Frank Bruni: The Republicans who want to destroy Trump

(Manuel Balce Ceneta | AP file photo) Donald Trump speaks to reporters before leaving the White House in Washington, Wednesday, March 20, 2019, for a trip to visit a Army tank plant in Lima, Ohio, and a fundraising event in Canton, Ohio. Trump is escalating his increasingly awkward public fight with the spouse of a top aide. Trump is continuing to target Kellyanne Conway's husband on Twitter, calling him "a stone cold LOSER" and "husband from hell!" That's after George Conway, an attorney, repeatedly criticized Trump and questioned the president's mental health.

Should you have any doubt about how passionately George Conway and the other Never Trumpers at the Lincoln Project want to defeat the president, check out their ads.

There are dozens, and the best are minute-long masterpieces of derision, miniature operas of contempt, designed to get into President Donald Trump’s head and deep under his skin. That’s exactly where they’ve burrowed.

After the release of “Mourning in America,” which turned Ronald Reagan’s famous “Morning in America” commercial on its head, Trump had one of his trademark Twitter meltdowns. He shrieked at Conway in particular, mentioning his marriage to one of Trump’s brashest aides.

“I don’t know what Kellyanne did to her deranged loser of a husband,” the president tweeted, “but it must have been really bad.”

Such grace. But if George Conway can just shake it off and the Lincoln Project succeeds, he and his fellow refugees from Trump’s Republican Party will find peace and a place in a restored, recognizable political order on the other side. Right?

Wrong. They don’t hope to regain control of the Republican Party, because they expect that Trump-ism will survive Trump and that Trump himself won’t shut up simply because voters shut him down.

“I personally think that the Republican brand is probably destroyed,” Conway told me. “It’s destroyed by it having become essentially a personality cult.” He said that he formally left the party, changing his voter registration to unaffiliated, some two years ago, and he doesn’t envision being able to return anytime soon.

But the Lincoln Project’s full-court press for Joe Biden, which involves social media and grass-roots organizing as well as internet and television ads, doesn’t mean that Conway and company are looking for a welcome mat in the Democratic Party. Not at all.

That’s what’s so fascinating about their quest. They’re not fighting to come in from the wilderness. The wilderness is a given. They’re just fighting to get rid of this one sun-hogging, diseased redwood — or orangewood, as the case may be.

I asked Conway, “So you’ll be a man without a party for the rest of your days?”

“Probably,” he said. “It makes me tremendously sad.”

It’s easy to miss or minimize how remarkable the Never Trumpers — at the Lincoln Project and elsewhere — are. That’s partly because they’ve been around almost since Trump’s presidential campaign commenced, so they’ve lost their novelty and some of their luster.

But they’ve gained in ranks and grown in determination, to a point where you have to go back to 1972 — when many prominent Democrats endorsed President Richard Nixon, a Republican, over George McGovern, the Democratic nominee — to find anything close.

And even that precedent doesn’t quite hold up. As historian Timothy Naftali told me, the Democrats for Nixon split with him primarily along ideological lines, and they weren’t trying to undermine an incumbent president. Never Trumpers are doing precisely that, and while they have ideological quibbles with Trump, they’re motivated principally by their belief that he’s something of a monster.

“It’s an unprecedented moment,” said Charlie Sykes, founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark, a Trump-bashing publication begun in 2018 by Trump-disgusted Republicans like him. Sykes no longer considers himself a Republican. He described himself to me as “a politically homeless contrarian conservative.”

The Bulwark shares personnel and DNA with Republican Voters Against Trump and Republicans for the Rule of Law, all bastions of Never Trumpers. There’s also a new super PAC called 43 Alumni for Biden, a reference to George W. Bush, the 43rd president. It comprises scores of alumni of his administration who want to see Biden beat Trump, and it intends to release testimonials from former senior Bush administration officials.

As for the Lincoln Project, it’s helmed not by a ragtag band of renegades but by a cluster of strategists who worked for Bush, John McCain or Mitt Romney and were well-connected Republican insiders until Trump’s takeover. The anti-Trump rebellion is distinguished by the pedigree of the rebels.

And it exists in paradoxical tension with the equally remarkable loyalty that most Republicans give the president. In the same manner that Trump triggers outsize dissent, he inspires outsize support. He’s just plain outsize. Depending on the moment, about 80% to 90% of voters who identify as Republican tell pollsters that they stand behind Trump.

They’re the reason that some political observers see what the Lincoln Project and its kin are doing as an exercise in protracted political suicide. Even if Trump and his minions get a resounding comeuppance in November, “It seems unlikely that Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham and Rush Limbaugh will apologize to the Cassandras and say, ‘You were right all along!’” Matt Lewis, a conservative, wrote recently in a column in the Daily Beast under the headline “The Never Trumpers May Destroy Him. Then What?”.

Sykes at The Bulwark conceded: “It’s naive to think that the Republican Party is going to snap back to sanity anytime soon. The fact that people are talking about Tucker Carlson in 2024 shows you how far they’ve gone.”

So does that make these Never Trumpers some uniquely high-minded breed? It’s complicated. While they broke with the Republican Party on principle, they may well have expected the Trump fever to break — and for other Republicans to follow them — in short order. Meanwhile, Never Trump-ism had its consolations.

There’s an especially rapt audience for takedowns of Trump from conservatives, and Never Trumpers have found themselves in high demand as commentators and book authors.

Through some of their anti-Trump organizations, funded by donors, some of them have arranged employment no longer available to them in conventional Republican circles. In The Atlantic recently, Andrew Ferguson fairly called out individual Never Trumpers for inconsistency, hypocrisy and opportunism, and raised questions about the degree to which a few of the people with the Lincoln Project are profiting from it.

But the most important syllable in Never Trumper is Trump, and Never Trumpers are essentially sowing the seeds of their own diminished relevance by working to get rid of him.

That’s why, when I look at them, I see patriotism, though John Weaver — who, along with Conway, helped to found the Lincoln Project — emphasized a different idea when we spoke. He stressed atonement.

Trump’s election made him revisit how he and other Republican strategists had paved the way for Trump. For instance, Weaver worked for the man who was the first U.S. senator to endorse Trump for president.

“Jeff Sessions wouldn’t have gotten to the Senate had I not overseen his race in 1996,” Weaver told me. “Now I look back at that and say, ‘What kind of goddamn penance do I have to pay for that?’”

Sykes spoke of “a revelation” that he has experienced, courtesy of Trump. “The heart of politics is not about the policy,” he told me. “It’s about the values. I can disagree with you on 8 out of 10 issues, but if you’re an honorable, honest, empathetic human being, we can do business.” Trump is none of those things. Biden is most or all of them — and will get Sykes’ vote in November.

In exile he and other Never Trumpers have found clarity. They cut to the heart of the matter. That’s reflected in a Lincoln Project ad from late May that begins with a close-up of body bags and then pulls back until those bags form an American flag. These words appear over it: “100,000 Dead Americans. One Wrong President.”

I don’t know that they’ll tip the election. But they sure as hell tell it like it is.

Frank Bruni (CREDIT: Earl Wilson/The New York Times)

Frank Bruni is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.