended in part to produce information about what people desire and how much.  Both systems are often distorted.  In capitalism, for example, the ethanol tax credit ruins the data about how much people actually want ethanol, while in politics, the Commission on Presidential Debates skews information about how much people might like the Libertarian or Green parties’ platforms by keeping their candidates out of the debates.  As I’ve argued, politics steers idealism as much as the other way around.   The marketplace of ideas was turned to the private benefit of a pretty cozy group of politicians, bureaucratic mandarins and cultural influencers.  They steered people away from issues that were uncomfortable or politically unprofitable or economically crazy.  This is one way of avoiding bad policies, it’s true.  But distorting the marketplace of ideas that way leads to a distorted picture of what people want, and how much.

So.  What use is all this talk of unaddressed issues to a NeverTrumper trying to figure out what to do?

Well, we’ve come about to the limits of the set of policies that elites put together back in the 1980s and 1990s that Fukuyama called “the end of history”– the seemingly perfect equation of free trade producing greater societal wealth, producing (I argue) greater capacity in people for social liberalism.  No one thought the equation of this capacity was a hyperbola, so that you could reach a point of diminishing returns of marginal utility to people of ever-cheaper goods and services.  No one knew saw that there was eventually so much market for the ideas that elites of both parties quietly agreed to ignore and backburner– such as nationalism, immigration, the Savonarola-like extremes of identity politics, and a desire by poorer people not for handouts, but for meaningful work and dignity– that it could flood past the cultural and professional gatekeepers (who were in any case weakened by technological change).  The real question dividing Trumpers and NeverTrumpers is the same dividing Pelosi Democrats from Bernie Democrats:  What issues will the parties stand for going forward? 

That, then, is the question that NeverTrumpers should ask.  To date, NeverTrumpers and Pelosi Democrats have seemed united in thinking that “true conservatism” and “true liberalism” means positions only on the set of issues that they confined themselves to since about 1990 or so, and adherence to the worldview that self-justified ignoring other issues.  McArdle mentions that Jonah Goldberg argues that NeverTrumpers should keep fighting Trump simply to “do the right thing” (her paraphrase).  I like Jonah Goldberg, but honestly, a better euphemism for doubling down on one’s worldview, a worldview which saw none of this coming, is hard to imagine.  The wiser course would be to triangulate and try to see how one’s previous worldview was mistaken and which policies beloved of Trumpers they can come to terms with.  Remember that there is no other way to turn a stampede than to take the lead.

Trende’s question really amounts to one about repairs to the broken Overton Window— whether Trump’s voters will, even after their perceived best hope of realizing them is gone, surrender the issues that 2016 liberated or the ambition that Trump awoke.  It seems clear that they will not.  McArdle has often written about path dependence.  We are now in the middle of it.  If NeverTrumpers want to get rid of the man– and I can certainly understand that– I think they’re going to have to surrender the hope of controlling the issues, and instead begin the work of finding someone who can convince the Republican base that he or she can be as effective as Trump has been, without Trump’s manifold flaws, excrescences and sins.

TL; DR: The issues that Trump’s supporters wanted to talk about are not going away, so NeverTrumpers should adjust accordingly.