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Tom Nichols is a professor in Rhode Island.
He wrote this post for The New York Times.
By TOM NICHOLS
My brother heard I’d been saying bad things about Donald Trump.
A retired police officer with a cop’s bone-dry sense of humor, he still lives in our hometown, a small New England city hammered by deindustrialization and visibly altered over the past few decades by an influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants. Trump has a lot of supporters there, and my big brother is one of them. When a local radio host mentioned a recent column I’d written criticizing Trump, he called and asked me about it.
I laughed. “Yeah, I wrote it. Does this mean I shouldn’t come home to visit?”
“I wouldn’t advise it,” he deadpanned.
Brothers can share that kind of joke, but for many people now in Trump’s camp, criticizing their leader is a serious offense, and I’ve been hearing from plenty of them. I am a Never-Trump Republican, as we’ve come to be known, part of the alliance of conservatives implacably opposed to the idea of Donald J. Trump becoming president of the United States. It’s a position that has estranged me from a plurality of my own party and put me at odd with friends, family, colleagues and a political movement that increasingly has taken on the character of an angry cult.
Trump has encouraged a with-us-or-against-us mentality among his voters, and it is an especially sharp division between Trump’s base and the Republican apostates who oppose him. “You are probably a Democrat and a socialist with literally half a brain,” one recent email from an angry Trump admirer began. “You are most likely wealthy, with no true commitment to God, but of the devil.” Another correspondent, in a common refrain, told me I was unfit to call myself an American. Yet another wished me a pleasant stay in Guantánamo in the near future. On Twitter, I’ve been barraged with words like “traitor” and “treason” along with a fair number of less printable terms.
During the primaries, it was easier to find common ground among Republicans and Republican-leaning voters. At the outset of this election season, I knew very few people who were behind Trump; more often, I found myself in arguments about whether Marco Rubio was too young, whether Ted Cruz was too annoying, whether Jeb Bush was too … well, too Jeb Bush. Even in those more amicable days, however, when I voiced my categorical opposition to Trump, I would see a head shake slowly or eyes look away for a moment. The same phrases would pop up: “We’re tired of political correctness.” “He says it like it is.” “He’ll shake things up.”
And always: “You don’t understand.”
This last charge, with its implication of detached elitism, always rankles. Although today I am a professor at a graduate institution and a practicing national security expert, I grew up in a Massachusetts factory town, in a modest home not far from the mills and the railroad tracks. Both of my parents were high-school dropouts from impoverished backgrounds, and they worked hard to make a life after a series of tough breaks and more than a few terrible personal choices. I worked my way through my education, sometimes two and three jobs at a time. As a young man, I cut my teeth in local and state politics, and so I was fully and painfully aware of how badly our area was hurt by the collapse of industry and the exodus of manufacturing jobs from the Northeast.
So I understand perfectly well how Trump is appealing to those voters. He’s promising to turn back time, to restore factories that were demolished years ago and to deport the Hispanic arrivals who turned the local barbershop into a storefront church. Trump is offering my friends and my family a buffet of economic impossibilities served up with sides of bitter racism and fantasies of revenge. And because I will not join them in their absolute belief in Trump, many of them now see me as an outsider. I’m no longer one of us. I’m now one of them.
I am not a natural choice for the part of Republican rebel. I spent a lifetime in the party, despite a short separation in 2012 when I quit it after Newt Gingrich and his plan to build Moon Base Alpha won South Carolina. For some time, I’d been concerned that the party was heading into a dead end of largely symbolic extremism, and Gingrich’s surge in a pack that included unelectable eccentrics like Herman Cain and Ron Paul, for me, clinched it. But I remained a conservative, and I never felt comfortable about leaving America’s conservative party.
Trump claims that he has expanded the ranks of the Republican Party. He’s right, at least in my case: I registered Republican once again this year specifically to vote against him. That might be quixotic — one of my fellow conservatives told me he admired my “John McClane in Nakatomi Plaza mentality” — but I came back because I felt that Trump’s capture of the Republican nomination was an existential threat to the future of American conservatism itself. Trump’s victory, if unchallenged from the right, would force conservatives to replace their own principles with his rancid stew of racism and sexism, along with his slew of various crackpot theories on politics and economics. If he wins, conservatism could be dead for a generation, if not longer.
Still, I had no intention at first of publicly planting a flag over Trump, in part because I never expected him to get this far. I lived through the unsuccessful 1992 nativist insurrection within the Republican Party led by Pat Buchanan and the third-party challenges mounted by Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996. I assumed that Trump was just another populist virus that would pass after the American people got some rest and drank plenty of water.
And I admit that like many conservatives, I had at least a small reservoir of empathy for Trump voters at the start, especially in their nearly universal complaint about political correctness. Many of us had an almost-involuntary admiration for a candidate who vowed to brush away what many conservatives (and even some liberals) saw as the heavy hand of the language police on open and honest debate.
What soon became apparent, of course, was that Trump was not just politically incorrect: He was an uncontrollable fire hose of offensive lunacy. There was the endless sexual innuendo — during news coverage about Trump, I’ve taken to turning off the television when my young daughter is in the room — and his ghastly jibes at John McCain, a war hero tortured so badly that to this day his injuries prevent him from tying his own shoes or combing his hair. I assumed that every new straw would be the last one.
I was wrong. The hits kept coming. From his flirtation with 9/11 conspiracy theories to his promises to order the American military to commit war crimes, nothing seemed to matter to voters who believed in him and who would support him, as Trump himself said, even if he shot someone dead in broad daylight.
Soon, Trump started rolling up enough delegates to become an actual threat to win the nomination, and I had to make a decision: What would I do if actually faced with a choice between Trump and Hillary Clinton? The facile dodge would be to say “neither,” since I live in a reliably Democratic northeastern state where my vote would never be the deciding ballot. Instead, I decided to be honest about it, and to confront the full implications of opposing the Republican nominee.
I formally came out as a Never Trump Republican in February, when I wrote a column for the conservative online publication The Federalist titled “I’ll Take Hillary Clinton Over Donald Trump.” I made the case that Republicans could tough out four years of Clinton, but that neither the party nor the American conservative movement could survive even a single year of Trump. There is no editorial line on Trump or anything else at The Federalist, and my article was paired with one by a talented young writer named Nicole Russell who wrote in favor of him. Nicole and I made a friendly bet on whose argument would be more persuasive, and we left it at that.
I assumed I’d get some hate mail, because anyone who’s ever written an op-ed about anything gets hate mail. Sure enough, streams of rage poured into my email inbox and across my Twitter feed. I was sent everything from pornographic images featuring Hillary Clinton to neo-Nazi propaganda. Young white supremacists (who adore Trump despite his weird orange hue) told me I was a race traitor. Others, especially older people, thundered at me that Hillary murdered Vince Foster and then left our men to die in Benghazi, and that I was an accomplice to murder myself if I did anything that helped Clinton win.
Conspiracy theories were rampant in these complaints: I was secretly on the Republican payroll; I was secretly on the Democratic payroll; I was slated for a job in the Clinton, Cruz, Rubio or Bush administrations. The cynicism of the angry Trump supporters was so deep that my criticism of all these people in print was either dismissed or taken as evidence of an elaborate effort to conceal my true agenda, whatever it was.
There is also a triumphalist streak among the Trump supporters, who never tire of crowing about how old-school Republicans like me have “lost,” that the party has changed hands and that my kind needs to get in line or get out. Friendlier critics may not tell me I have to leave the party, but instead plead with me to understand how Trump’s primary victories were an important step toward getting even with the “elites” whom they believe control their lives. That term — the “elites” — slips from the mouths of not just casual acquaintances but also from friends and family. Even if they’re not trying to offend, the meaning is clear: They’re referring to people like me.
It’s not an entirely new line, of course. One of my uncles was a retired factory worker who for most of his life resented almost anyone who didn’t work with their hands. At dinner one evening many years ago, he issued the blanket declaration that everyone who works in Washington is corrupt. When I pointed out that I — someone he’s known for my entire life — was working in Washington as a Senate aide at the time, he blurted out: “I don’t care! Then you’re corrupt too!”
What he meant, of course, is that he saw me as part of system that was rigged against him. He saw the government as the servant primarily of rich corporations on one side and of unemployed minorities on the other. Like many of today’s Trump voters, he saw no middle ground, no connection between his own life and the many government programs like Social Security and Medicaid of which he was a beneficiary. For him, the government was just a group of bureaucrats stealing his money and then giving it away again — after taking their cut.
Today, I don’t even have to work in Washington to be accused of being corrupt. I just have to be someone who doesn’t love Donald Trump.
If Never-Trump Republicans are targets of rage to strangers and sources of disappointment to some of our friends and family, we are also objects of curiosity, especially among Democrats. Many people to my left see my opposition to Trump in the Oval Office as so obviously correct that it is ludicrous even to call attention to it, as though I have just bravely declared that I object to driving while blindfolded or to further wars with Britain. They treat me, somewhat condescendingly, as though I have finally come to my senses after years of misguided fraternization with the Republican enemy. For many liberals, of course, Trump is merely the natural endpoint of Republican evolution since the late 1960s. They might regret that it took the extremism of Donald Trump to make me finally see it, but better late than never.
Except that I don’t see it that way at all. To me, Trump is an alien presence in the Republican Party, an opportunist who could just as easily have hijacked white working-class voters among the Democrats or as part of a third-party bid. Nonetheless, strangers on social media and friends in my daily life mistakenly assume that my opposition to Trump equates to some sort of new sympathy for liberalism in general or for Hillary Clinton in particular. Some of them actually send me Clinton-friendly talking points, as though I might find them useful.
The reality is that in any other year, I would be arguing that Clinton not only should be disqualified from elected office but driven from our public life along with the rest of her insufferable family.
But not this year.
The Republicans and unaffiliated conservatives who have remained outside of the party’s civil war this year are less hostile to the Never Trump coalition than the Trump loyalists, but they are still conflicted about us. Whatever their feelings about the party’s nominee, they cannot endure the idea of Hillary Clinton in the White House (again). While many of them have vowed either to abstain or to vote for a third party, they still probe those of us who are determined to resist the Donald at all costs.
This can make conversation with fellow conservatives even more frustrating than with liberals or Trump supporters. They ask why we suddenly love Clinton. They wonder how we could possibly forget or forgive her manifest political sins. They demand to know if we understand the danger of allowing her to control the next nominations to the Supreme Court, as if this had never occurred to us.
Repeatedly, we’re asked if we’re serious about never voting for Trump. This is when a Never-Trump Republican winces, because only we can hear the silent scream inside our heads. I have lost count of the tweets and emails asking me, over and over, what I mean by “never” Trump. Do I mean “never,” as in “not during the primaries?” “Never” unless Clinton had been indicted? What if Clinton pulls off her skin and reveals herself to be an alien cyborg or one of our lizard overlords? Could I vote for Trump then?
My answer is always the same. Never means never. Even now, conservatives continue to ask me if I’m serious — mostly, I suspect, because they’re wrestling with their own consciences.
Soon after I made my stand as a Never-Trump Republican, however, I found that I was not alone. When my piece in The Federalist appeared, I had several media inquiries, including from talk-radio programs. At first, I assumed the worst. Talk radio is the natural habitat of many Trump supporters, and surely the hosts would want me to show up covered in barbecue sauce just to save time. Some of them were indeed gunning for an argument, but many actually agreed with me. “Maybe my audience will listen to you,” one host told me before the show, “because they’re sure as hell not listening to me.”
Going public against Trump was also heartening because it allowed me to see how many Republicans are in fact Never Trump themselves. In this sense, at least, to be a Republican in the Age of Trump is exhilarating, if also enervating. To oppose Trump from within the party means a real fight on the terrain of principles and ideas, which is what drew us to the party in the first place.
To me, it feels like the 1980s, which for many of us of a certain age was our introduction to a Republican Party that was about ideas. Supply-siders and evangelicals and Cold Warriors had competing priorities in those years, but there was an underlying consensus that were we all, in some larger and more important sense, on the same side. After the chaos of the 1960s and the stagnation of the 1970s, conservatives finally had a shot at governing, and nothing was off-limits for honest debate among us.
That feeling is in the air once again, especially now that the Republican convention’s Rules Committee has voted to shut down any formal challenge to Trump in Cleveland. This effectively ends fruitless parliamentary maneuvers. Instead, Republicans must now stand in the open and argue, right through to November, over the virtue of the party’s nominee (such as it is) and the quality of his ideas (such as they are).
In the end, to be a Never-Trump Republican is to feel a sense of relief, even of liberation, after the surreal craziness of the primary season. Donald Trump’s hijacking of the party is now no longer a threat but a fact, and to oppose him is to feel normal again by embracing clarity and principle against opportunism and crass huckstering.
Bracing as it is, this is not always a comfortable place to be. Not long ago, an old friend came to visit. We grew up together, and he’s now a working man who made a life in our hometown, eventually owning a home and raising children there. He understood how I felt about Trump, he told me, but “things had to change.” I asked him what, exactly, he would change. This is a question I’ve posed to many of my friends who are Trump supporters, because they’ve done well in postindustrial America and yet still see themselves as disadvantaged.
He admitted that his life had worked out, despite a few bumps along the way. But things are different now, he said. Worse than ever. A crisis, even. Pressed for details, he only shook his head. You could see what he was thinking: that I would never understand, that I’d become one of them, the educated and distant elites whom the common people must teach a lesson by electing Donald Trump, a billionaire scam artist from New York City, as the President of the United States.
I shook my head too. We embraced when he left. He might never know it, but I’ve always been on his side. I still am.
Tom Nichols is a professor and writer who lives in Rhode Island.