THE IRONY of the election that unleashed Donald Trump upon America was how normal it was. Contrary to early reports, he was not elevated to the presidency by hordes of aggrieved non-voters and Democrats. He won a similar (if slightly smaller) share of the vote to Mitt Romney in 2012 from much the same Republican voters. The election was decided more by Hillary Clinton’s failure to turn out Democrats in a few midwestern states than by Mr Trump’s success in recruiting them. He won fewer votes in Wisconsin—the state that sealed his victory—than Mr Romney.
This time looks to be different. Joe Biden’s promise to restore normality to the government has found support from an unusually broad swathe of voters. If the polls are right, he is on course to win the biggest share of the vote since Ronald Reagan in 1984. Besides Democrats of all hues, he appears to have the backing of most independent voters (millions of whom plumped for a third-party candidate in 2016) and around 10% of self-described Republicans. Kamala Harris was right to boast in the vice-presidential debate of Mr Biden having assembled “one of the broadest coalitions of folks that you’ve ever seen in a presidential race”.
Notwithstanding the main explanation for this coalescence—the country’s overriding desire to sack Mr Trump—it is dramatic and unpredicted. The Biden coalition stretches from Bernie Sanders and the hard-left to “Never Trump” Republicans, including politicians such as John Kasich and Carly Fiorina and operatives such as George Conway and Bill Kristol. Of all these diverse parts, the role of the Never Trumpers has been most remarkable of all.
Not since Lyndon Johnson crushed Barry Goldwater in 1964 have so many leading lights in one party backed the nominee of the other. And Goldwater was a reviled challenger. By setting themselves against the sitting president of their own party—at a time of more intense polarisation—the Never Trumpers have made themselves heretics on the right while taking on the mantle of truth-tellers, authenticated by a willingness to commit career suicide, to almost everyone else.
This has transformed their reputations. Mr Kristol, formerly known on the left as the warmongering editor of the Weekly Standard, now gets practically mobbed on liberal campuses. Mr Conway, a lawyer and proud former member of the “vast right-wing conspiracy” to bring down Bill Clinton, has become a liberal social-media star. It helps, of course, that the Never Trumpers’ denunciations of Mr Trump and his Republican enablers tend to chime with long-standing Democratic criticisms. Only, given their superior knowledge of the subject-matter, they invariably improve upon them. A current example is “It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party became Donald Trump”, in which Mr Romney’s former chief strategist, Stuart Stevens, analyses the degree to which the party he served for 30 years is fuelled by racism.
More happily, Never Trumpers, freed of the partisan yoke, have provided most of the laughs in this grim campaign. The irreverent Lincoln Project (in which Messrs Conway and Stevens are involved) is chiefly dedicated to provoking the president to Twitter rage. With a nod to Michelle Obama, its pledge to Democrats is: “We go low so you don’t have to.” In their podcasts and articles—including in the Bulwark, a Never Trump news site—Mike Murphy and Tim Miller of Republican Voters Against Trump (RVAT) have shown themselves to be two of the wittiest people in politics. This has addressed such a conspicuous cultural problem—the fact that American satire is dominated by lefties—that there is talk of the Lincoln Project being repurposed as an entertainment company.
RVAT has focused on the grittier business of moving votes to Mr Biden. Its founder, Sarah Longwell, perhaps the Never Trumper-in-chief, began that task during the Democratic primaries. The group’s signature ad—featuring an angry or sorrowful anti-Trump testimony from an ordinary Republican voter—may be the most memorable of 2020. Having raised $40m, RVAT has blitzed hundreds of such testimonies across the battlegrounds. According to Mr Murphy, who heads the group’s Florida operation (codenamed Orange Crush), its ads have influenced the Biden campaign’s there.
As the election looms, Democrats are having a hushed debate about how long their discipline might outlive a Biden victory. An equally intriguing question concerns the Never Trumpers. Only a couple would find jobs in a Biden administration. They are not trusted by Democratic decision-makers. And there is no way back to the Republican Party, where they are hated, for most. Yet some parts of their operations, including the Bulwark, will remain. And their record of raising millions of dollars for a centrist cause could open up a role operating between the two parties (perhaps within the political constellation of Mike Bloomberg, an RVAT donor).
Their post-partisan insights would make this as desirable as their manifest capabilities. For example, even Never Trumpers who are less critical of their old party than Mr Stevens have a heightened understanding of its flaws. Mr Kristol claims to have shifted little in his politics—except in developing a new appreciation of the threats African-Americans face to their lives and suffrage. Perhaps he might orchestrate a bipartisan drive to reform the country’s chaotic and sometimes exclusionary election laws.
Whatever their future holds, the Never Trumpers have played an admirable part. Most followed their consciences into opposition at significant risk to their livelihoods. The predictable Republican slur, that they are in it for the money, is false. If they are now enjoying success, it is because their consciences turned out to be a better predictor of America’s response to Mr Trump than their cynical former colleagues anticipated. John McCain liked to talk about the importance of backing country over party. Never Trumpers have provided an even more resounding demonstration of this than the late senator. They deserve their brief celebrity and more.■
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “Battle-hymn of the Never Trumpers”