To My Republican Friends: #NeverTrump is your MoveOn Moment
Ever since the fall, when it started to become apparent that Donald Trump was more than a vanity presidential candidate seeking to inflate his name recognition and pad his book sales, some Republicans have raised their voices against him. Most notable has been the effort by Liz Mair, a former Republican National Committee online communications director and adviser to several past presidential contenders. In November, she launched the “Make America Awesome Again” PAC to run negative ads against him in early states, but had lots of trouble raising money—in part because Trump did his best to intimidate potential donors and in part because conventional wisdom still held that once GOP voters were actually paying attention, they’d take the choice more seriously and stop dallying with Trump. As Michael Turk, who ran the Bush-Cheney 2004 e-campaign commented to me, “All the brightest minds in the GOP spent a year saying ‘He’ll drop in the polls. The other candidates will bow out and he’ll be overtaken. He’s a brief flash of celebrity-obsessed non-voters.'”
In the last few days, the mood among many Republicans has shifted dramatically. Nothing shows this better than the explosive take-off of the hashtag #NeverTrump, which reported had as many as 500,000 uses last weekend. What’s important about its rise isn’t just the various rightwing influentials who have started using it—among them, Marco Rubio, Erick Erickson, Mona Charen, Glenn Beck, and Amanda Carpenter. What’s important is that it is surfacing and normalizing the idea among many Republicans that they are not alone in deciding that they will never vote for Trump.
Bloomberg columnist Megan McArdle made this crystal clear, when she asked on Twitter whether #NeverTrump was a real thing, and got deluged by emails from Republicans saying they would stay home or vote for another party for the first time if Trump was the GOP nominee. She writes:
These people are not quietly concerned about Trump. They are appalled, repulsed, afraid and dismayed that their party could have let this happen. They wrote in the strongest possible language, and many were adamant that they would not stay home on Election Day, but in fact would vote for Hillary Clinton in the general and perhaps leave the Republican Party for good.….I got everything from college students to Midwestern farmers to military intelligence officers to former officials in Republican administrations, one of whom said he would “tattoo #NeverTrump” on a rather delicate part of his anatomy if it would keep Donald J. Trump from becoming the nominee. They were from all segments of the party—urban professionals, yes, but also stalwart evangelicals, neoconservatives, libertarians, Tea Partiers, the whole patchwork of ideological groups of which the Republican coalition is made.
Right now, as I write this during my lunch hour here on the East Coast, people are using the hashtag on Twitter at the rate of once every 1.6 seconds, according to Seen.co, which would translate to about 54,000 uses in 24 hours if it stays at that rate. This is a movement-making moment. (For comparison, according to a new in-depth study of the Black Lives Matter movement, after some early efforts to popularize the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter in the summer of 2013, it first took off in November 2014 after a St. Louis grand jury declined to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown. In one day, more than 103,000 tweets appeared using the hashtag, and the movement was on its way.)
#NeverTrump could be a turning point, in terms of crystallizing a reaction building among grassroots Republicans who understand why Trump’s rise is so dangerous. And by surfacing the conversation already underway, it might also help these voters get ready to do what they are just now starting to honestly contemplate, which is to cross party lines—in a very divided country—in order to keep Trump out of the White House. As the responses to McArdle’s query show, for many traditional Republican voters, this is a huge leap. To wit, the person who told her: “I assume Clinton would crush Trump in a landslide, but if it is actually close, I will not vote third party. I will instead get blackout drunk, hold my nose, and vote for Hillary.” Seeing that they aren’t alone among their peers, the way that sharing the Human Rights Campaign’s “Equality Now” equals-sign symbol on Facebook helped mainstream that idea, can matter a lot.
But while movements can start in a flash, they don’t last without organizers and organization. In 1998, MoveOn, the eight-million-member online progressive behemoth, started when computer entrepreneurs Wes Boyd and Joan Blades, whose company made screensaver apps like the flying-toaster-ovens, got fed up with all the calls for then-President Bill Clinton to be impeached in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. They wrote a brief petition titled “Censure and Move On,” calling on Congress to vote to censure Clinton (a lesser punishment) and get back to the nation’s business. They circulated it to 100 friends by email, never expecting what happened next. Their call struck a chord, and within a week they had more than 100,000 email signatures. A half million ultimately signed it. That, plus a similarly spontaneous anti-war petition after 9/11, written by then-college student Eli Pariser, which garnered 500,000 signatures over a weekend, is what formed the base for MoveOn’s subsequent role as a progressive organizing and fundraising machine.
#NeverTrump could be something similar. But so far, the main instigators working in this issue space aren’t doing much to build broad organization. Right now, Make America Awesome, Mair’s group, is circulating a wordy petition aimed at getting the American Conservative Union to disinvite Trump from its annual CPAC conference. That’s a campaign tactic, little more. Aaron Gardner, a conservative activist who recently wrote a tough piece for The Resurgent on how to defeat Trump, seems more interested in creating a new party out of the ashes of the current one than in turning the hashtag into a movement. He tells me, “Those of us who have declared #NeverTrump hope that if Trump should win the nomination a new party would arise with the ability to have a built in base of support. We believe in timeless principles and understand that party infrastructures come and go while those principles remain. There are groups out there that exist today which have an edge already on capturing voters for this potential new party.”
Gardner adds, “What is important to understand at this stage is that #NeverTrump represents a real sentiment shared by a plurality, if not a majority, of the GOP base. It isn’t going away. Not after the results come in tonight, and not when the convention is held later this year. We’ve taken our stand, it is #NeverTrump.”
It remains to be seen if a plurality or majority of Republicans will really reject Trump. It could be the most important question of 2016.