How Trump Split Conservatives Three Ways

Tevi Troy on the new intellectual camps that could reshape American politics

Former Senior Fellow
U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on February 24, 2017 in National Harbor, Maryland. (Olivier Douliery - Pool/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on February 24, 2017 in National Harbor, Maryland. (Olivier Douliery - Pool/Getty Images)

In the beginning, there was “Never Trump.” When Donald Trump began to top the Republican primary polls, the first widespread reaction among conservative intellectuals was to reject the candidate as not thoughtful, not qualified, and above all, not conservative. But during the recent presidential campaign, a conservative writer with the pen name of Publius Decius Mes ardently began backing Trump, lambasting fellow conservative intellectuals for failing to support the controversial nominee. Decius’s identity has now been revealed, along with the fact that he is serving as a senior National Security Council aide in the Trump White House: he's Michael Anton, a former Bush aide and corporate speechwriter.

Decius wasn't just a new character on the scene - his writings marked the emergence of a very obscure strain of American political thinking into the intellectual mainstream. He and his small cohort of allies sought to build a conservative intellectual architecture around a real-estate developer whose politics were driven more by instinctive notions about America than any particular set of policy ideas. Anton was an adherent of the West Coast school of Straussian political philosophy, and was able to frame Trump as a convincing figurehead for what might be called “national greatness” conservatism. He angered many Beltway conservatives in the way he called out the Never Trumpers and their movement. But he also made a positive case for Trump that many on the right were unwilling to make.

With Trump’s inauguration and Decius’ ascendance to a White House position, it might have seemed that the conservative schism over Trump was healing up. Many conservatives not only fell in line to vote against Hillary, but during the transition actively jockeyed for administration positions. Jonah Goldberg, whose criticism of Trump led to Trump accusing Goldberg of an inability to buy pants, declared that the “Never Trump” movement was over, writing “Never Trump Nevermore” in his influential and widely read Goldberg File.

But it hasn’t turned out that way. Recent events have revealed that the conservative divide over Trump is far from over. As the promise of transition has shifted into the reality of governing, conservative thinkers now appear to have split into three groups.

Some Never Trumpers have reverted to their original camp. Arguing that Trump’s worldview is just too far from traditional conservatism for them to accept, and that Trump’s tumultuous first month vindicates their opposition during the campaign, many Never Trumpers see the need to continue highlighting Trump’s deficiencies, both to criticize him but also to maintain their own credibility. At the same time, the pro-Trumpers appear to have grown in number, as some conservatives who opposed Trump during the primaries and did not explicitly back him during the campaign appear to be gaining comfort with the largely but not wholly conservative agenda Trump seems to be pursuing. Many others fall into a new third group: they applaud conservative moves such as Judge Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court, while also bemoaning Trump's deviation from traditional conservative tenets in areas like free trade and immigration.

As conservatives try to sort out these conflicting tendencies, it's quite possible that we are seeing the emergence of a new divide in American political philosophy take shape in real time. This new split, potentially the first tectonic one since the so-called liberal anticommunist consensus collapsed in the tumult of the 1960s, could shape American politics for decades to come. Although it remains too soon to know this definitively, it’s worth looking at just where these emerging groups stand, which could give us a sense of how they may continue to develop.


Conservatives who backed Trump before the election are like people who bought a penny stock before it went big. They took the slings and arrows of critics on left and right alike, and emerged with a huge advantage in bragging rights and the quest for jobs inside the administration. Some, like radio hosts Mike Gallagher, Laura Ingraham, and Dennis Prager, are exultant about the possibilities that the new administration brings. Others are quieter not out of any concerns about Trump, but because they’ve either landed administration jobs or are hoping to, which requires them to curtail public pronouncements. Many pro-Trump conservatives are angry at the conservative anti-Trumpers, an anger intensified by the excesses and absurd statements expressed at leftist anti-Trump protests. The feeling is that anti-Trumpers, by appearing to side with Trump’s leftist assailants, are no longer allies in a larger struggle. One example: a prominent conservative asked me if I know Pete Wehner, a still outspoken Trump basher who wrote after the inauguration in the New York Times that “A man with illiberal tendencies, a volatile personality and no internal checks is now president.” When I told the conservative that I did know Pete, a friend and colleague from the Bush White House, he responded, “I don’t know him, and I don’t want to know him.”

In addition to anger with Never Trumpers, some Ever Trumpers are trying to come up with new ways to define and characterize conservatism. Anton himself emerged from behind his pseudonym to try something along these lines for foreign policy with a recent piece in the first issue of American Affairs – a new journal that aims to do for Trumpian conservatism what Yuval Levin’s National Affairs seeks to do with Reform Conservatism (full disclosure: I am on the publication committee of National Affairs and am a frequent contributor to it.) Anton’s piece sets up Trumpian conservatism as a return to a patriotically driven view of national greatness, and a tonic against what he calls the LIO – the liberal international order. In Anton’s telling, the LIO has been the predominant view of U.S. foreign policy thinkers of all stripes, liberal, moderate and conservative. The new approach that he advocates aims to advance American interests in the areas of peace, prestige, or prosperity. Agree or disagree, it is a safe bet that Anton’s take is getting more than just respectful consideration among his colleagues at the NSC.

Conservative Trump Critics

Throughout the primaries and into the general election campaign, many if not most mainstream conservative writers objected to Trump on the basis of his temperament, his history as a Democrat, and/or his non-conservative stance on issues like immigration and trade. But immediately after the election, there appeared to have been a bit of a conservative honeymoon for Trump. Some of the Trump critics appeared to have moderated their stance, and many in right-leaning circles were pleased with Trump’s largely conservative appointees and the possibility of conservative policies being enacted.

Since the inauguration, though, there have been several tough attacks on Trump from the right. One especially harsh one came from Eliot Cohen in The Atlantic. Less than 10 days into the administration, Cohen determined that Trump’s temperament and character were unacceptable, and threw down a gauntlet demanding that people declare where they stand. Cohen, who did have brief interactions with the transition early on before publicly reconsidering via twitter and in a Washington Post piece, was unrelenting on fellow conservatives: “Either you stand up for your principles and for what you know is decent behavior, or you go down, if not now, then years from now, as a coward or opportunist. Your reputation will never recover, nor should it.”

Commentary's John Podhoretz has also had tough words for the Trump administration, particularly in response to the omission of the mention of Jews in the White House’s Holocaust remembrance statement. While critical, Podhoretz noted that he had been inclined to give the new administration the benefit of the doubt. After the Holocaust statement and the White House’s subsequent claim that the omission was not in error, Podhoretz was no longer so inclined: “I won’t be making that mistake again.”

Both pieces were critical, but revealed differences in approach. Cohen’s take is that Trump is irredeemable, that conservatives should not “normalize” him, and that anyone supportive or even silent deserves condemnation. Podhoretz’s take is more measured. He was critical of Trump before the election but initially inclined to support President Trump in areas in which they agreed. But Podhoretz made clear that he would not be willing to overlook areas of disagreement, and he would not be inclined to cut the administration the kinds of breaks he might have with another GOP president in charge. Looking ahead, this group, especially the Cohen wing, is making a bet that Trumpism will recede, or ultimately won't replace conservatism. In that case, this group could serve as the reservoir of traditional conservative thought in the years to come. If Trumpism were not to recede, Cohen and others like him – including Wehner, Max Boot, and Bret Stephens – are effectively saying that they would not be part of a Trump-infused conservative movement in the future.

"Safe Space" Conservatives

At the same time as the Holocaust statement and the refugee executive order disturb many on the right, the Gorsuch announcement is extremely popular among conservatives. For most conservative writers, it is likely that this constant up and down will remain the status quo throughout the administration. They will be discomfited some days, and exhilarated the next. Sometimes these extremes will happen on the same day.

Jonah Goldberg has observed that some conservatives are trying to find a “safe space” by focusing their attention on media bias against Trump and the excesses of anti-Trump protesters, both in the streets and in the Senate. As Goldberg put it, “When conservatives –– I'm not referring to Republican political hacks, that's their job; I'm referring to actual conservative writers –– go out and respond to the negative coverage solely by attacking the MSM messengers, they are in effect condoning –– or at least providing cover for –– Trump's behavior and feeding the idea that he's a victim whenever anyone does anything other than applaud.” Given this tendency, we may be seeing the emergence of a new and distinct group: the Safe Space Conservatives. The Safe Spacers are not comfortable with everything Trump does, but are choosing to direct their fire at the media and the left, with whom they are even less comfortable. One reason why Trump attacks the media so frequently is that anti-media sentiment may be one of the few remaining unifying tendencies across all of conservatism. The liberal writer and frequent conservatism critic Peter Beinart sees something similar, calling these people the anti-anti-Trump right.

Ultimately, it is this group that may offer us the best barometer of how things are going. They may decisively break for Trump if he's succeeding, but should they peel away, it might be a sign that his movement is losing traction. A related phenomenon is that of conservatives who are rooting for Trump to be successful as a conservative. This group is willing to criticize Trump when he’s wrong yet praise him when he’s right. This tendency, seen in places like National Review, makes NR’s reportage interesting to watch, not just to gauge how Trump is doing, but also to get a clearer take on matters—somewhere between the largely hostile mainstream media and liberal press, and the overtly pro-Trump and Trump-boosting organs such as Breitbart.

For analysts and long-time watchers of conservatism, this is a fascinating moment. A true horse race is emerging regarding the future of conservatism, and it is hard for anyone to know for certain how things will turn out. In some ways it is reminiscent of the internecine conservative intellectual squabbles of an earlier era in places like National Review. The arguments that helped define and solidify a movement in the 1960s and 1970s helped move conservatism towards governing and electoral successes in the 1980s.

As fascinating as these divisions are within the conservative movement, these splits can also have important implications for the future of America. Whichever group wins over conservatism will likely dominate the Republican party for the foreseeable future. With that party controlling the White House, Congress, and a majority of state houses and governors’ mansions, the direction of the GOP will also help determine the policy direction of the country. What seems like an intramural squabble among talking heads and scribblers could emerge as the start of a defining moment in 21st century political history.