“Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable—the art of the next best,” said the German statesman Otto von Bismarck. Obviously, for the hundreds of millions of disgruntled American citizens in the wake of the 2020 election, it is small consolation to be reminded of it. All joking aside, Bismarck’s valuable observation should be considered whenever TV talking heads lecture about a need to return to the Republican Party of old; the principled* conservatives who like a penned-in dog pacing back and forth in search of his chew toy, were at least predictable. Happily for those television personalities, there are plenty of volunteers for that role, as a group of “dozens of former Republican officials” including former House Republican Conference aide Evan McMullin are planning a third party to return America to principled* conservatism.
This disingenuous effort is not new. The liberal establishment, unlike its progressive enablers, is aware that it needs a foil in order to maintain the pretense of legitimacy. The best way to prevent a true alternative from arising is to divert all of the energy of one’s critics into a hopelessly complacent fake one. Indeed then Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) whined in 2017 to Chuck Todd of NBC “where’s the Howard Baker of 2017? We desperately need one.” He was referring to the Tennessee Republican who had been a willing colleague of his Democrat counterpart Sam Ervin on the Senate Watergate Committee that eventually toppled Richard Nixon. This is why radicals on both the Right and the Left for generations have attacked everything that is not radical as “controlled opposition,” but that doesn’t mean the concept is imaginary.
There was no opposition more controlled in all of American history than the Lincoln Project, a collection of campaign operatives from failed Republican campaigns of the past quarter century that is now collapsing. The national media took its sweet time uncovering the ethical and possibly legal failings of the group’s co-founder John Weaver, which did not get significant coverage until the beginning of this month. Several conservative writers and commentators, including Pedro Gonzalez from American Greatness, began highlighting Weaver’s history of propositioning young males interning or working within conservative institutions for sexual favors as early as January 9.
Another AG writer, Julie Kelly, predicted last summer that the broader #NeverTrump movement would be “loathed by the Right and ignored by the Left” if and when Donald Trump would be out of power. I defer to her knowledge of them as she literally wrote a book on the subject, but must disagree with her prediction. Even when Donald Trump yielded on some core issues such as signing bloated omnibus bills and deploying troops to Syria, no such concessions were appreciated on the establishment Right because the people asking for them were obviously acting in bad faith. The concept behind #NeverTrump will continue to be recycled so long as the societal issues behind the former president’s movement remain a threat to the established order, whether or not he is actively involved in it.
And it is exactly those societal problems—once called wedge issues—that will doom any prospective Principled* Party. For, whatever the virtues of the #NeverTrump crowd in their capacities as politicians or media figures, they never seem to show up when actual principles are at stake:
- When have blue state anti-Trump GOP governors like Larry Hogan of Maryland and Phil Scott of Vermont ever explained why it is that they as constitutional law-abiding “conservatives” are standard bearers for red flag laws and other unconstitutional gun control measures?
- What tangible option do conservative voters have in voting for the principled* Republicans like Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts who has imposed COVID-19 restrictions that are just as illogical and invasive as his Democratic counterparts Andrew Cuomo and Gavin Newsom?
- When was the last time—no I beg your pardon—when was the first time that Rick Wilson went on the air at CNN or on his podcast with a Daily Beast editor to warn that late term or post partum abortions as proposed in Virginia by the Democratic governor and legislature were beyond the pale of his principles.
The unfulfilled hope was that the nomination of Trump would sweep away the elements of the Republican Party that have merely dangled these carrots to get elected before deploying the stick of compromise once getting into office. For generations the talk of border security, the right to life, and right to bear arms were invoked by smartly dressed, eloquent patricians like Senators Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Ben Sasse (R-Neb.). Serving as a Republican elected official was not tethered to performance results so much as personal affiliations, connections, and resume points. It was entirely a careerist endeavour, and any claimed underlying values or even relationships anchoring them were part of an affected public image.
The nomination of one man to be the headline candidate for president in 2016 did nothing to eliminate that class of officials. On the contrary, Trump incorporated whether wittingly or not, a cavalcade of established GOP officials to serve in his cabinet or serve in other appointed positions. These ranged from his Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, to his Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, to FBI Director Chris Wray, to ambassadors like Nikki Haley and Bill Taylor. Trump largely picked from a roster of career Washingtonians, big league donors, and the darlings of such. In Congress, some slawarts like Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and some members of the Freedom Caucus did adjust their perspectives to meet a new and different trend that is loosely defined as “populism,” but the vast majority either were playing along or kept the president at arm’s length.
In light of all the bitter news occurring of late and the soul searching about the shortcomings and failures of the Trump presidency, the new anti-Trump McMullin project is actually good news for those wanting the MAGA movement to move forward. Should the Principled* Party be formed, it would define the choice about the future of conservatism within the Republican Party in bold terms. Does the GOP exist and run in elections in order just to be a non-Democrat generic option, or are there real policy goals that have to be met and is the party going to be a vehicle for accomplishing them?
For tens of millions of Americans who believe in a strong border, fair trade, the right to life, and the Second Amendment, the first option will not do and therefore the Principled* Party will likely whither on the vine. Like the Lincoln Project malcontents, McMullin has run two organizations since 2017 called Stand Up Republic and Stand Up Ideas. Both non-profits have done a lot of standing around and paying of themselves without accomplishing much.
In their 2018 IRS filing Stand Up Ideas disclosed that while McMullin officially was not paid for 20 hours of work per week, the group paid $374,000 to McMullin Finn, LLC, a consulting firm formed by him and his former presidential running mate Mindy Finn. The previous year Stand Up Republic paid McMullin Finn, LLC. a management consulting fee of $520,176 on top of their reportable executive compensation of $45,000 each. All told this would mean that 46 percent of the expenses for the organization that year went to management compensation, while $722,306 went to advertising.
After four years McMullin is still garnering podcast interviews from the Washington Post to talk about the fracturing of the Republican Party, despite accomplishing nothing in that period besides get on TV to complain about Trump and how he is not a principled* conservative. It doesn’t require much imagination to understand why the Post is featuring a largely irrelevant CIA operative, who was never elected in any capacity and who has no real constituency behind him, as a fortune teller for the GOP.
As the primary season for the 2022 midterm elections approaches next year, the biggest threat to a populist takeover of the GOP from the Principled* Party project, ironically, would be if it were to fail too fast.
In 2016 the media hyped up the defection of Bush era neoconservatives like David Frum and Max Boot as if they represented a voting bloc, when in reality and collectively they couldn’t hold on to a crowd suffering in the departure lounge for a delayed Delta flight. But the Principled* Party serves a real purpose—it acts almost like a pan to collect the drained used motor oil of failures like John Boehner and Chris Christie.
Inevitably, as with the Lincoln Project, their left-wing enablers have no intention of letting them become true partners in the society of their crafting; so once it outlives its usefulness to the Left, the Principled* Party likely will implode in the same type of internal disputes, financial grifting charges, and lurid scandals as the Lincoln Project . . . but not before consultancy fees are disbursed.