The problem with the #NeverTrump movement is that while their cause might be just, they’re also undermined at every turn by political reality. The movement itself suffers from the lack of a champion – top party officials may be rallying to Ted Cruz, but it’s only because he’s the sole viable alternative to Donald Trump. And Cruz himself is a poor #NeverTrump spokesman, given the many months he spent praising Trump’s candidacy and the fact that he won’t explicitly state that he will never support Trump. They’re also fighting a sense of resignation among the elite donors and activists within the GOP – the people who would have to fund and run a concerted anti-Trump effort – that the time to stop Trump has passed and resources would be better spent elsewhere.
But the biggest problem facing the #NeverTrump faithful is that for huge segments of the Republican Party and the conservative movement, Trump will never be seen as the most dangerous candidate this election cycle. That distinction goes to Hillary Clinton, whose presidential ambitions have loomed threateningly in the conservative imagination for close to two decades. That fear is exploited in a new ad from Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, which stands out as a sort of roadmap for how the #NeverTrump movement will eventually break.
Rove is no fan of Trump, and the two men have a mutually antagonistic relationship. But with this ad and its use of the #NeverHillary hashtag, Rove’s group is sending a clear message: Clinton is the real threat. As Politico reports, the ad is “the opening salvo of a broader anti-Clinton campaign” by Crossroads. They’re making a bet that, in the face of a Clinton candidacy, partisan loyalty will win out over revulsion towards Trump, and there’s every reason to believe they will be right.
As of this moment, both Clinton and Trump are the favorites to capture their parties nominations, and should that happen, an irreconcilable tension will arise between #NeverTrump activists and the #NeverHillary sentiment, and the #NeverHillary will win. There are segments of the GOP that, while not supportive of Trump, believe that they can live with him or control him. They may recoil at his coarseness and vulgarity, but they find enough things in his policy agenda that they agree with to make him barely acceptable. The same can’t be said for Hillary Clinton, who occupies a space of special loathing on the right.
If Trump and Clinton do become the nominees, the #NeverTrump agitators will have a painful realization forced upon them: the only way to truly be anti-Trump is to be pro-Hillary. That doesn’t mean actively supporting Clinton’s candidacy, but it does mean throwing the election to her in some way. They can abstain from voting, they can throw their support behind a conservative third-party candidate, it doesn’t matter – every vote that doesn’t go to Trump is one less vote that Hillary would need to win the presidency.
And that’s what Rove and the rest of the Republican consultant class are trying to prevent. That’s why they’re quite deliberately trying to piggyback on #NeverTrump and transition it to #NeverHillary. And it’s likely they’ll succeed in convincing a number of committed #NeverTrump activists to swallow hard and pull the lever for Trump. When Karl Rove and his rich Republican buddies say #NeverHillary, they absolutely mean it. When online activists say #NeverTrump, they mean it up to the point that the only alternative to Trump is Hillary Clinton.