While darkness has enveloped much of American politics since Donald Trump descended his escalator to announce a bid for the presidency, one bright spot has offered some hope that decency would yet prevail in politics and the public square: the work of so-called “never Trump” Republicans.
Faced with a candidate and president plainly unfit for office, these men and women — many of them rock-ribbed conservatives who found a natural, welcoming home in the GOP before 2016 — decided that no discrete political issue mattered as much as preventing America from becoming the play thing of a narcissistic, would-be authoritarian. So they committed themselves to defeating Trump, even if that meant installing in power Democrats with whom they profoundly disagree on a range of issues.
Bill Kristol, a leader of the neoconservative commentariat during the George W. Bush administration, recently told The Atlantic, “I think the succumbing of the Republican Party to the Big Lie [about the 2020 election] just swamps everything else.” He now runs Defending Democracy Together, an organization dedicated to protecting the right to vote in the face of Republican assaults intended to make it easier for Trump and his allies to gain and hold power.
Another conservative columnist, George Will, advocated in 2020 for the “rout[ing]” of Republicans in the Senate because of their fealty to Donald Trump, which Will saw as destructive to the republic.
Even if democratic socialist Bernie Sanders had earned the 2020 presidential nomination of the Democratic Party, former Republican Rep. Joe Walsh wrote, he would have supported the Vermont senator: “When I finally came around to saying, ‘never Trump,’ I meant it.”
Unlike “never Trump” Republicans, progressives and Democrats could oppose the former president without sacrificing anything: Trump set up camp on the GOP banks of America’s political river, and we opposed him as we would have opposed the candidacy of Ted Cruz or John Kasich or any other Republican. We did not risk breaking the bonds of partisan kinship as we shook our heads in surprise and disgust while looking upon Trump’s most vocal supporters and silent enablers.
How, we asked ourselves and our like-thinking compatriots, could people support this man? Didn’t they see his indecency? His narcissism? His opportunism and idiocy and ethical unfitness for office? No matter if you agreed with his proposals to cut off immigration or stand up to China or protect gun rights, we argued. Policy was secondary. The candidacy and administration of Donald Trump were freighted with an imperative to preserve the fundamentals of republican self-government, and nothing else mattered.
Underneath the questions we asked about Trump voters lurked our real inquiry: How could his supporters be so stupid? The phony billionaire from New York obviously didn’t believe in anything but his own advancement and the calculated, predatory priming of grievance that might propel him to power.
The premise of our question: We looked down on the MAGA crowd as our inferiors and thought not only that their political judgments were wrong, but that their very ability to form political judgments was impaired. They simply didn’t know how to properly do the work of self-government. They didn’t understand what mattered and what didn’t, what needed to be weighted heavily and what ought to be dismissed as unimportant, what should disqualify someone from public office and which human imperfections were compatible with service to the commonwealth. In our minds, Trump supporters were political, intellectual, and ethical rubes.
Our criticisms suggested their obverse: We who opposed the man’s ascendancy to power did know how to think about politics. We knew what mattered, and why. And, believing ourselves better than the people who camped out for days to attend raucous rallies fueled by white fragility, we felt — and sometimes confidently boasted — that we would never fall prey to the irrational impulses and nihilistic indecency that had overtaken the GOP.
“Never Trump” Republicans corroborated our judgment: Here were conservatives who, like us, knew that civic virtue counted most in a properly functioning system of self-government. Their alliance with us proved we weren’t rationalizing a merely partisan fight into a foundational political struggle.
We progressives and they, the Kristols and Wills and Walshes, by our intellectual and moral lights, saw the true import of this political moment. The “never Trump” Republicans, just like us, were among the elect who got it, and with them we could develop a camaraderie borne of our sometimes-smug belief that we would never engage in the kind of flawed judgment, thinking, and behavior that ushered an unfit man into public office. Instead, we proclaimed with self-satisfaction, we would, if faced with a similar charlatan within the ranks of our own party, stand up against the corruption of public mores and stand up for a politics of integrity, no matter the narrow, partisan political costs.
Democrats in Charlotte who declared they would never allow themselves to be waylaid by a criminal huckster now face their moment of truth.
The practical stakes, to be sure, are much lower than they were in the last two presidential races, and while we’re to be tested in the hum-drum of municipal politics, the ethical challenge facing the Queen City in 2022 is no different than that which the nation faced in 2016 and 2020: Will we allow an unfit man to gain election to a position of public trust?
This test comes, of course, in the person of Patrick Cannon, the former Charlotte mayor and long-time city councilman caught on tape pocketing hefty bribes the last time he held office. His criminal misdeeds, which involved, among other things, accepting a briefcase of cash in the mayor’s office, led to federal corruption charges, a guilty plea, and a few years in prison.
Cannon’s probation now at an end, he is among the six Democrats who have launched bids for four at-large seats on City Council. A May 17 primary will narrow the the field for the general election. Given the overwhelming advantage Democrats enjoy in Charlotte, whomever the party’s voters endorse in the primary will be the odds-on favorites to win in the July general election.
Now, a month before the primary, Cannon’s political comeback has gotten a boost in the form of a coveted endorsement from the Black Political Caucus of Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
The organization endorsed three other Democrats, including Councilman Braxton Winston and former council members James “Smuggie” Mitchell and Lawana Mayfield. The group declined to endorse two other incumbent Democrats: Councilwoman Dimple Ajmeera, who is seeking re-election to her at-large seat, and Councilman Larken Egleston, who is hoping to move from a district seat to an at-large seat.
The press release announcing Cannon’s endorsement didn’t explain the caucus’s decision to give its blessing to a crook.
Stephanie Sneed, the organization’s chairwoman, shed little light on the group’s thinking in a subsequent statement. “The caucus members were fully aware of his record as City Council member, fully aware of his record as a mayor and fully aware of his criminal record,” she told WFAE. “In consideration of all those things, it was determined by the membership that he should be endorsed and he should be one of the four seats for City Council at-large.”
These words betray an obliviousness to the fundamentally ethical nature of political questions, and they constitute the local, Democratic equivalent of the flawed moral thinking that dominates MAGA nation.
There will always exist selfish men like Donald Trump and Patrick Cannon who seek to advance their own interests without regard to civic decency and who will try to convince us that right and wrong don’t really matter. And there will be those who, for reasons of tribalism or political expediency or cravenness, adopt this lie as their own and tell us that we, too, ought to strike a pose of amoralism.
This is the test of political judgment Charlotteans now face: We can pretend we are powerless to defy endorsements of the ethically corrupt by the morally barren, or we can demonstrate courage, do the right thing, and say “never.”