The Futility of the Never Trump Billionaires

When the Republican Presidential-primary season began this spring, one element seemed different than in past cycles: the Party’s donors—its billionaires and multimillionaires and assorted invisible hands—were lining up against the front-runner, Donald Trump. Ron DeSantis’s super PAC, Never Back Down, raised an eye-popping hundred and thirty million dollars before the Florida governor’s campaign was two months old. Leaders from the Club for Growth, the influential small-government lobby, launched a PAC devoted to moving the Party’s voters past Trump. “The last three elections show he’s lost,” the group’s president, the former congressman David McIntosh, said. Americans for Prosperity Action, the super PAC affiliated with the Koch network, announced that it was committing seventy million dollars to stopping Trump from becoming President again, twenty-five million of which was pledged directly by Koch Industries. Of all the anti-Trump commitments, this one was perhaps the most striking: for a generation, the G.O.P. almost definitionally could not be said to be for something if Charles Koch was against it.

But, as the campaign has moved from the heightened anticipation of the early summer to the grinding Iowa-New Hampshire circuit of the fall, the impact of all these pledges of money has, to put it charitably, been faint. On the trail, you will sometimes hear rumors of Stop Trump activity—one operative affiliated with a rival campaign told me that his canvassers in Iowa had come across Americans for Prosperity’s anti-Trump literature left at voters’ doors. Even the more visible efforts have been a little timid. During the first Republican debate, the Koch-affiliated super PAC paid for a thirty-second ad in which a woman in a cardigan and jeans stands on a white soundstage and speaks directly to the camera: “I’m just so tired of it all. The drama and chaos of Donald Trump. It’s all about him, and not about us. His obsession with 2020, revenge, and now all of the indictments. It’s exhausting.” She concludes, “To beat Joe Biden, we have to move on from Donald Trump.”

The ad avoided criticizing Trump on any policy issue and declined to even mention January 6th directly, instead gathering a fog of loose allusions. It also had some familiar elements. The Club for Growth has been paying to air a sixty-second ad in Iowa, in which a middle-aged man (“John”) sits on his front steps and says that he had twice voted for Trump but won’t do so this time. “So many distractions. The constant fighting, there’s just something every day, and I’m not sure he can focus on moving the country forward,” John says, over video of him pulling the cord on a lawnmower. The Republican Accountability Project, meanwhile, has spent one and a half million dollars to air a thirty-second spot (“Fran”) in Iowa: “There’s so many indictments against him,” Fran says, after affirming that she—like John—voted for him twice. “The next Republican candidate has to be somebody that can convince swing voters, independents, to vote for them, because Donald Trump can’t.”

There are essentially three phases to a super PAC’s narrative arc, an operative affiliated with a Trump challenger told me a few days ago. First, you introduce an idea; then you position it ideologically; then you make your case. At the moment, the operative said, the Stop Trump campaigns are stuck at the “introduce” stage. If you were a Republican voter in Iowa this summer, this was more or less the anti-Trump line you were being introduced to: that he was chaotic, that he was exhausting, and, perhaps most important, that he couldn’t beat Biden. But there was little messaging to suggest what any given Republican voter might do about it. “It’s the political equivalent of hanging up a no-smoking sign,” the operative said.

The total implosion of the DeSantis campaign, he went on, means that there is currently no clear alternative to Trump, and that makes it close to impossible for an unaffiliated super PAC to position itself ideologically. “It constrains you because the potential Trump alternatives are all over the map,” the operative said. “You can’t ideologically position him, because where is he compared to everyone else? Who’s the alternative? And then making the case concretely is reduced to electability concerns.” And those, the operative said, were fading, as polls this summer have shown Trump neck and neck with Biden. “It’s a huge problem. It’s like the inverse of 2012, where Romney was able to stave off pushes from the right, from Gingrich and Santorum, because Obama was getting stronger.” Now the impression might be that Biden is so weak electorally that even Trump could beat him. The operative told me, “I do think, for what it’s worth, people are dramatically underestimating the prospect of a second Trump Presidency.”

A subdued, theoretical atmosphere suffuses most of the campaign events I’ve attended in recent weeks. The combination of Trump’s imposing lead and his near-total absence from the campaign trail means that, though a candidate on the stump might be offering a theory of how the Republican Party might move on from Trump, no one is really offering a plan for how to unseat him. Tim Miller, a Never Trump Republican strategist and an alum of Jeb Bush’s 2016 campaign, argued recently on the Bulwark that, in an information ecosystem awash in red-pilled and fact-bending “news,” it was “either inertia-driven mass psychosis or billionaires being hoodwinked by a consulting class made up of very successful con artists” to think that gentle “introductory” campaigns of thirty-second ads and door-knocking would have any effect on Trump’s chances. Miller took particular aim at a seven-million-dollar ad campaign recently launched by a pro-Tim Scott super PAC, in Iowa and New Hampshire, which emphasized Scott’s likability and included an enthusiastic supporter asking the camera, “Have you seen him work a crowd?” Miller wrote, “Are you fucking kidding me with this? This is what the money is going to?!” He went on to compare the spot to “using the playbook from a peewee football game to go up against Florida State.”

In the past, when metaphors like this have been applied to politics, the Republican élites were usually the ones being compared to mighty F.S.U. Right now, they are the peewees. Even among those Party leaders who cast their lot with Trump in the lead-up to the 2020 election, very few are still with him: NBC News surveyed forty-four of Trump’s former Cabinet members and found that just four supported his reëlection. Trump’s own Attorney General Bill Barr has been making the rounds this summer calling his former boss’s arguments about January 6th “nauseating” and “despicable,” and insisting that “someone who engaged in that kind of bullying about a process that is fundamental to our system shouldn’t be anywhere near the Oval Office.” Mick Mulvaney, a former Trump chief of staff, has said, “I’m working hard to make sure someone else is the nominee.”

This dissent belongs to the same pattern as the Koch and Club for Growth efforts, and to the motivated reasoning that powered the early support for DeSantis. For a decade, the central drama of Trumpism has concerned the Republican élites who continued to support him—the story has been about their malignity, or opportunism, or willful moral blindness. Now it may be about their ineffectiveness. The elected officials who long stuck with Trump—Mike Pence, Chris Christie—have found that their loyalty earned them no sway with his base when they finally turned on him. They might as well have been John Kasich.

It has been striking, this summer, to notice how important January 6th has been to the Stop Trump faction—especially to figures like Barr and Mulvaney. And yet that insurrection never features in the ads designed to persuade voters to break with Trump. On policy, too, it is hard to detect an establishment imprint: much of the conversation among Trump’s opponents on the trail has concerned various crazy-sounding plans to use the military to attack Mexico, theoretically to target drug cartels, a plan cooked up by a new MAGA think tank. Every party, at every time, has some tension between its élites and its base. But it’s hard to think of a more spectacular divide than the one defining the G.O.P. right now.

A few days ago, I called the conservative impresario Bill Kristol, who has been trying to organize an anti-Trump coalition within the Republican Party for about as long as Trump has been angling to lead the G.O.P. (Among other endeavors, Kristol is affiliated with the Republican Accountability Project.) He sounded pretty depressed about the Stop Trump project generally. “This is where the donors are now: ‘I don’t know, it sort of looks like he’s going to be the nominee, and it looks like he could win,’ and that’s sort of correct. And then now they’re busy talking themselves into ‘You know what? Maybe I’ll just kind of get along with Trump O.K. Why kill myself to, you know, recruit Glenn Youngkin, who’s probably not going to make it? Why don’t I just keep quiet, maybe write a polite check to Trump so I’m not on his bad side, or just stay out of it?’ ”

The big change, Kristol went on, wasn’t just that the polls had made the donors uncertain but that they had realized the difficulty in persuading voters who had pulled the lever for Trump twice that doing so a third time was beyond the pale. Kristol said, “We probably underestimated the degree to which Trump is an incumbent, basically.” He listed the kinds of “real conversations” that Republican donors should be having: Will Youngkin enter the race? If Nikki Haley is the best hope, does Scott have to drop out? If so, how can donors get twenty million dollars to Haley to give her the kind of visibility in Iowa that no one has had this year? “That’s what it would look like if there was a visible and serious effort,” he told me. “I don’t think it would work, but it would be serious.” He contemplated the situation for a moment. “Maybe it’s a little too early,” Kristol said, “but it’s starting to get not too early, right?” ♦

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