Does America Need Never Trump Conservatives?
What is the role in American public discourse of conservatives who do not support Donald Trump? That question has arisen time and again in recent months, usually whenever a liberal or centrist publication considers employing one of these individuals. The hiring of Hugh Hewitt at MSNBC and Kevin Williamson at The Atlantic provides two concrete examples. While their circumstances are different (Hewitt is more Trump-skeptical than Never Trump and has been criticized but retained; Williamson’s anti-abortion rhetoric proved too much for his prospective employer), these situations have led some to question whether Never Trump conservatives should be listened to at all.
Some liberals say no. They argue that Never Trump conservatives have no constituency and a host of repugnant views. “Never Trumpers Never Mattered,” read a recent Nation headline under which Eric Alterman dismissed these conservative writers and politicians as unoriginal, insignificant thinkers. Eric Levitz, in a May New York article, argued that no serious centrist or liberal publication should pick up a Never Trump conservative. Instead, the space that would otherwise go to a racist or sexist writer should be preserved for ongoing debates between liberals and leftists. Levitz wrote, “exploring those disagreements would almost certainly do more to challenge the average Atlantic reader intellectually than running Kevin Williamson’s latest diatribe against the shiftless poor people he grew up among.”
Should liberals ignore all conservatives for their magazine positions, even those who have rejected President Trump? Do Never Trump conservatives add anything to contemporary political discourse?
Liberals, as much as any other partisans, believe that their approach to political questions on race, economic policy, or gender relations is the correct approach. They welcome and tolerate a certain level of debate on these questions, especially in the halls of power, where negotiation and compromise are essential. However, there has always been a question of limits: what beliefs go too far and what ideas do not belong in prominent newspapers and on prominent television shows? Where does one draw the line?
The Trump era brings that question to the forefront. To a certain degree, earlier public debates have been subsumed by the need to resist Donald Trump. Never Trump conservatives are clearly a conduit to resisting Trump’s presidency. They critique Trump as against conservative ideology, an important factor for millions of Americans. To this audience, their opinions also have a kind of legitimacy that liberal critics do not have. A liberal’s criticism of Trump for not being a “real conservative” is seen as rhetoric to undermine the president for partisan purposes. When a conservative makes the same critique, the American public is more willing to listen.
Critics of President Trump need these allies. They need ideological weapons to chip away at Trump’s electoral support in places where simply encouraging liberals to vote will not win House seats. In addition, hiring Never Trump conservatives gives liberals insight into the conservative thought process. They will know early on the arguments conservatives will have against the serious policies they hope to introduce in 2020 and beyond, such as a job guarantee and universal healthcare. (And I have never met another liberal who read The National Review, so they’re not getting it from other sources).
Liberals do not have to be ridiculous with their acceptance of Never Trump conservatives. If Richard Spencer turns on Trump tomorrow, that does not mean he deserves a place in polite society. However, liberals need to realize that resistance to Trump sometimes requires them to make alliances with people whose views they find noxious, who have made comments they strongly disagree with, in order to achieve a final goal. In other words, liberals can compromise with the next Never Trump conservative down the line without selling their souls.