There’s a song for just about every important occasion. But I can think of one that might be appropriate for Never-Trumper Republicans: “The Gambler.”
Kenny Rogers croons:
You’ve got to know when to hold 'em
Know when to fold 'em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run
What’s a Never Trumper to do? Trumpism has left them all in agony, lovelorn and heart-broken.
Dashed are their hopes that Trump's defeat going on a year ago would nudge the party back to what it was not so long ago – mostly mainstream conservative, but with a nub of a moderate-liberal wing. I remember the era of Ike, Rocky, Ed Brooke, Jake Javits, and Mack Mathias, and Kentuckians Cooper, Cook, and Morton.
But the GOP, especially post Jan. 6, has tacked even farther right. Trump still calls the tune and the faithful still dance to his music.
The party is almost wholly a Trump cult. Its members are in perpetual genuflection to Dear Leader, a democracy-despising, coup-embracing authoritarian white supremacist whose most loyal followers include threatening, armed paramilitary groups that invite comparison to Mussolini's Blackshirts and Hitler's Brownshirts.
Understandably, several Never-Trumpers have left the party and become independents. Precious few have gone over to the Democrats. Others NTs still call themselves Republicans, even if the Ever Trumpers ridicule and revile them as RINOs – Republicans in Name Only.
Form a third party?
Back in February, more than 120 NTs did hold a Zoom meeting in which they mulled starting “a center-right breakaway party,” based on “a platform of ‘principled conservatism,’” meaning “adherence to the Constitution and the rule of law,” according to Reuters.
They talked about fielding “candidates in some races" but also "getting behind center-right office-seekers in others, be they Republicans, independents, or Democrats,” wrote reporter Tim Reid.
So far, a third party hasn’t jelled. History instructs that success would likely be elusive.
Third parties have been short-lived in America, though they sometimes have influenced major parties. For instance, the Populists had some effect on the Democrats. The current GOP is looking more like George Wallace's white nationalist American Independent Party of 1968.
BUT – There is precedent for a new big party emerging from an old big party.
Reclaim the Republican heritage?
The Republicans emerged from the old Whig Party. It and the Democrats were the two big pre-Civil War parties. In 1854, the Whigs split over the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act, which opened the door for slavery's possible expansion into the two new territories.
Most Northern Whigs — including Abraham Lincoln — formed the anti-slavery Republican Party. (A few Northern Democrats became Republicans, too.)
Most Southern Whigs joined the Democrats, whose base was the pro-slavery white South. Most Whigs in border states like Kentucky rejected both parties and flocked to the anti-Catholic and anti-foreign Know-Nothing Party, partly because it downplayed slavery.
By the eve of the Civil War, the Know Nothings were gone, and it’s been Republicans v. Democrats since – though both parties have strayed far from their roots. The Democrats are what the Republicans started out to be: the party of civil rights activism. The Republicans — not coincidentally strongest in the ex-Confederate states — are the party of white supremacy and "states' rights," the old Southern Democratic code words for slavery and Jim Crow.
What a party stands for, not its historic handle, matters most to me. l'm a Democrat who's to the left of liberal (an endangered species in deepest western Kentucky where I've lived all my 71 years.) Given my politics, I would have been an abolitionist Republican before and during the Civil War and a Radical Republican during Reconstruction.
The Never Trumpers should be proud of their political heritage: the party of “Lincoln and liberty, too." That party saved the Union, ended slavery, made African Americans citizens, and gave Black men the vote. Lincoln is one of my favorite presidents. But his party is long gone.
So, thankfully, is the shameful Democratic party of slavery, secession and Jim Crow. That party is on the trash heap of history, where it belongs. There's plenty of room on the pile for the GOP of Donald Trump, too.
At any rate, decision time is fast approaching for the Never Trumpers. Elevating principle over politics can be deeply soul-nourishing. Besides history would be kind to a Never-Trumper third party, provided our democratic republic survives Trumpism.
"Large portions of the Republican Party are radicalizing and threatening American democracy," one of the Never Trumpers told the Reuters reporter. "The party needs to recommit to truth, reason, and our founding ideals, or there clearly needs to be something new."
Kids will stop shooting hoops in Kentucky before the current GOP does any of that. For the Never Trumpers, it's long past time for folding and walking away. It's time to run.