In a night that saw a nightmare ending (or beginning) for the Democratic party in Iowa, one thing became resoundingly clear — Donald Trump will still of course be the nominee for the Republican party in 2020. The NeverTrump cable news showcase candidacies of Bill Weld and Joe Walsh, kept afloat by a handful of anti-Trump donors (Bill Kristol) and scam PACs, are over with, and with them any notion that a NeverTrump delegation of leftover 2016 has-beens will serve any purpose besides on Don Lemon’s panel show for personal giggles.
The professional NeverTrump contingent cared more about opposing Trump than they did preserving their brand of conservatism or trying to win over voters. The pundit and podcast class of former strategists and talk show hosts spent years within party infrastructure cultivating the attitudes that led to Donald Trump in the first place (see Rick Wilson’s prime time cable news Triumph the Insult Comic Former GOP Guy routine for an example), and then washed their hands and walked away without accepting responsibility in any of it.
And how do we know this? Because they moved on to candidates like Joe Walsh, who were also not staunch defenders of conservative principle, but just another vessel for more book sales and CNN cable news hits. Walsh’s biggest backers on the right claim to stand on principle and values while ignoring Walsh’s own history of endorsing and promoting an actual white supremacist in Paul Nehlen. Trump is not an ideological opponent of the anti-Trump political class. He’s a mirror.
The NeverTrump movement has been corrupted as much as Trump himself. As his loudest critics on the right decry the culture of Trump that has infested the GOP, they also sit on Morning Joe segments and beg for Jeff Zucker’s table scraps — the two men in the entirety of media more responsible for Donald Trump as he exists today, tweeting from the Oval Office, than any CPAC invitation. Sure, people like Bill Kristol, Charlie Sykes, Tom Nichols or Rick Wilson will happily sit on these panels without the principled temerity to call out Joe Scarborough or Jeff Zucker for their own roles in paving Trump’s way to the White House with billions of dollars of free media, because trolling Trump into an early morning rage tweet becomes paramount to their own personal brands for profit. Sound familiar?
NeverTrump failed not because of an opposition or alternative to Donald Trump. It failed because the leading proponents of it simply became Donald Trump, and no one is better at being Trump than Trump himself. Personal insults became the brand of the day. Purity tests and and loyalty demands became the key to their clubhouse.
Joe Walsh all but lost any remaining support when his loudest backers turned their attention to preventing Bernie Sanders from racking up primary victories, because as it turns out, they actually do believe in a larger threat to the country than Donald Trump’s brand of gaudy gameshow host populist enlightenment.
When The Lincoln Project launched last month with a CNN and MSNBC publicity tour, the group’s intentions were not aimed at promoting conservatives or campaigns like Joe Walsh in a heated and contested primary season to an impeached president, but to create low production ads targeting GOP senators with more moderate conservative views than either Bill Weld or Joe Walsh. Republican voters may not be able to read lines on a map, but they can read right through this.
The GOP is not dead, as critics like Wilson like to repeatedly suggest; it’s just transformed into something they claim to no longer recognize. And that’s probably true, as evidenced just these past few days that saw Joe Walsh drowned out at his own rallies in Iowa with Trump cheers.
But it should be evident with every book deal or Bulwark website post or panel appearance on AM Joy or Don Lemon, that this was never about preserving conservatism. The professional ‘NeverTrump For Money’ gang learned the hard way: you can’t defeat Donald Trump by acting like Donald Trump. They learned the hard way because it’s all they know how to do. Trump soaked up all the party energy they themselves fomented for over 25 years — he’s their Frankenstein’s monster.
In Joe Walsh and Bill Weld, they didn’t find candidates who were more principled or conservative, they simply found more candidates who were just like them, reeking of personal promotion and the self satisfaction that their own backroom cult is somehow superior to the one filling up arenas and living in the White House.
Jeff Zucker and Morning Joe will still use them as useful inflatable punching bags a few more times before the election comes around this November. But electorally and strategically, NeverTrump is dead. For better or for worse, Trump enjoys record approval ratings with the GOP base and shabby, slapdash impeachment by his opponents have energized his base.
Donald Trump still may lose the election in November. Stranger things, like Donald Trump winning an election in the first place, have happened. But it won’t be because of the aggrieved angry former GOP boomer class opposition, setting hashtags trending on Twitter with their new Democratic media allies. And it won’t be because of Don Lemon slapping his desk like he just inhaled nitrous oxide.
The residual NeverTrumpers may view that as their own victory, as they try to somehow nudge their way back into the house, but they’ll soon learn the cost of playing ball. If you help burn the house down, you won’t be trusted to rebuild a new one. At least they’ll always have CNN.