About the author: WWSG speaker David Frum is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of Trumpocalypse: Restoring American Democracy (2020). In 2001 and 2002, he was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush.
Many of the conservatives and Republicans appalled by Donald Trump’s presidency clutched a hope through the bewildering years: Someday this would all be over and politics would return to normal.
But normal has not returned. Those elected Republicans who stood for legality when Trump tried to overturn the 2020 election found themselves party pariahs in 2021, on their way to being out of politics altogether in 2022.
And it’s not just a few politicians who have been displaced by the Trump era. Millions of voters have been too. “Never Trump is not a political party. It is a dinner party”: That jibe was heard a lot in 2017 and 2018. It has not been heard much since. In 2018, Democratic candidates won districts that had loyally voted Republican for 30, 40, 50 years, including those once held by Eric Cantor, Newt Gingrich, and George H. W. Bush.
The anti-Trump Republicans did not return home in 2020. Now, in 2021, their former party seems much more eager to welcome anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers than to win them back.
Years ago, the late Christopher Hitchens described to me the experience of losing his faith in socialism. He felt, he said, like a man tumbling down a hill, and every time he clutched a branch to stop his fall, the branch snapped in his hands. Many former conservatives and Republicans experienced a similar disillusionment during the Trump years. In 2017, the longtime conservative commentator Bill Kristol tweeted: “The GOP tax bill’s bringing out my inner socialist. The sex scandals are bringing out my inner feminist. Donald Trump and Roy Moore are bringing out my inner liberal. WHAT IS HAPPENING?”
What’s happening is that as former Republicans and conservatives break from old groups, they turn newly suspicious eyes on old certainties.
Once, Republicans and conservatives filled hours of cable-TV time and sold millions of books to argue the supreme importance of truthfulness, sexual fidelity, and financial integrity in a national leader. Then their party nominated and elected a president who gleefully transgressed every one of those human decencies. The minority of Republicans and conservatives who couldn’t execute the pivot were left to wonder how to reconcile what our old friends had said with what they now did.
Once, Republicans and conservatives advertised themselves as strict upholders of constitutional principle. They brandished pocket copies of the Constitution as props. Then the leader of their party incited a violent attack on Congress in an effort to overturn an election result. The minority of Republicans and conservatives who upheld legality were forced to confront the fact that their old friends had minimized and condoned the attack, and even glorified the attackers as “political hostages” and “political prisoners.”
Once, Republicans and conservatives defined themselves as the party of life. Human life was so precious that the law should require women unwillingly pregnant to give birth anyway. Then came a deadly pandemic, and suddenly “life” became less important than protecting the spring-break revenues of hotels and restaurants, or indulging the delusions and fantasies of people who got their scientific information from YouTube videos and Reddit threads. And again dissident Republicans and conservatives were left to wonder: What do we have in common with you?
This process of estrangement builds on itself.
I thought we believed X, says the dissident. You’re a bunch of hypocrites for now saying Y. You’re betraying everything I thought we believed.
No, reply the majority. We always deep down believed that Y was more important than X. We never before had to choose. Now we do. And if you choose X over Y, it’s you who are betraying us.
Economists call this “revealed preference”: a choice between two competing alternatives that forces the chooser to discover her highest values. Pro-Trump and anti-Trump conservatives have often each been mutually horrified to discover how radically their highest values differed from those of old allies and former comrades.
Not only differ—but diverge. Maybe the future pro-Trump Republican was always slightly more sympathetic to authoritarianism, maybe slightly more tolerant of corruption than the future anti-Trump Republican. Then Trump shoved authoritarianism and corruption into the political debate—and suddenly people who liked Trump were forced into positions they had never planned to take.
On November 7, 2020, former Trump Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal headlined: “If he loses, Trump will concede gracefully.” That of course proved a historically false prediction. Mulvaney had worked with Trump; he knew Trump’s character. How could he get things so wrong? Partly, perhaps, the article was an attempt to influence Trump in the only way Trump could be influenced—by outrageous flattery. But I wonder if it was not also a coping device for Mulvaney himself. Mulvaney faced the question: What would he personally do if Trump turned traitor to the Constitution and attacked the election result? He did not want to think about a terrible possibility, and so he denied the reality of that possibility. On January 7, 2021, Mulvaney resigned from the mostly honorific position of U.S. special envoy for Northern Ireland. “We didn’t sign up for what we saw last night,” he told a TV interviewer. And then he went silent. Speaking more would have put him on a path out of the Republican world, and that was a path he did not want to walk.
But some people did walk it, and they too rapidly found themselves in places they had never expected to go. They found themselves political exiles, banished or self-banished from the political home of a lifetime. This was a metaphorical exile only, not the shattering disaster of physical exile. For most anti-Trump conservatives, the losses of political exile have been emotional, cultural, and spiritual rather than material. Yet these losses were unnerving enough in their own way. Human beings are group animals, and they are frightened and stressed when expelled from the groups to which they have belonged. Our political attachments often matter much more to us than our political ideas—which is why, when forced to choose, so many Republicans and conservatives discarded their former ideas in order to preserve their former attachments.
Many Democrats and liberals may wonder at this point: So what? Who cares? Why is any of this our problem? But it is their problem, like it or not. President Joe Biden’s approval numbers sharply dipped in summer 2021, driven by a steep drop in nonaffiliated voters. It looks a lot as if the Republican-leaners who provided Biden his margin of victory in November cooled on him in August and September. Democratic loyalists may find it exasperating to be urged to worry about these fickle new supporters. Republican leaders pamper and flatter their base with scant regard for uneasy moderates. Why shouldn’t Democrats do the same?
But Democrats know the answer. Democrats cannot do the same because their situation is not the same. The Democrats cannot win with a base-first strategy. Their base is not cohesive or big enough, and does not live in the places favored by the rules of U.S. politics.
Yet this disparity is not ultimately a disadvantage. The comparative weakness of the Democratic base obliges Democrats to build broad national coalitions of a kind that Republicans have not achieved since the days of the Chrysler K-Car. And those broader coalitions in turn deliver better government than would or could be delivered by a narrower ideological faction.
Thanks to Trump, Democrats find themselves leading a coalition more affluent and less progressive than the coalition many Democratic activists might desire. A Morning Consult poll after the 2020 election found that almost half of Biden voters were motivated primarily by their antipathy to Trump. (That contrasts very sharply with the Trump vote: 75 percent of those voters said they were primarily motivated by support for Trump, and less than a quarter by hostility to Biden.)
If Trump decides to run again, that one act will certainly fortify the new Democratic coalition. But it’s not enough to rely solely on Trumpian obnoxiousness. The Trump-era political traffic has not moved only one way. Former swing states such as Ohio and Missouri turned much more solidly Republican. Latino voters, too, shifted toward Trump and his party.
It’s the former cultural core of the GOP—the college-educated, the professional, the suburban—that is exiting the party. It’s that core that will, if permitted, realign American politics. What do these recent arrivals bring with them to their new political destination? They’re often described as combining social liberalism with economic conservatism, but that is too broad and too imprecise a description. Here are five more specific ways that Never Trumpers may change the Democratic Party.
Donald Trump hoped to reverse the 2020 election by junking votes after they were cast. His successors more shrewdly hope to decide the next election by suppressing votes before they can be cast in the first place, or by gerrymandering voters in such a way that they don’t count equally.
Many Democratic political professionals regret these maneuvers, but see little payoff in battling them. Based on their experience with the historic Democratic electorate, they believe that pocketbook issues are what matter most.
For the Never Trump newcomers, however, democracy is issue one. January 6 was the true last straw for them—and preventing the next January 6 their top-of-mind issue. Democracy may not be the issue that motivates the most economically hard-pressed voters. But the less hard-pressed people who are painting the Sun Belt suburbs blue? Many of them live in places where their state governments are controlled by overrepresented rural voters. Their kids are exposed to COVID-19 in schools because overrepresented constituencies can overrule the majorities who want safety protocols. Democracy is not a “process issue” if you live in Atlanta, Charlotte, Dallas, Houston, or Phoenix. It’s the precondition for any fair participation in the governance of your city, county, and state.
The U.S. and global scientific communities have delivered incredible advances at record speed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. It took only a few days for scientists to crack the virus’s genetic code, only a few weeks for scientists to understand how the virus spread, less than a year to develop effective vaccines.
And for their efforts, they were reviled by one of the country’s great parties as enemies of the people. The mild-mannered Anthony Fauci is now behind only critical race theory and Big Tech as a target of right-wing hate.
When your political coalition attracts support from millions of professionals, its respect for professional expertise rises. That’s how Democrats have become the party that acknowledges climate science and encourages vaccination, while Republicans tend toward the opposite.
Yet Democrats have their blind spots too, where their own constituencies elevate ideology over expert knowledge. Teachers’ unions deny the well-attested fact that learning losses increase when schooling is interrupted. Democratic local governments deny that standardized tests measure anything important. Some try to suppress educational programs for gifted children. On all these issues, many Democrats are as far removed from “the science” as many Republicans are on vaccines or climate. This expertise gap obviously exacts severe real-world consequences. It also may inflict drastic potential political costs.
Globalism is a label for the quickening pace of cross-border immigration, trade, investment, information, and organization. The economic relationship among these factors is complex. Theoretically, it’s possible to have some without others. But the psychological relationship among the different elements of globalism tends to be more straightforward. Like some of them, and you will probably like all of them; fear any of them, and you will probably fear all of them.
Until recently, those who feared globalism formed a weakly partisan bloc that could swing back and forth between the two parties, or even to a third-party independent like Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996. Trump, however, successfully consolidated the fearers into his Republican Party. Hostility to immigration, trade, and almost any form of international cooperation became a defining theme of his presidency.
Trump held the support of those Americans most immediately harmed by his isolationism by lavishing them with direct cash payments. American farmers lost foreign markets—and got federal subsidies instead. In election year 2020, direct aid from the Trump administration provided one-third of all farm income. But other Americans who bought and sold on global markets got no such compensation for Trump’s economic sabotage.
In 2020, Biden appealed to globally minded America by promising to welcome immigrants and to stop insulting allies. But he mimicked the trade skepticism of Donald Trump. If the ex-Republicans extruded by Trump make a more permanent home inside the Democratic Party, however, trade skepticism will come under pressure. It may be good politics in Flint, Michigan, and Allentown, Pennsylvania. But it isn’t as effective in Northern Virginia and South Florida, in Silicon Valley and North Carolina’s Research Triangle. Retaining Never Trumpers requires discarding not only the snarling aggression of “America First” but also the quivering apprehension of “Buy American.”
Days after the 2020 vote, Representative Abigail Spanberger complained to Democratic colleagues about the harm done to House members by reckless ideological rhetoric. “We need to not ever use the word ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again … We lost good members because of that.” The slogan “Defund the police,” she said, had done even more damage.
The crime wave of 2020–21, and the unceasing surge of unauthorized people across the southern border, has created a sense of disorder and threat. Some lefty Democrats have either denied that these trends are happening or dismissed their significance. But they are happening, and they do matter. Among Republicans, immigration is ranked as the country’s second-most-important issue (after the economy), and crime ranks just behind. Traditional Republicans and Republican-leaners are swayed by those same influences.
Fiscal and economic issues may not seem to matter in the abstract. But when economic over-stimulus feeds into rising prices at the store, when protectionist trade policy foments electronics shortages that prolong the waiting time for delivery of new cars, when and if middle-of-the-road voters get the impression that economic policy is being driven by interest-group agendas and extreme ideologies—all of that can matter a lot.
Nobody ever won a vote by telling a voter that he or she is wrong. Votes are won by showing the voter that the voter is right, only in a different way than the voter imagined before. Republican excesses offered Democrats an opportunity to remake themselves as the party of the broad American center. That center can be moved, but only by people who demonstrate that they respect its values: security and continuity.
Donald Trump lived by the old dictum that nice guys finish last. He proved it wrong. In 2020, Trump finished second in a two-person race—that is, last—in great part because Americans perceived him as nasty. On the eve of the 2020 vote, only one-third of Americans agreed that Trump could be described as “likable.”
You’ll recall that Trump got considerably more than 33 percent of the vote. A large number of Americans voted for Trump despite—or possibly because of—his offensive behavior and intemperate language. For those former Republicans who broke ranks against Trump, however, the behavior and language mattered, and mattered a lot.
In late August 2020, The Washington Post profiled an undecided voter. Mike Baker was a retired midwestern businessman in his 70s. He was conservative-leaning, but not an ideologue: As the Post noted, he has practiced social distancing during the pandemic. Normally Republican, Baker had voted against Trump in 2016 because of his “acerbic” personality. In 2020, he found himself torn: He liked the Trump economy and agreed with many Trump policies, but he appreciated Biden’s empathy and willingness to compromise. “The personality thing, it just weighs on me,” he told the paper. “Can I feel good about myself voting for this person that’s just not the kind of person I would look up to and respect?” The Post left Baker still weighing his decision. But we do know that Biden won in November in great part because he outperformed Hillary Clinton among older white men like Mike Baker.
Here’s the warning for the future: The Democratic Party is also home to some abrasive loudmouths. And although none of those abrasive loudmouths has mounted a serious campaign for the presidency, some hold other high offices, and others occupy visible places in the media. Liberal communities tolerate and even approve of language about white men like Mike Baker that they would never tolerate or approve of about anybody else. That language exacts immense political costs.
An absolute majority of white Americans believe that white people face adverse discrimination in the United States. They are not reacting to personal experiences of mistreatment; only one-fifth to one-tenth of white Americans report anything like that. They seem instead to be reacting to a more generalized drumbeat of derision and hostility.
The influx of anti-Trump Republicans into the Biden coalition should highlight the importance of discouraging that kind of talk. Some advice from Franklin D. Roosevelt remains timely today. In 1936, the then-chair of the Democratic National Committee had publicly mocked Roosevelt’s likely opponent, Alf Landon, as nothing more than the governor of a “typical prairie state” (Kansas, as it happened). Republicans seized on these dismissive words. Roosevelt wrote to scold his chair. It was bad politics, he said, for New Yorkers like themselves to speak disrespectfully of other parts of the country. If there had to be any characterization, make it positive. Roosevelt suggested instead describing Kansas as “one of our splendid prairie states.” Roosevelt carried the Midwest in 1936, including Kansas.
Again, the exchange will not be all one-way. A person who votes even once to protest against cruelty and in favor of empathy will be changed enduringly by that single action. We often act first and then develop the explanations for our actions later—and those new explanations may force us to reconsider previous prejudices.
The pro-Trump Republicans and conservatives got one thing right about their anti-Trump former comrades: Never Trump was not fundamentally a political movement. It was a moral reflex. Will that reflex now be integrated into normal politics in the post-Trump era? If it can, it will transform American politics—and very possibly save the country from the forces of polarization, extremism, bigotry, and authoritarianism.