President Donald Trump has struggled to contend with Covid-19, first calling it a “hoax” and now, as numbers of sick Americans continue to rise, pretending it has gone away. He has dealt clumsily with anti-racist protests, provoking senior military leaders to deliver unprecedented rebukes. His former national security adviser John Bolton has written a book that, among other things, pictures him pandering to the Chinese leader Xi Jinping. His niece is about to release another book, calling his family dysfunctional.
In a normal year, the Republican party would line up unanimously behind their president. But this is not a normal year. Trump’s poll numbers are falling, those of his rival, former vice-president Joe Biden, are rising — and some of his fellow Republicans are working hard to drive Trump’s even lower.
And here is the unexpected twist of 2020: they seem to be enjoying themselves while they do it.
Meet the Never-Trumpers: Republicans who refused to support Trump not just before he ran for president, not just before he won the primaries, but after he won the election. They have been around for the past four years and, in the early days, there seemed to be a lot of them. The National Review, the magazine that launched the American intellectual conservative movement in the 1960s, put the headline “Against Trump” on the cover of its February 2016 issue.
Max Boot, formerly of the Wall Street Journal editorial page — one of the most important conservative forums in the US — opposed Trump’s candidacy, he told me, “from the moment he came down that vulgar escalator, talking about Mexican murderers and rapists”. Erick Erickson, the former chief executive of a website called redstate.com, described Trump as a “fascist” and tried to find a candidate to contest his selection at the Republican convention. Bill Kristol, the founder of the Weekly Standard — the conservative publication described during the second Bush administration as the “in-flight magazine of Air Force One” — actually helped get an independent candidate on to several state ballots.
Nor was this just a movement for intellectuals: Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, described Trump as a “nut job” who would be “ill-suited” for the presidency. Conservatives with national security credentials, including veterans of both Bush administrations, signed letters calling on voters not to support him.
One of these letters described Trump as “fundamentally dishonest”, said his attitude to allies was that of a “racketeer”, and called his “admiration for foreign dictators such as Vladimir Putin . . . unacceptable for the leader of the world’s greatest democracy.”
It felt like a tidal wave — until January 20 2017, when it suddenly didn’t. Trump was the president. A lot of people felt he had legitimacy and deserved support. Others came to like his rising stock market or the judges he appointed. Trump grew increasingly popular among the Republican voters who read conservative magazines, so the conservative magazines changed their tone. Trump was supported by the Republican donors who funded conservative organisations, so they changed their attitude too. Trump had jobs to give out, and people wanted them.
Some of those who had signed letters objecting to Trump came to regret it. One of them told me with great bitterness a couple of years ago that his signature meant he couldn’t get hired by a Republican administration at what should have been the peak of his career.
Erickson switched sides, even endorsing Trump, in February 2019, for a second term. Senator Graham, famously, went from vocal critic to the president’s most reliable golfing partner. The National Review and the Wall Street Journal editorial page determined to find things to like about the administration. Because Trump remained Trump — because he continued to tweet false stories and fake statistics, to break ethics rules, obstruct Congress and abuse power, eventually leading to his impeachment — this sometimes required complicated verbal contortions and elaborate excuses.
Sarah Longwell, a longtime Republican activist and one of those who remained a committed opponent of the president, describes 2017 as the year of the “body snatchers”: “People who you thought were with you suddenly started to change.” It was, she told me, a “disconcerting and disenchanting experience”.
I’d had a similar experience myself, in Poland a few years earlier — I’ve described what happened when a nativist government took over the country in my new book, Twilight of Democracy — but I think the trauma for the “Never-Trumpers” was even greater. Many lost their friends. Some lost their jobs. The Weekly Standard, Kristol’s old magazine, refused to toe the line — and its conservative owner pulled the plug and it went bankrupt.
In the conservative world, the few “Never-Trumpers” who remained outside the fold became figures of fun. Boot was a particularly favoured target — “Max Boot, Dishonest Hack” was a headline that ran in the National Review last summer — but the president tweeted against all of them: “The Never-Trumper Republicans, though on respirators with not many left, are in certain ways worse and more dangerous for our Country than the Do Nothing Democrats. Watch out for them, they are human scum!”
But the “human scum” found one another and started to talk. As 2017 became 2018, Longwell found herself in “a lot of rooms filled with sad Republicans”, trying to figure out what to do next. I met her in one of those rooms myself, just as she and a handful of others were discussing the future of the party. Longwell is the former chairman of the board of the Log Cabin Republicans, the most important gay Republican organisation; she quit when the group decided to support Trump, but her previous experience of watching the party come to accept gay marriage has led her to believe that things can change: “hopelessly optimistic” is how she describes herself.
Not that optimism seemed particularly warranted in 2018. At that time, lots of committees were created, “initiatives” were started and plans were made, many of which fizzled out. John Weaver, a Republican strategist who had worked in the past on the presidential campaigns of Senator John McCain and the former Ohio governor John Kasich, told me over an early-morning Zoom call — in lockdown in Austin, Texas, he had on his baseball cap and was ready to go at 6.30am — that he’d been to the “conservative salons in Washington, where over a glass of Chardonnay everyone wrings their hands, and nothing happens”.
Part of the problem was that Weaver, Longwell, Kristol and others kept waiting for a senior Republican to announce that he, or she, was leading the charge against the president. As Trump’s presidency deteriorated, and as his cabinet members were fired or quit, lots of them were even saying — off the record — that they might stand against him in a 2020 primary campaign. But no such senior Republican ever materialised.
And so, as 2018 became 2019, a few of the Never-Trumpers started to act on their own. Longwell and Kristol, who did not know one another before Trump’s election, raised some money to conduct opinion polls and focus groups among Republican voters, to find out what they really thought about the president. Based on their polling, they created an organisation, Republicans for the Rule of Law, and then, eventually, another: Republican Voters Against Trump. Its website, RVAT.org, features a slogan: “I’d vote for a tuna fish sandwich before I’d vote for Trump again.”
Weaver, together with a handful of other ex-Republicans — including George T Conway, husband of Kellyanne Conway, a frequent Trump spokeswoman — announced the formation of the Lincoln Project, another group that actively opposes the president’s re-election. Without much sense of whether their ideas would resonate, the founders published a joint op-ed in the New York Times in December 2019, charging Trump with the betrayal of their party: “The president and his enablers have replaced conservatism with an empty faith led by a bogus prophet.” Over the next few days, they raised $1.5m on Twitter alone.
These organisations moved the argument away from the rooms in Washington and into a different sphere. In doing so, they recognised a changed reality: once upon a time, conservative politics was a genteel world where well-written articles for literary magazines or editorial pages could exert great influence. At least at the high end, voters as well as politicians listened to William F Buckley in the National Review or George Will in the Washington Post. The election of 2016 proved that was no longer true. Nowadays, real politics mostly happens somewhere else: in the swamps of social media, in the great battle for attention, in advertising wars and duelling YouTube video clips.
The Lincoln Project waded into those swamps, battles, wars and duels with gusto, drawing fire. Their breakthrough moment was an advertisement on the theme of “Mourning in America” — a direct reference to the famous Ronald Reagan advertisement and slogan, “Morning in America”. The video had sad music, Americans in hospitals and an ominous voiceover: “Under the leadership of Donald Trump, our country is weaker, and sicker and poorer.”
The clip ran on some of the Fox News shows in the Washington area that the president is known to watch — and he watched it. An explosion of midnight presidential tweets followed. As a result, the Lincoln Project raised even more money and the advertisement garnered what the group says is 30m views on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, cable news and elsewhere.
They repeated the trick soon afterwards, with a clip that circulated under the hashtag #trumpisnotwell. This one showed the president having trouble walking down a ramp after a speech at West Point, and apparently needing two hands to drink a glass of water; it described him as a “weak, unfit, shaky president”.
The video upset Trump so much that he wasted 15 minutes of the speech he gave at a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, talking about the ramp, and proudly showing the crowd how he could drink a glass of water with just one hand. Reed Galen, one of the Lincoln Project founders, wrote about how rare it is in politics to “see an idea go from the storyboard to the airwaves and then straight into your opponent’s brain”.
The @projectlincoln Twitter account, now at 1.3m followers, continues to mock and troll the president multiple times a day, hoping to provoke another outburst. (Sample tweet: “You were already hired to make America great. And you failed. You need a new slogan, sweetie.”) The group’s members make jokes at the president’s expense, react immediately with the promise of new clips when he makes a speech and generally appear to be having a good time. Some don’t like this tone: the group has been criticised, among other things, for using the same kinds of electoral tactics as the president. The ads, according to one critic, are “personally abusive, overwrought, pointlessly salacious, and trip-wired with non sequiturs”.
In its defence, the Lincoln Project’s founders are all former Republican strategists, their real target is Republican voters rather than the president, and they believe that much of the language Republicans are used to hearing from their party is already overwrought. The point is to give them familiar symbols, people and stories with which they can identify, and which will persuade them to turn against the president. Outrage is a tactic needed to break through what feels like a wall of indifference, even in the news media: “It’s not just the consumers of information that are numb,” Weaver told me, “It’s also the conveyors.”
As the election gets closer, they plan to target these potential Biden voters more carefully, not only in the Midwestern “swing states” but in Florida, Georgia and even Texas.
This is the same group that Republican Voters Against Trump are also trying to reach, though with different tactics. RVAT is posting and circulating clips showing real people, former Republican voters, talking about Trump. They speak about themselves — one says he is a “conservative, evangelical, values voter”, another describes her family’s military service in Iraq — and then they explain why they can’t vote for the president. The clips are not slick and professional, but rather sent in by volunteers: the RVAT.org website explains how to make one.
Recently, RVAT also created a clip referring to Ronald Reagan; in this one, the voiceover is a famous speech describing America as the “shining city on a hill” while the scenes are chaotic clips from the pandemic, from protests, and from Trump meeting with smiling dictators. The final slogan asks: “Has your party left you?” RVAT now has 300,000 members, hundreds of clips and money to promote them on Facebook as well as television when the campaign begins in earnest in the autumn.
Others are joining the fray in a more traditional manner. Carly Fiorina, the ex-CEO of Hewlett-Packard who campaigned for the Republican nomination herself in 2016, has announced she will back Joe Biden this time. Veterans of the George W Bush administration also announced earlier this month their plan to form a Political Action Committee that would campaign against Trump. Although “many of us remain Republicans”, their statement claimed: “This campaign is bigger than partisan politics. We recognise that there may be policy differences among us, but we look forward to a time when civil, honest and robust policy discussions are the order of the day.”
None of these groups are affiliated directly with the Biden campaign, and they don’t want to be. “We’re just blowing up supply lines,” says Weaver. “We’re not responsible for winning the war.” Without the need to be positive or uplifting, let alone statesmanlike, the Lincoln Project can laugh at the president, run video clips with Russian voice-overs, and then let Biden explain what he actually wants to do if he wins. The precise nature of Biden’s presidency after 2021 is not their problem. The campaign’s overall strategy is not their problem.
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But the future of their own party after 2021 is indeed their problem. And for almost all of the ex-Republicans currently fighting against Trump, that is the longer-term project. They all know that if Trump wins, they lose. If Trump loses but it’s a close race, they probably lose too: the next Republican presidential candidate, in 2024, will be a Trumpist, perhaps even Ivanka Trump or Donald Jr.
If Trump loses badly, on the other hand, and if the party loses a sufficient number of congressional battles too, then the race is on for the soul of the party. There is still a chance that, under different leadership, the Republican party could change course. It could try once again to compete for votes across racial lines, or to speak for fiscal sobriety, the rule of law and democratic values around the world.
But before that happens, someone has to convince Republican voters that those things matter. Follow @projectlincoln and @RVAT2020 if you want to watch them try.
Anne Applebaum’s new book, ‘Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism’, is published next week by Penguin. She will be speaking at this year’s digital FT Weekend Festival, which runs from September 3-5
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