In March 2016 as Donald Trump looked likely to be the Republican party’s nominee to run for president, more than 100 foreign policy professionals signed a letter vowing not only that they wouldn’t work for him should he become president but that they would work ‘energetically’ to prevent his election. As the months wore on, the light in which the signatories appeared often shifted. Once Trump became the nominee, and then the President, these representatives of the ‘national security community’ appeared to have demonstrated one of the most damaging things any such group could demonstrate: their own irrelevance.
It turned out that more than a decade and a half into a set of wars that the world’s most advanced military had managed to fight to various draws, the American public did not much want to hear from foreign policy professionals.
Once Trump was actually in office the whole thing appeared in another light. A Republican president was in the White House, but 120 people who would normally have filled the administration of such a president had already signed a document vowing not to work for him. A number of people who would have been crucial in specific roles were overlooked because they had signed this and other similar letters.
Shortly after this vetting was becoming clear, I met with one of those who had convened the biggest NeverTrumper list. In retrospect, I asked, was it wise of him to have invited so many people who could have been of serious service to their country to effectively remove themselves from the running? The convener had no qualms. The Trump team were struggling already — and would struggle for another four years — to fill up many of the key foreign policy positions. But it was worth it. The NeverTrumpers were not cooperating. All they needed to do was to sit back and be seen to be right. Though few did fully sit back. For four years, the NeverTrumpers formed groups and pacs, filed columns and blogs and launched many a derisive tweet. But at least they had not contaminated themselves.
Of course a variety of people have undoubtedly come out of the Trump era covered in an equal variety of ordures. At the time of writing, Trump is still contesting the outcome of the election, pretending that any voting irregularities are sufficient to overturn the result and see him reinstalled for a second term in office. In many ways this move might be said to vindicate the NeverTrumpers. As the historian Niall Ferguson pointed out early in the Trump administration, the fear preventing many conservatives from joining the Trump train was precisely that the President was at some point going to go down in a blaze of scandal that would make Nixon’s end look like a graceful retirement. Yet this actually isn’t principally what the NeverTrumpers warned about.
Their statement in 2016 criticized specific aspects of the future president’s outlook and behavior. Much of it turned out to be wrong. For instance, they warned that Trump’s ‘advocacy for aggressively waging trade wars is a recipe for economic disaster in a globally connected world’. In fact Trump’s trade wars not only started the return of jobs to America but was about the only calibration to date that might be said to have stood any chance of deterring or otherwise setting back the rise of China as the global economic superpower.
Other early NeverTrump claims were equally wrong. Their founding letter claimed that Trump’s ‘equation of business acumen with foreign policy experience is false. Not all lethal conflicts can be resolved as a real estate deal might, and there is no recourse to bankruptcy court in international affairs’. Leave aside the oddly weak verbosity of that statement’s climax and consider how wrong headed the first part is. Whether you give the credit to Donald Trump or to his son-in-law Jared Kushner, the Trump team did indeed manage to pull off a set of deals in the Middle East that were like a business deal.
For decades, successive administrations of both stripes had been trying to unlock every problem of the Middle East by believing that peace in the region relied primarily on solving a medium-sized border dispute between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Given the number of NeverTrumpers who claimed to be experts on the Israeli-Palestinian question, it is rather pleasing to reread now just how snotty these people were back in 2016. And to reflect on how little credit (zero) most of these people have given to an administration that has seen multiple normalization agreements between Israel and countries in the region which have realized they can safely go around the Palestinian cartel.
But if the NeverTrumpers neither predicted nor acknowledged Trump’s successes, they do now clearly feel that they somehow anticipated the awful climax of the Trump years. As though the errant behavior they had always foreseen might not have reached its climax in the years of office but certainly did so in his leaving of it. How thrilled these Republicans and ex-Republicans now are at the arrival into office of a team of good solid Democrats.
Max Boot was an early NeverTrumper, breaking from the Republican party during the Trump years after appearing to see the President’s election as a vindication of the claim that America is indeed a racist society. When Joe Biden announced his first national security picks in November, Boot thrilled on Twitter and CNN that the Biden team looked like ‘the A Team replacing the Z team’. I suppose we will find out in the next four years whether the A Team continues to receive such raves from Boot.
He was not alone. Elizabeth Neumann claimed that ‘There are sighs of relief among the men and women of @DHSgov’ with Biden’s pick of Alejandro Mayorkas to lead DHS. According to Neumann, her former colleagues were ‘sing[ing] his praises’: ‘There is an end in sight to the chaos and lawlessness.’ David Frum took the same route: the former speechwriter to George W. Bush and author of the fondly remembered ‘Axis of Evil’ speech was also thrilled by the Biden nominees. ‘Biden appointees continue to under-represent the Weirdo American community,’ he snarked on Twitter. John Brennan, meantime, decided to remind people of his own record, lest any of it get lost in the jubilation. ‘For four years, I spoke out vigorously against Donald Trump’s craven dishonesty, corrupt pursuit of personal interests and trampling of our democratic principles. After serving over three decades in national security, I felt compelled to condemn Trump’s depravity and incompetence.’
On and on the stream of self congratulation has gone. And of course this election leaves the NeverTrumpers in an interesting position. For it is clear that they are already positioning themselves as the good guys on the right (or ex-right). By never collaborating in the Trump years they have kept their fingers and reputations clean. They can now enjoy four years (at least) of a Democratic president reinstating almost all the foreign policy mistakes (such as the Iran deal) that these same people spent the recent pre-Trump years excoriating. They presumably then anticipate that after the Biden year (and Harris years) are over, a member of the Bush family will once again be persuaded to run for office and things will return to normal, with the NeverTrumpers adopting the role of Willy Brandt in the post-Trump Republican world.
But of course other avenues or possibilities ought to haunt them, not least as the next four or eight years bring disagreements and disappointments of their own kind. Present all the time should be at least a specter of what might have been. Few people would doubt what an impossible POTUS Trump was to work for. And yet some people — notably Elliott Abrams — who had taken an anti-Trump position in 2016, found their way into the administration to do some noticeable good. Abrams’s appointment as envoy first for Venezuela and latterly also for Iran was a glimpse in the Trump era of what serious-minded and non-grandstanding conservative foreign-policy experts could achieve if they decided that serving their country meant serving in government.
While most of Abrams’s former colleagues were happy to tweet their rage every day, Elliott spent his time coolly and successfully affecting policy in what we used to call the real world, leaving just one of many ‘what-ifs’. What if the NeverTrumpers had made their peace with the American electorate’s verdict in 2016, learned some lessons about why they themselves were so unloved, and then gone on to try to direct what constructive policy they could from the inside?
We will never know. Only one thing we know. That the NeverTrumpers will continue to know that they were right. And that nothing so became their years of public service as the period in which they left it.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s January 2021 US edition.