A group of NeverTrump Republicans organized under the Lincoln Project PAC has been putting on a clinic, releasing one scorching anti-Trump ad after another. Composed of a collection of former McCain and Romney campaign staffers, including Rick Wilson, Steve Schmidt and Stuart Stevens, they’ve established a rally point for conservative dissidents. Lincoln Project messaging delivers the confrontational, negative resonance so often missing from Democratic campaigns and so critical to a race that turns on negative partisanship.
In a remarkable departure from the norm, almost 60% of the PAC’s very modest financing has come from small donors, like me. With less than a $3m budget the Lincoln Project has been able to get inside Trump’s head, earning Fox News rants, cease and desist letters, and free twitter publicity from the President himself, while sucking up airtime all over the rightwing infotainment bubble.
Angry dissent from Republicans and former Republicans has set the tone for this election. Trump is the first candidate in modern history who failed to earn support from any former President. Two former RNC Chairmen, Michael Steele and Marc Racicot, announced their support for Biden. Sitting Republican officials Mitt Romney, Larry Hogan, and Charlie Baker won’t vote for the President. Former Ohio Governor and Presidential candidate John Kasich is openly backing Biden. Commentators like Jennifer Rubin, Bill Kristol, David Brooks and George Will have all opposed Trump. Hundreds of former Bush II officials formed their own PAC to oppose the President.
America hasn’t seen an intra-party revolt on this scale since segregationist Democrats began flooding into the Republican Party. If Trump finds a way to cling to the White House, these folks, cut off from the GOP, will likely be the shock troops of a comprehensive anti-Trump resistance. What happens if Biden wins?
Trump is the force holding these Republicans and former Republicans in Biden’s camp. What will they do when Donald trundles his family into their private jet to flee? Will they try to reestablish themselves inside the GOP, launch a new political party, or will they set up camp inside the Democratic Party?
The path ahead for NeverTrumpers is fraught. A lot of the prominent Republican dissidents are campaign consultants, party workers or candidates. There’s no money in the middle. Losing a political party isn’t merely an emotional or social loss. For many of these folks being alienated from their political party means losing an income. Why do you think Nikki Haley and Marco Rubio stuck around? Unless they are ready to retire or change careers, they’ll have to find a place in our duopoly quickly. There are no good options.
What direction they choose may be influenced by how they see the party’s future. Is the GOP an unstable, populist dumpster fire on the verge of collapse and reformation? Or does Trumpian Fascism represent the party’s long-term future? For those desperate to get their careers back on track there will be pressure to imagine they can jump back into the Republican fray, steering the party toward a saner, more constructive future. They can’t.
While Trump himself is a political figure of unique depravity, no such man can rise to power without a welcoming environment. Republicans have been on this path since the Dixiecrats began their stampede into the GOP. No one in the party, from Reagan to Kemp to Romney, ever mustered the courage to consistently confront these bigots. It’s too late. Trumpist Fascism is not some anomaly, but rather the perfect modern expression of Confederate values, striking a chord that summoned America’s darkest demons. Those demons won’t follow Trump into exile.
No Republican reformation is coming. Even in defeat, the Republican Party will be more internally united and resistant to reform than ever, thanks to its retreat into geographic isolation. Comb the country after this election looking for “battleground precincts,” neighborhoods that were split within a narrow range. They will be rare, likely rarer than in any modern election outside the blowouts of ’64 and ‘84. Republicans will be scoured from even local power in urban and suburban areas of the North, and even in much of the sunbelt. They will be unchallenged, in near-complete control in white exurban and rural areas almost everywhere outside the Northeast and the Pacific West. A dangerous geographic divide will leave the GOP a hardened, uncompromising white nationalist minority.
Inside those geographically isolated pockets of Republican power voters are living in a racist cult, cut off from dissonance and preyed on by grifters who will aggressively defend their turf. The Party of Lincoln has become the Confederate Party. It shall remain so until it is strangled by cutting it off from the political lifeblood of federal power for a long period. Or through a civil war.
Nowhere in the senior ranks of the GOP are there any pockets of anti-Trump resistance around which a reorganization could coalesce. In retrospect, the last of that sane core of the party was swept from relevance with McCain’s 2008 loss and the rise of Sarah Palin as the party’s brand leader. There are mealy-mouthed cowards like Ben Sasse and Lisa Murkowski who’ve mumbled the occasional platitudes, but they will bend the knee to the Fascists whenever challenged.
NeverTrumpers foolish enough to wade back into the GOP will be walking into a trap. They’ll be strung along for a while until they’re invested in the effort, then the jaws will snap shut, leaving them to play the sniveling Reek like Tim Scott or Marco Rubio.
A local third-party effort has more to recommend it than most might think. However, turning local third party campaigns into the foundation of a national second party would require an intense, expensive, and lengthy investment in low-glamor local races in urban areas where Republicans have no solid contacts.
There are two geographies where the gap between voters’ pragmatic interests and their established partisan lean will be most at odds after this election: middle income mostly white suburbs that have been holding their noses to vote for Republicans (at least until ’20) and middle-income black urban areas that have been doing the same with Democrats for decades. Knitting their remarkably well-aligned interests together across America’s great wall of race is the political challenge of the century and the gateway to a new second party. But it won’t be easy, fun, or in the near term, lucrative. This is where NeverTrumpers should look for their next project, but it probably won’t happen.
America’s big cities have been trapped under one-party Democratic rule for a century with predictable results. Minority voters there are frustrated at being taken granted as a corrupt machine siphons away a stream of federal money meant to help them.
Suburban whites, especially in the sunbelt, are experiencing a similar awakening. Manipulated by racism and religious bigotry for decades, they’ve been conned by Dixiecrat Republicans into backing policies that undermined their access to health care and a stable retirement. They increasingly struggle to pay for housing, enduring epic commutes just to afford a home, while wondering whether their children will be able to get a higher education.
Build local political parties that can strip the racial goggles from these two groups, and suddenly they have fundamentally the same interests and enemies. Those parties could be coalesced into a springboard for a viable 2nd party. Such a campaign would take a decade of work and many millions of dollars. Unfortunately, NeverTrumpers are poorly positioned to pull this off.
Very few donors on the right have the slightest interest in big cities, so money will be hard to find. The Republican and former Republican consultant class has virtually zero base of contacts in the black community. Minority figures with an existing platform who would be open to such an effort are almost to a person either weirdoes, grifters or have piled up well-deserved loathing in those communities (see Cent, 50).
Convincing suburban whites to see interests beyond their racial and religious blinders would be no small task. Lessons from the Trump era provide a jumping-off point for such an awakening, but few NeverTrumpers have the language or interests to drive that wedge.
If it was easy, someone would have done it already. What’s missing is the vision and the investment.
More likely, the bulk of NeverTrump types will drift into the Democratic Party. What awaits them there is a warm initial welcome, followed by passive-aggressive jabs doled out slowly over time. Shunted to the margins, understandably, by consultants and activists who put in their time on the left over decades, their talents will go underutilized while nagging policy disagreements breed tension. NeverTrumpers who defect to the Democrats will endure a painful demotion as their long capital investment in their original party is lost. A few will overcome the friction and thrive. The luckiest will land TV gigs. Most will drift into obscurity.
There is an alternative. The harder path of building a new second party is full of financial uncertainty, isolation, risk, and enormous potential reward, the only path worthy of the courage and sacrifice these folks have displayed. Choose wisely.