The idea of the “Never Trumper” entered the American political lexicon in 2016, when a small group of prominent U.S. conservatives—including veterans of Republican campaigns and administrations—started publicly opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the White House. They denounced Trump as immoral, illiberal, and unfit to lead—not to say, as a heretic on traditional Republican beliefs. Never Trumpers obviously failed to stop the 45th U.S. president. But they did win many new admirers by trying—and by maintaining their opposition—especially among Democrats who loved seeing their frequent commentary in the news media and political work in the 2020 election through groups like The Lincoln Project and Republican Voters Against Trump. Some left-wing critics began to warn that conservatives were trying to infiltrate the Democratic Party and pull it to the right. Is that happening?

Bill Kristol—a leading Never Trumper and a founder of the political group Defending Democracy Together—describes the Never Trump cohort as divided. Some are committed to staying Republicans. Others are flirting with third parties. But Kristol has started talking with like-minded colleagues about ways to “build up infrastructure” under moderate Democrats and Republicans, strengthening the center from both sides. “We’re trying to avoid a nativist party and a socialist party,” Kristol says, “and I’m a little more optimistic about avoiding a socialist party at this point.”


Graham Vyse: What did Never Trumpers achieve in the Trump era?

Bill Kristol: It’s probably hard to judge one’s own effect. Our organization, Republican Voters Against Trump, helped with one or two percentage points of the vote in some key states in 2020, which may have been crucial. We helped hold Trump to one term.

Our biggest failures were [in not winning over] many other Republicans, or getting support for the rule of law in Congress, or support for impeachment in Congress, or support for an alternative nominee to Trump. All those basically flopped, but I’m glad we fought those fights. People around the country who had been a different kind of Republican found something to latch onto, and it kept certain traditions and points of view alive.

We also did a fair amount to try to persuade independent voters to vote in the Democratic primary—once we realized [Republican] challengers to Trump were going nowhere—and to vote for the moderate, which ended up being Biden. Obviously, Democratic South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn deserves 1,000 times more credit than we do for helping Biden [by endorsing him ahead of his state’s primary]. The Biden campaign deserves credit. Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar deserve credit for getting out of the race and supporting him. We were a small part.

Intellectually, we were part of a broader discourse about democracy and authoritarianism, and a lot of that was quite interesting. We played a role there too.

Vyse: How did your organization’s approach compare to that of other prominent Never Trump groups like the Lincoln Project, which was famous for its viral ads?

I’m glad we fought those fights. People around the country who had been a different kind of Republican found something to latch onto, and it kept certain traditions and points of view alive.

Kristol: The Lincoln Project did their own thing, and I respect some of what they did. They caused a huge brouhaha. They got in Trump’s head. They helped energize the anti-Trump forces, which was great.

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