By Francis Wilkinson / Bloomberg Opinion
The Never Trump movement, encompassing conservative groups such as the Lincoln Project and Republican Voters Against Trump, is an undertaking grounded in political morality.
The central premise of the effort is that President Trump is irredeemably corrupt and spectacularly incompetent. It views Trump as a moral and American abomination.
Never Trumpers are right, of course. But it’s a little counterintuitive that the main people making the case are not Republican luminaries but Republican political consultants. After all, the consultant class — “hired guns,” “mercenaries,” “hacks” — is supposed to be everything that went wrong with American politics. In popular culture, they are the money-grubbing amoral schemers who wag the dog and transform a republic into a circus.
Popular culture’s not entirely wrong. Plumb the annals of political skullduggery and you’ll usually find a consultant lurking. That Willie Horton ad didn’t write itself. The scurrilous Swift-boating of John Kerry in 2004 wasn’t a product of spontaneous natural combustion. The former White House aide George Stephanopoulos described how top White House staff urged President Bill Clinton to come clean about Monica Lewinsky and — truthfully — put the scandal behind him. Instead, Stephanopoulos wrote, Clinton turned to a deus ex consultant named Dick Morris. “Dick took a poll. The poll said lie,” Stephanopoulos recounted.
After Trump’s election in 2016, there was much talk about the patriotic Republican leaders who would provide a steady check on Trump. Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, educated at Harvard, Oxford, St. John’s and Yale, delivered high-minded talks about morality and history and the republic. Surely he would not stand for Trump’s degradations. Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio was a serious, ethical man who had headed the Office of Management and Budget under President George W. Bush. Certainly he would not play the fool to a buffoon. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee was a party wise man, a remnant of its dessicated moderate husk. Would he sully his legacy in service to a demagogue?
In the end, all the lauded public servants of the GOP save a couple — Mitt Romney, John Kasich — turned out to be the hacks, mercenaries, holstered (if not hired) guns.
The conservative mobilization against Trump has been led instead by GOP political consultants. Prominent among them are Mike Madrid, Mike Murphy, Steve Schmidt, Stuart Stevens and John Weaver. Among them they have guided the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney, helped to elect a sizable share of the nation’s Republican governors and senators, and made political ads that millions of Americans have watched.
Their turn against Trump is unlikely to be profitable; they surely could’ve reaped millions had they toed the Trumpist line. Meanwhile, the notion that they are somehow poised to compete for control of the Democratic Party is nonsensical on its face.
Still, these are successful, veteran consultants who have already reaped years of lucrative fees (along with valuable business connections). They are in a position to challenge Trump, says Republican consultant Liam Donovan in an email, “particularly those who have made their mark and can afford to lean into a sense of conscience.” Elected politicians must measure acts of conscience against the likely wrath of the electorate, Donovan adds. But consultants, “however profit-driven they may be, or have been in their prime, always have a constituency of one.”
Successful political consultants are pragmatists by necessity, which may also contribute to their disdain for the fanatics who have overrun the party. In his new book, “It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump,” Stuart Stevens does not spare the feelings of the Republican officials whom he helped to put in office. “I never pretended to see even glimmers of greatness in most of them, but I did hold out for an assumption of decency,” he writes. “They have proven me wrong, and the sadness I feel is difficult to express. No one wanted this moral test, but most of my tribe have failed it.”
The Trumpified GOP will readily survive abandonment by its most skilled and intelligent consultants. The loss of competence in political practice is offset by the heightened fervor of conspiracy theorists, racists and assorted crackpots who thrill to a party leader they can truly believe in. Whether the country can survive the abandonment of morality and reality by one of its two major political parties is a different matter.
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of The Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.