Never Trumpers rally in D.C., trying to find hope and a plan amid despair

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Never Trumpers rally in D.C., trying to find hope and a plan amid despair

A two-day conference in the nation’s capital was a counter-programing, of sorts, to the MAGA confab happening just down the river.

Former Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) speaks to the press.

“Trump is a cancer that’s now metastasized,” said former Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), shortly after wrapping a panel. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images


03/06/2023 06:50 PM EST

Donald Trump used his primetime stage at the CPAC conference this Saturday to taunt the Bush Republicans, globalists and neocons.

A dozen miles away, at a lower-profile gathering in downtown D.C. the remnants of that bygone GOP era gathered in a hotel ballroom, attempting once more to plot their way out of the obscurity into which the former president relegated them.

The two-day confab at the luxury Conrad Hotel, billed as the Principles First Summit, was implicitly constructed as a counterweight to the MAGA-fied Conservative Political Action Conference. But the programming also served to underscore the often-bleak, occasionally hopeless, existence that comes with being a modern day anti-Trump Republican.

The former Bush speechwriter turned columnist David Frum compared their effort to reform the party to blazing a landing strip in the middle of the jungle and simply waiting for planes to land. Former congressional candidate Clint Smith, who switched his party affiliation from Republican to Independent to challenge Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), described his state’s GOP as a forest of trees killed by an invasive species of beetle that crawls under bark to poison from the inside. Panels for the event included “Looking to 2024: Hope and Despair — but Mostly Despair” and “Can the GOP survive?”

If it all felt a bit dark at times, it was a reflection of the mood of some headliners.

“Trump is a cancer that’s now metastasized,” said former Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), shortly after wrapping the latter panel. “So it’s going to kill the party more.”

It’s been roughly six years since the dawn of the Never Trump movement. And, over that time period, it has not had much success — at least when it comes to reforming the party to which its members once belonged. But those within it feel as if a new political opportunity could be at hand with Trump’s vulnerable position in the party. The question they’re confronting is whether they can capitalize on it. By Sunday, they’d had some indications of how it would go. Larry Hogan, the former Maryland governor long seen as a centrist alternative to Trump in 2024, announced he would be forgoing a run for the presidency.

Despair, once again.

Organizers billed the gathering of 300 people from across the country as a strategy session for those who no longer feel welcome at the typical gathering of conservative activists. But it also provided a snapshot of how far the party has drifted in such a short period of time.

The summit itself is just three years old. A decade ago, many of the speakers at this year’s gathering were some of the party’s rising stars and top thinkers. Adam Kinzinger. Bill Kristol. John Kasich. But those who held office have hit political dead ends (Comstock notably lost by 12 points in a 2018 Trump-charged suburban revolt) and the anti-Trump talking heads found their usual confines less inviting. Of the few current elected officials who spoke at the Principles First Summit, two of them were Democrats: Maryland Gov. Wes Moore and Arizona Secretary of State Adrian Fontes.

The more immediate problem, however, may be that those in attendance don’t even agree on a way out of their conundrum. One example: Charlie Sykes, a Wisconsin political commentator, asked John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, to address the criticism that he refused to testify in Trump’s first impeachment trial but then profited by writing a tell-all book.

Some in attendance wanted to reform the GOP from within. Others were resigned to boosting moderate Democrats over election-denying populists.

“It turns out that once you let the toothpaste out of the tube, so to speak, demagoguery and bigotry and all that, some people like it. It’s hard to get it back.” Kristol said. “You can’t just give them a lecture.”

“We need to defeat the Trump Republicans. And if that means being with the Democrats for a while, that’s fine,” he added, suggesting a presidential ticket of Democrats Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia. “That’s fine with me.”

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