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Three Futures for the Non-Trump Right

Never Trumpers do not need to agree on what to do next; they just need to stay in the fight.
March 15, 2021
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(Hannah Yoest / Photos: GettyImages)

For Never Trumpers and others on the political right who have grown weary of Donald Trump, the last few months have been a nightmare. Despite ample political, ideological, and moral grounds for the Republican party to block him from ever again having a role in party politics, most GOP officeholders, apparatchiks, and the base continue to embrace him. Party officials condemn any Republican who criticizes him, Republican politicians sojourn to Palm Beach to solicit his support, and much of the GOP rank-and-file want him to lead them into the future

Republicans will almost certainly nominate Trump for president in 2024 (unless health reasons or fear of another defeat keep him from running) and he’ll hold powerbroker status over the party at least until then. Meanwhile, Joe Biden’s administration is proving as dirigiste as some feared, and his party’s progressive wing wants it to move even further left. Neither the Democratic nor the Republican party currently offers much to those who want limited government, rule of law, dynamic markets, and individual freedom. 

This has non-Trumpers, many of whom have long been Republicans in good standing, arguing among themselves over where their political future lies. Some want to continue fighting against Trumpism from within the GOP. Others are considering joining the Democratic party. Still others want to form a third party dedicated to small-government conservatism. Underlying these arguments is the fear that committed non-Trumpers are ultimately doomed to permanent exile in the political wilderness.

The short-term future of the non-Trump right is, indeed, grim. But, beyond 2024 there is hope. Exactly what form that future will take depends on whether a Trumpist Republican party can be a successful major party—and there’s reason to think it can’t. Regardless, non-Trumpers do not need to agree now on a strategy for their future; if their political movement is viable—and there’s reason to think it is—the dynamics of politics will ultimately lead them to the right strategy. 

The Nature of Two-Party Politics

The U.S. political system features democratic elections in which, typically, voters cast ballots for only one candidate per race and each race has only one winner. In a series of papers and books in the mid-20th century, French social scientist Maurice Duverger theorized that such “first past the post” elections are conducive to two-party politics in which the major parties take opposing positions on unsettled public issues. In the United States, classical liberalism has long been the dominant political philosophy, resulting in a smaller universe of unsettled issues than many other western democracies, yet there have been ample grounds for Democrats and Republicans to have meaningful disagreements grounded in different liberal viewpoints.

Duverger noted that in a two-party system, major party status isn’t permanent. If one major party makes a series of critical mistakes—if it fails to take positions and advance candidates that make it electorally competitive with its rival—then it can be replaced by a different party. That’s how the Federalists gave way to the Whigs early in the 19th century and how the Whigs gave way to the Republicans a few decades later. Likewise, if Trumpism proves electorally unsuccessful, it will either lose control of the Republican party to a rival intraparty faction or else the Trump Republican party will give way to a new major party. 

Will Trumpism Fail?

Non-Trumpers’ reasons for rejecting Trump are clear: Ethically, he is immoral and his administration was corrupt. As a leader, he attracted political allies who are sycophantic, untalented, and even delusional, while repelling the high-minded, accomplished, and the sensible. As a policymaker, he was ambivalent about—and sometimes was openly hostile to—core principles of American conservatism and Republicanism. And as a party boss, he was the first president since Herbert Hoover to oversee his party’s loss of both houses of Congress and the White House in just four years. Those failings extend beyond Trump to the party and movement he leads, as well as the ambitious younger politicians—e.g., Josh Hawley, Nikki Haley, Ted Cruz, Mike Pompeo—who aspire to succeed him. Instead of acknowledging Trumpism’s failings and recalibrating party policies and politics to make them more successful, the Trumpian Republican party is in full denial of his and its failures and what they portend for the future. If this continues long-term, the Trump GOP will decline as a major national party.

Trumpists would reject that: after all, a record 74 million voters cast their ballots for him in 2020 (as he repeatedly points out). Because of the eccentricities of the Electoral College, his defeat happened by a hair’s breadth margin; if 77,000 voters—0.05 percent of an electorate of 158 million—in just the right states had cast their ballots for Trump instead of Biden, Trump would have won. 

Nonetheless, a likewise-record 84 million voters cast ballots for someone other than Trump, including 81 million—another record—for Biden. A large portion of those 81 million were de facto votes against Trump more than they were for Biden. And though Biden’s margin of victory was narrow in several swing states, Trump would have needed to flip most of them to have won a second term. This suggests Trumpism faces a significant ballot box deficit to recapturing the White House or Congress. 

Trump boosters (and others) would deny this, saying that the quirks of the Electoral College and the hand of congressional gerrymandering give Republicans election advantage. But the shift away from Trumpism in the American suburbs and the electoral losses of Arizona, Georgia, and Nevada (and before that, Virginia) show that advantage is fading. Those losses are unlikely to be reversed given Trumpism’s meager core message of performance patriotism and George Costanza–like grievances against Democrats, non-Trump Republicans, non-whites who insist on their constitutional rights, “elites,” big business, tech companies, the media, government workers (except some members of the military and law enforcement), and immigrants. Indeed, the sheer number of people whom Trumpism is against makes it hard to win in swing states and districts.

Is ‘Non-Trumpism’ Viable?

Never Trumpers and other Trump critics on the right, as well as portions of the Democratic party, are unified by classical liberalism, which values individual freedom, the rule of law, a dynamic marketplace, and a government limited to addressing public problems. Though there is important disagreement over exactly what those limits should be, this philosophy underlies political outlooks ranging from civil libertarians on the left, to Jimmy Carter/Bill Clinton centrists, to Ronald Reagan conservatives and neoconservatives, to libertarians. This potential political coalition, alone, suggests the viability of at least one major liberal party.

Another reason to believe that such a party would be successful is that, in the highly diverse United States, liberal governance will help to secure social peace and economic flourishing. By elevating individual freedom, liberalism protects people’s right to privacy, private ordering, and private agreement. That, in turn, allows people with different values and beliefs to live together peaceably and prosperously while following and espousing their beliefs, so long as they do not harm others. This contrasts with Trumpism on the political right and some elements of the political left, which would use government to force people to adhere to specific values and beliefs they personally reject, resulting in social upheaval.

Preparing for the Future

To produce such a party, should non-Trumpers fight to take control of the Republican party, join the Democratic party, or form a third party? The answer depends on whether Trumpism is viable long-term as the basis of a major party.

If Trumpism is not viable, then either fighting him from within the GOP or creating a rival party to replace the GOP would be the successful strategy. If Trumpism somehow suddenly collapses, non-Trumpers could seize control of the Republican party and maintain its major-party status, but if the Trumpist GOP persists as a regional rump party, a new party could replace it as one of the two major national parties. Neither alternative would be easy: Trumpism will forever taint the Republican brand, even if Trump and his acolytes are deposed. As for a third party, such parties face immense political, financial, and legal obstacles. Nonetheless, if Trumpism fails, something will replace it, either from within or outside the GOP.

On the other hand, if Trumpist Republicanism does endure as a major party, non-Trumpers should join the Democrats or, again, form a third party. A “Red Dog” faction inside the Democratic party would shift the median Democratic voter’s policy preferences slightly rightward. That, in turn, could frustrate the party’s progressives, who might depart to form their own party (or join with the Trumpists), allowing the party to move even further to the right. Or, the progressives could seize control of the Democratic party and push out the moderate, “Third Way” Democrats, who could then be attracted to a non-Trump, liberal third party. That could elevate the new liberal party to major-party status while weakening the Democratic party’s status as a major party and, perhaps, forcing it and the Trump GOP to merge as an illiberal major party. 

Given those possibilities, non-Trumpers should not fixate on uniting around one strategy. Pursuing different approaches affords more opportunities for an ultimately successful, liberal, non-Trump party to emerge. Just as an economic invisible hand moves actors in the marketplace, so a political invisible hand will move active non-Trumpers in the world of politics.

What non-Trumpers do need to do is be politically flexible so they can ultimately adopt whichever strategy appears to be finding success. And they should continue working for the defeat of Trump and his followers, as well as other illiberals, whenever they are on the ballot. That is how to overcome Trumpism in the long-term.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Mar-a-Lago is in Palm Springs, Florida. It is located in Palm Beach, Florida. 

Thomas A. Firey

Thomas A. Firey is an occasional contributor to The Bulwark.