Conservative Tom Nichols on leaving the GOP: "The Republican Party is not capable of healing itself"

Author and lifelong conservative offers a midterm warning: "Donald Trump saved the Democrats from themselves"

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published November 20, 2018 8:00AM (EST)

Tom Nichols; Donald Trump Rally (Getty/Nicholas Kamm/Harvard/Salon)
Tom Nichols; Donald Trump Rally (Getty/Nicholas Kamm/Harvard/Salon)

The Democratic Party won substantial victories in the 2018 midterms. It will control now control the House of Representatives next year and also won many important state and local offices. However, Donald Trump and the Republican Party were able to maintain control of the United States Senate and key governorships in Georgia, Florida and Ohio -- largely through voter suppression, gerrymandering and other methods of subverting the will of the American people. Despite that setback, the Democratic Party is now reinvigorated and more empowered in its battle against Trumpism.

The resistance movement that opposed Donald Trump and his Republican Party in the 2018 midterms is comprised of traditional members of the Democratic Party's electoral coalition. This resistance movement is also led by black women. There were also new members in this alliance against Trumpism and the revanchist and dangerous Republican Party and conservative movement he leads. "Never Trumpers" as well as repentant former Republicans have formed an alliance of convenience -- if not principle -- with the Democratic Party. Their shared goal: Stopping Donald Trump and the Republican Party's assault on American democracy.

It will take time and a thorough analysis of polling and other data to determine if the "Never Trumpers" and ex-Republicans were able to persuade a substantial number of independent and other voters (especially the fabled "white working class") away from Trump and towards the Democrats during the 2018 midterms. Whatever the empirical data reveals, the presence of these defectors and new allies in the Democratic Party's anti-Trump coalition has great symbolic value, which may pay great dividends in 2020 in preventing Trump from winning a second term in office.

Tom Nichols is one of the most prominent "Never Trumpers" and public voices encouraging Republicans and principled conservatives to take a stand against Donald Trump and what he represents. He is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and also teaches at the Harvard Extension School. Nichols is also the author of seven books, including the recent bestseller "The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters" as well as the widely read essay for the Atlantic, "Why I’m Leaving the Republican Party."

How did Tom Nichols finally decide to leave the Republican Party -- and do so in public? Why do so many Republicans and conservatives stay loyal to Donald Trump? Are money and public attention motivating factors for him and other "Never Trumpers" and former Republicans in their decision to speak out against Donald Trump? Are Republicans and conservatives who stay loyal to Trump doing so purely out of self-interest, or do they actually believe in Trump's policies? What advice can he offer to the Democratic Party on how to defeat Donald Trump and the Republican Party?

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

You have gone from being a "Never Trumper" to an ex-Republican. Some critics have suggested this is all a ploy to make money and that you and other ex-Republicans and "Never Trumpers" are going to become fabulously rich from your decision to oppose Donald Trump.

An obligatory disclaimer: I do not represent the United States Naval War College, the United States Government or anyone else. These are my own views. No, I’m not rich from this. When people make that accusation it makes me laugh because it is such an immense act of projection. The people who are really on the gravy train are the ones who swore loyalty to Donald Trump and have decided to stay with him. There is no money in being a "Never Trumper."

For example, Rick Wilson recently wrote a book. If anyone thinks that one book is going to compensate him for a lifetime of political contracts and consulting that he’s done, then they are very mistaken. The man has been a Republican consultant for 30 years. Unless you are a Robert Ludlum or a John le Carré, you’re not going to retire on a book.

Conservatives and other people on the right are suspicious of you because they do in fact have a whole infrastructure of publishers and the like who produce subpar work as a way of transferring money from financiers down to their operatives. But there is also a very natural cynicism and suspicion from Democrats, liberals and progressives who cannot believe that you and other Republicans and conservatives would abandon Trump and your former political party.

I understand Democrats who are like, “Yes, but ...” They are reacting in a way similar to when defectors would show up from the Soviet Union and they would have to be put into a safe house to determine if they really changed their mind. Have they really flipped? I totally understand that suspicion, in part because I am still in many ways a conservative.

I’m not trying to join the Democratic Party. People say to me, “Well, you’re still not on our side.” On a lot of things, they’re absolutely right. I’m still not on your side. I want you to win. I want you to limit this completely insane experiment that is Trumpism and executive overreach. I accept the suspicion of liberals and Democrats, and I fully understand it. I think that’s lousy coalition-building by people on the left, but so be it.

By comparison, the people on the right wing -- Republicans, conservatives and their allies -- are operating from a different set of assumptions and principles. They have become so cynical and corroded that they cannot imagine doing anything based on principle.

Do any Republicans or conservatives in the age of Trump -- or before that, I might suggest -- actually have any principles beyond winning and staying in power?

Well, that’s a hard question to answer. The job of elected officials is to get into office and then seek re-election. That’s the way it is. Realpolitik. I think a great many of these elected officials have not exactly been profiles in courage. But that’s the nature of electoral politics and I have adjusted my expectations accordingly.

But I think the people in the conservative blogosphere, media and others who are the enablers, the shields and professional "Trumpsplainers," are saying things they must know to be false.

They know them to be untruths. They know they are advocating for things they’ve spent their whole lives advocating against until now. Those are the people I have a harder time with. A small number of Trumpsplainers may really be converts. But as a group Trump's defenders have made decisions that ultimately are between them and their consciences.

There are other people who are just so dependent on the Washington political ecosystem that they are going to do what it takes to stay there. If you are a Republican and a conservative and Trump has taken over then you’re just going to get on that train. There’s no way you’re moving back to Pennsylvania or West Virginia or Colorado or Oregon or California or wherever you came from. You’re staying in Washington. If staying in Washington means saying what is necessary to keep that spot, then you are going to do it.

I think there’s a third category of people that are attached to the current conservative movement who in their previous careers were second- and third- and fourth-stringers. This is their shot. They’re never going to be this famous again. They’re never going to be this close to power again. These conservatives are the "misfit toys" that are finally going to get delivered someplace on Christmas.

There’s just no way that these third- and fourth-string subpar players are going to cross anybody in power -- including the president or any of his hangers-on -- because they’ve just never had it this good and they never will again. I think they are the most cynical group of people, because they’ve decided, "If this is what it takes to get in the club, then so be it."

Do you think they look at the bank account and say, “Screw the country, screw history, screw what my family and my kids and my grandkids will think of me.” Or have these Trumpists and other Republican acolytes somehow convinced themselves that they are doing the best thing for the country?

Robert Tucker, who is one of the great historians of Stalin, said, “To treat opportunism as incompatible with deeply held beliefs is to take a simplistic view of political man.” Kurt Vonnegut also said, “We are what we pretend to be, and we have to be careful who we pretend to be.”

So after you’ve been on television enough times saying, “It’s really good to lock up children as a deterrent. It’s really good to have trade wars and tariffs. Putin really isn’t that bad a guy," at some point you believe it. The money compels you. The multimillion-dollar house in Alexandria or Annandale or Prince William or wherever you’re living means that you will do what you think is necessary to stay juiced into the Washington Trump machine.

What was the final straw before you left the Republican Party and wrote your essay for The Atlantic?

It was almost Helsinki. I thought there would be a group of us who would leave the Republican Party then. The Helsinki Summit made me physically afraid. Helsinki was the first time I’d ever felt like the national security of my country was being compromised at the highest levels, and that there were people in charge who just were not good at protecting the country. I’d never felt that before, and I know the fear of growing up during the Cold War. What happened with Trump and Putin in Helsinki was very different.

I thought that surely there were going to be a bunch of Republicans after Helsinki who said, “That’s it, I’m out, I’m done. I’m a Never Trumper. I’m changing to an independent," or "I’m going to be a Republican opponent within Congress and be part of the New Patriotism Caucus," or something. And then nothing happened.

The [Brett] Kavanaugh Supreme Court appointment and what happened afterwards is what finally drove me out. Susan Collins' speech really made me angry. This showed me that the Republicans who I was counting on to be moderate, the people who were going to be a check on executive power, the people who were going to talk about character mattering and all those things had failed me and the country. Instead, Susan Collins gave us a kind of social studies lecture where she admonished us all to sit quietly and do our homework. It was insulting.

In the middle of it, by the way -- I think people forgot this -- Collins pauses to defend the honor of the Senate and Dianne Feinstein, which was the most Senate thing ever. For people that had talked about draining the swamp, it was like the swampiest of swamp moments that ever swamped.

She ignored his really incredible outburst in front of the United States Senate. Kavanaugh showed a temperament that made me doubt that he should be on the appellate court. Instead Collins did the cheap, easy debate trick, which was to say Michael Avenatti’s charges are nuts, which means, for her, that you can then avoid dealing with any of the other serious accusations against Brett Kavanaugh. After that I decided I was done with the Republican Party.

Jeff Flake is also another transparent and obvious phony. He really outmaneuvered the Democrats by hiding behind that faux FBI investigation. He likely made up his mind to vote for Kavanaugh weeks earlier. The same with Collins.

After Collins and all the other theatrics, where it was clear they had made up their minds to support Kavanaugh weeks ago, I just said to myself, “There is no moderate wing of the Republican Party, and there is no part of the GOP that’s going to put the national interest over the party’s interest." I had to make the decision to leave.

I didn't put this in The Atlantic essay but I will share it with you. There was an element of vanity in my decision. I just got tired of being associated with a Republican Party that chants "Lock her up!" and "Build the wall!" I also can't belong to the same political party as someone like [Iowa congressman] Steve King. I just can’t do it.

How can a decent human being stay associated with the Republican Party, the conservative movement and Donald Trump at this point? Where is the shame?

At some point it became humiliating for me. But I will speak up for the people that I know who are still in the Republican Party. I will tell you why I think they’re doing it. People like Bill Kristol and Michael Steele and others have made a good argument when they say “Look, I am not just going to hand the keys to the house over to a bunch of squatters who are going to burn the place down.”

That was pretty much my approach for a long time. I didn’t spend a lifetime being a Republican, working in Republican politics, voting for Republicans and writing and arguing in favor of things that I thought Republicans stood for just to hand over the party of Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan to a bunch of crazies.

But on the other hand, at some point you just have to accept that the Republican Party is not capable of healing itself at this point. It just isn’t. I respect those people who want to stay and try to put the Republican Party back together after the wreckage. I just don’t think it’s possible. I’m more in line with people like George Will who have said, “Look, the party is just dead. It's just had it.” That doesn’t mean that conservatism is dead. It just means the Republican Party as a vehicle for those ideas is just done for the foreseeable future.

With the extremism of Trump and this version of the Republican Party, we have reached a point in America -- one that took several decades -- where the Democrats now sound like the Republicans once did. "Liberals" are the real "conservatives" in terms of respect for the rule of law, the Constitution, democracy and the stability of the system. Do you think that’s a fair analysis?

I think one of the great triumphs of both American political parties is convincing poor and working people that there is a huge difference between the two parties.

I actually think it’s OK that the country is sort of in a center-right economic groove with people advocating for a greater social safety net on one side and people advocating for less economic regulation on the other side. To me, it’s the Democrats and the Republicans in the middle. That is OK. But what they’ve done is to take that idea and then, in order to hold on to institutional power, have convinced people that the most important thing that divides them is race or gender as opposed to class interest. I think that’s just nuts.

To me, wealthy people tend to act like wealthy people regardless of which party they’re in. I was one of the Republicans who for years had stopped calling Obama a socialist. There’s nothing socialist about Obama.

I always tried to explain to my fellow conservatives, “Look, take the win.” When you have a liberal Democratic president who points to the stock market as a sign his economic policy is working, it’s over. We won. We don’t call it Reaganomics anymore. We just call it how the economy works.

When I was a kid, the idea that liberal Democrats would point to the stock market and say, “That’s proof that we’re good at what we do” was crazy. Liberals pointed to the stock market and said, “This shows how rich people get rich without helping working people.” I think a lot of the differences that have been created now are artificial differences of resentment that I think both parties push far too hard.

As a former Republican and a "Never Trumper," what political advice would you give the Democratic Party?

Their biggest single problem without a doubt is message discipline. Being against Donald Trump may be enough for one election cycle and to get you over the finish line. I and others get a lot of static from people on the left who say, “No, we’re really out there. We’re talking about health care. We’re talking about wages. We’re talking about the economy.” Yes, some of you are.

But the Democrats are amazing at stepping on their own message and eating up the news cycle over and over again.

My question is, why are all these prominent senior Democrats constantly throwing grenades into their own tent when the president and this administration is just a constant generator of bad press? I think that Donald Trump saved the Democrats from themselves, in the short term. I think that had Hillary won the presidency, the Republicans would have papered over a lot of the differences among them. But the fact remains that a crack-up in the Democratic Party is coming.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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