With Donald Trump’s approval rating among Republicans remaining relatively consistent, oscillating between the high 80s and low 90s, conservative critics of the president make up just a tiny fraction of the electorate. So-called “Never Trump” commentators have pitifully little pull within the Republican Party, but you wouldn’t know it based on mainstream news coverage, where pundits like Rick Wilson, Jennifer Rubin, Steve Schmidt, and David Frum have continued to thrive.
If there’s one thing Trump’s improbable victory in 2016 should have made clear, it’s that these are not particularly relevant voices in the modern political era, and yet media outlets haven’t recognized this fact and acted accordingly. If anything, it seems as though conservative Trump critics are being promoted more aggressively than ever.
The continued elevation of “Never Trumpers” hasn’t seemed to have had much of an effect on Republicans, leaving them to armchair quarterback their way through the Democratic primary.
“Anyone but Trump? Not so fast,” reads the headline of Bret Stephens’ January 24 New York Times column, which warns of the “radicalism” of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. “Bernie Sanders is a risk we can’t run at this moment of national peril,” says columnist Max Boot in The Washington Post. “Crazy Won’t Beat Trump,” reads the headline of a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece by Peggy Noonan. “Bernie Can’t Win,” goes Frum’s three-word headline in The Atlantic.
Wilson, a strategist and author, has managed to parlay his disgust with Trump into two books, Everything Trump Touches Dies and Running Against the Devil: A Plot to Save America from Trump -- and Democrats from Themselves.
David Brooks has effectively turned his New York Times column into a vision board for qualities he’s looking for in a Democratic candidate -- which essentially boils down to his desire for Democrats to move to the right.
And after years of smearing President Barack Obama for everything from Benghazi to terrorism to taxes, Rubin uses her column as a constant warning against moving too far to the left, with headlines like “The Sanders surge is real. Democrats should be wary,” “A warning to Democrats: Don’t let Bernie Sanders get away from you,” and “Democrats cannot win in 2020 merely by turning out the base.”
On MSNBC, Schmidt regularly argues against progressive policies under the guise of a concern for “electability.”
The idea that Democrats are taking a massive left turn isn’t supported by facts, but it gets repeated a lot.
After the 2018 midterm elections, conservative commentators weighed in to tell Democrats that they were doing it wrong. Electoral advice to Democrats from conservatives is often that they should move to the right; electoral advice to Republicans from conservatives is exactly the same. But in the end, the same conservatives pleading for Democrats to move to the right won’t actually follow through on voting for them -- as exemplified by The View co-host Meghan McCain when she said, “I’m a Republican. I’m going to end up voting for Republicans” during a 2018 episode.
One policy that seems to make “Never Trump” conservative commentators rethink the word “never” is single-payer health care. But the truth is that the policy concept is neither new nor strictly a Democratic idea. The April 15, 1970, edition of the New York Times contains an article about a national health insurance program proposed by Sen. Jacob Javits (R-NY), headlined “Medicare for all is asked by Javits.” Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) spent decades advancing single-payer solutions, and in 2003, Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) introduced the “Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Act.” Whether someone agrees with proposals to expand Medicare or not, it’s disingenuous to suggest that there’s anything new or extreme about policies that would implement a health care system similar to that of other countries.
It’s actually the Republican Party that’s shifted most dramatically over time, but it’s the Democrats who get slammed for “extreme” positions. My personal theory for why has to do with the “Never Trump” commentators’ staunch anti-Obama views. Naturally, if someone spent the Obama years calling the president “King Obama” and slamming the Affordable Care Act for letting people stay on their parents’ insurance plans until they turn 26, it’s no surprise when they argue that anyone an inch to Obama’s left is a radical.
“Never Trump” Republicans in media seem to focus much of their energy on trying to transform the Democratic Party into a Republican Party by another name. It’s hard to imagine lifelong Democrats being given so much airtime and column inches to plead with Republicans to move to the left, but the opposite has become a regular part of political media.
In 2020, why are “Never Trump” Republicans still burning up oxygen on cable news?
Perhaps it made sense for news organizations to load up on these commentators in the run-up to the 2016 election and its aftermath. Had Trump lost, “Never Trump” Republicans might have been looked to for guidance on the party’s future. When Trump won, there was still the chance that he would face opposition from his own party as president, and these pundits could help provide insight into what the non-Trump portion of the party thought. Instead, we exist in a world where their views are utterly irrelevant, and they’re just taking up time that could be better spent with people who represent actual political constituencies.
According to Media Matters' internal database, since the beginning of 2019, Boot, Stephens, Rubin, Schmidt, Frum, Wilson, and Charlie Sykes (a fellow Never Trumper) have made dozens of appearances combined on cable news segments that discussed the 2020 elections.
It makes little sense to look to Schmidt, the man responsible for Sarah Palin’s entrance into national politics, for guidance on the 2020 Democratic primary. It’s unclear what insight Wilson, the man behind the infamous anti-Obama “Reverend Wright” attack ad, can provide. Why should Democrats take advice from Frum, who wrote President George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech? Why do we need countless articles with headlines like “I am a Republican, and I hope the Democrats pick a candidate I can vote for” and “How Far Left Is Too Far Left for 2020 Democrats?”
While these opinions and bits of advice take up coveted space in mainstream media, progressive ideas are underrepresented, and this hurts progressive candidates. This situation is evidenced by things like Chris Matthews' embarrassing anti-Bernie Sanders commentary on MSNBC. Another example of progressive erasure can be seen in a recent poll NBC and The Wall Street Journal commissioned that excluded Elizabeth Warren from a central question despite her current third place status in the delegate count. This is what a corporate thumb on the electoral scale looks like.
In 2016, cable news channels rushed to hand out contributor deals to Trump surrogates, a practice CNN head Jeff Zucker defended in the name of having voices on air who support Trump. This year, despite an ascendant progressive wing of the Democratic party, there seems to be little appetite for an influx of unabashedly leftist voices on TV and in newspapers. Will 2020 see a spate of writers from places like In These Times, Truthout, Jacobin, or CounterPunch on cable news? It certainly seems unlikely.
So long as lifetime conservatives are given larger platforms to offer their opinions on candidates in a party they may not even vote for, and so long as that comes at the expense of people ranging from left of center to the far-left, audiences will be denied a full picture of our national politics.