Opinion: The different ends of NeverTrump

Earlier this month Jennifer Rubin, the prolific #NeverTrump pundit who writes for The Washington Post, got something that every columnist craves: a petition against her.

The signatories, a collection of conservatives assembled by the American Principles Project, demanded that The Post cease identifying Rubin, whose blog used to be called “Right Turn,” as conservative or “center right” because since President Donald Trump’s election “she has sided against conservatives on a dizzying array of issues.” They went on to blast the prevalence of #NeverTrump conservatives on The Post’s op-ed pages: “How can an average reader take the Post’s opinion section seriously when, of its numerous regular columnists, none can be found which defend the policies of our nation’s elected president?”

As an op-ed conservative who opposed Trump and finds some of his policies indefensible, I have a self-interested resistance to this logic. Op-ed pages should seek intellectual diversity, including Trump-supporting diversity, but it’s obviously possible to be a serious conservative and still oppose many of “the policies of our nation’s elected president.” And if most of your conservative columnists are hostile to a Republican president, that tells you something about his flaws that simply relabeling all his critics as liberals would obscure.

But at the same time, labels do sometimes need to shift with political realities. The neoconservatives of the 1970s, former liberals who became Nixon or Reagan backers, eventually accepted the “neocon” description instead of calling themselves “The Real New Deal Democrats” forever.

This expectation doesn’t apply to many NeverTrumpers. It doesn’t fit Reaganite Trump-skeptics who hate the president’s temperament but have been pleasantly surprised by his judicial appointments and tax cuts, or younger, heterodox conservatives who regard Trump himself as a bigot but consider his populist campaign a possible road map for the future.

But observers trying to imagine what a decent right might look like after Trump should look elsewhere — to thinkers and writers who basically accept the populist turn, and whose goal is to supply coherence and intellectual ballast, to purge populism of its bigotries and inject good policy instead.

For an account of policy people working toward this goal, read Sam Tanenhaus in the latest Time magazine, talking to conservatives on Capitol Hill who are trying to forge a Trumpism-after-Trump that genuinely serves working-class families instead of just starting racially charged feuds.

For a bigger-picture defense of the nationalist ideal, read the Israeli academic Yoram Hazony’s “The Virtue of Nationalism,” an eccentric, fascinating, debatable account of nationalism’s ethical and practical superiority to the other major form of mass political organization, empire — which Hazony identifies with the global ambitions of the post-Cold War elite as well as the imperial orders of the past.

I don’t know if any of these efforts can pull the post-Trump right away from anti-intellectualism and chauvinism. But their project is the one that matters to what conservatism is right now, not what it might have been had John McCain been elected president, or had the Iraq War been something other than a misbegotten mess, or had the 2000-era opening to China gone the way free traders hoped.

And for anyone whose commitment to conservatism is defined by those now-lost possibilities, the logical turn to make goes left.