Most of the conservative Republicans opposed to President Trump are writers and policy specialists. Few are politicians – or, perhaps more precisely, few of the conservative politicians who see Trump as a danger to the nation are prepared to say so in public.
So does this mean that the writerly anti-Trump right is ineffectual? Not at all. But we may be approaching a time when the gutlessness of the GOP’s leadership moves these restive conservatives to abandon their traditional loyalties altogether. It would not be the first time that a group of thinkers opened the way for political realignment.
History, it’s said, sometimes rhymes. The anti-Trump distemper on the right has some of the rhythms and sounds of an earlier intellectual rebellion in the mid-1960s involving an uneasy group of liberals. They remained staunch supporters of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal but worried about what they saw as liberal excesses and the overreach of some Great Society policies.
Over time, this collection of magazine and university-based rebels – among them Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Daniel Bell and Norman Podhoretz – came to be known as “neoconservatives.” They were not party bosses, but they sure knew how to write essays.
By the beginning of this century, neoconservatism came to be associated more with a muscular foreign policy than with its initial focus on domestic issues.
What cannot be doubted is that the neocons helped prepare the ground for Ronald Reagan’s political revolution. Will the anti-Trumpers (a fair number of them philosophical descendants of neoconservatism) have a comparable impact?
Much depends on whether their critique of Trump carries into a broader critique of contemporary conservatism and the Republican Party. This is already starting to happen. My Washington Post colleagues Michael Gerson and Jennifer Rubin are representative. Gerson recently wrote: “The conservative mind, in some very visible cases, has become diseased,” while conservative institutions “with the blessings of a president … have abandoned the normal constraints of reason and compassion.”
Rubin charged Republicans with practicing “intellectual nihilism” and proposed that “center-right Americans … look elsewhere for a political home.”
David Frum of The Atlantic, another eloquent anti-Trump dissident, wrote about the “broken guardrails” of American democracy back in 2016 and argued that the conservative guardrail had “snapped because so much of the ideology itself had long since ceased to be relevant to the lives of so many Republican primary voters. Instead of a political program, conservatism had become an individual identity.”
Conservative talk radio host Charlie Sykes criticized his side for indulging conspiracy theories going back to the Bill Clinton years and for “empowering the worst and most reckless voices on the right.” He did not pull his punch: “This was not mere naivete. It was also a moral failure, one that now lies at the heart of the conservative movement.”
Evan McMullin, who ran as an independent conservative against Trump in 2016, explicitly raised the prospect of realignment in a tweet over the weekend: “In our Trumpian era, is there any longer a traditional right and left? Or are there only those who fight for liberty and those against it.”
Another factor could push the anti-Trump conservatives out of their ideological home: attacks on them from one-time comrades. Writing recently on National Review’s website, author and radio host Dennis Prager described the anti-Trump right as “a very refined group of people” who live in a “cultural milieu” in which “to support Trump is to render oneself contemptible at all elite dinner parties.” Fighting words!
Like the intellectuals of a half-century ago who developed qualms about liberalism but insisted they were still in the liberal camp, conservatives standing against Trump today still see themselves as being true to their old loyalties.
But eventually, a large cadre of those liberal dissenters accepted that they were, in fact, neoconservatives. Something similar may be happening in the other direction as members of the anti-Trump right, battling against immoderation, irrationality and irresponsibility, become ever more distant from their old allies.
Let’s call them “neo-moderates.” They, too, could emerge as a major force in our politics and make a difference in our history.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.