For my money, the best op-ed published in The New York Times this week was Mona Charen’s Feb. 25 barn-burner, “I’m Glad I Got Booed at CPAC.” Charen is a movement conservative who worked for Nancy and Ronald Reagan and is a longtime contributor to National Review. One of her books is titled “Do-Gooders: How Liberals Hurt Those They Claim to Help.” A Bernie Sanders progressive she is not.
But Charen is also a NeverTrumper who chose to speak her mind during a panel discussion on the #MeToo movement at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference. Asked by the moderator to discuss feminist hypocrisy, Charen reframed the question.
“I’m disappointed in people on our side,” she replied. “For being hypocrites about sexual harassers and abusers of women who are in our party. Who are sitting in the White House. Who brag about their extramarital affairs. Who brag about mistreating women. And because he happens to have an ‘R’ after his name, we look the other way, we don’t complain.”
She wasn’t done. She slammed the Republican Party for endorsing Roy Moore. She said it was “a disgrace” that CPAC invited National Front scion Marion Maréchal-Le Pen to speak. She was jeered. She was accused of “virtue signaling.” She had to leave the building under escort.
And she showed it was still possible to disdain partisan fashion, look a wretched thing in the eye, and say: Not I. Not this. Not ever. Not for nothing did a fellow panelist approach her after it was all over to say, “That was so brave.”
Liberals tend to admire NeverTrumpers, because they see them as conservatives with a moral sense and, perhaps, a brain. By contrast, MAGA Republicans — whether of the fully or merely semi-Trumpified varieties — detest NeverTrumpers with an animus they can scarcely extend to liberals or progressives. Reacting to Charen’s CPAC appearance, one right-wing writer for Red State called her “a new voice in the wilderness of insignificance” — and then devoted 1,000 words to underscoring that insignificance.
This is not, at root, ideological critique. It’s the sign of a bad conscience. The 2016 primaries showed that NeverTrumpers were never much of a political force in the GOP. They are even less so today, when the president has an 85 percent approval rating among Republicans. What few NeverTrumpers remain in the party’s senior ranks are either leaving politics or leaving the earthly estate.
But as even minimally sentient Trumpified Republicans know, what Charen said at CPAC was true. NeverTrumpers haunt the conservative movement the way Polish or Czech dissident intellectuals such as Czeslaw Milosz and Vaclav Havel haunted that segment of Central European intelligentsia that made its peace with Stalinism after World War II.
The Trumpers (and Stalinists) traded conscience for power; the NeverTrumpers and dissidents chose the reverse. Conscience can be made to suffer, but in the end it usually wins.
That’s why NeverTrumpers matter; why the Trumpers know they matter (which they prove every time they feverishly assert the opposite); and why progressives who dismiss NeverTrumpers as politically irrelevant are wrong. The United States is going to have a right-of-center party in one form or another, and it matters a great deal whether that party is liberal or illiberal, capable or incapable of shame.
Credible conservatives like Charen can still make a positive difference in that respect, in a way that people like, say, Elizabeth Warren cannot. That’s why you want good guys on the other side of the partisan divide, no matter how irrelevant they currently appear to be. When Trumpism fails, as it inevitably will, who will be the Republican Adenauer?
I write this as a parallel contest is taking shape within the Democratic Party, most visibly in the rift between traditional liberals and the social-justice warriors of what used to be the far left. Dianne Feinstein’s failure this week to claim her party’s nomination for the Senate seat she’s held since 1992 is another depressing indication that the rift is widening.
One side believes in the power of reason, the possibility of persuasion, and the values of the Enlightenment. It champions social solidarity for the sake of empowering the individual, rather than creating a society of conformists. It doesn’t see compromise as a dirty word. Its belief in the benefits of civility and diversity does not override its commitment to free speech and independent thought.
As for the other side, it thinks it knows what’s True. It considers compromise knavish. It views debate — beyond its own tightly set parameters — as either pointless or dangerous. And while it sees itself as the antithesis of Trumpism, it is, in its raging intolerance and smug self-satisfaction, Trumpism’s mirror image.
My advice to traditional liberals is not to repeat the establishment Republican mistake of not taking the threat of populist illiberalism seriously, and of not fighting it fiercely. The fabric of an open society is more frayed than most people realize, and it is coming unraveled from more than one end. What happened to the Republican Party in 2016 could happen to the Democrats in 2020.
The good news, as Charen courageously reminded us, is that these fights should never be abandoned even when they seem lost, and that sometimes the fights most worth having are those with our own side. William F. Buckley and Daniel Patrick Moynihan would have told you the same thing.
Bret Stephens won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2013. He began working as a columnist at The New York Times in April.