At least one speaker at the summit thought the entire Never Trump panic about Sanders was overblown. “I’ll vote for Bernie in a heartbeat,” Will Wilkinson, a vice president at the Niskanen Center, a “post-libertarian” think tank, said. Wilkinson identifies as a liberal these days, but he argued that his onetime allies should resist going Never Bernie. “Some of it’s coming out of this vestigial ‘better dead than red’ Cold War attitude that doesn’t really apply to [Sanders] in a useful way,” Wilkinson told me. “I really tried to reinforce that because of the polarization and dysfunction—but also just the heterogeneity of the Democratic coalition—he won’t be able to consolidate Democrats around him in the way Trump has been able to do with Republicans, because the Democratic coalition is much more diverse ethnically but also ideologically.”
“Congress is way more moderate than [Sanders],” Wilkinson added, “so he’s not going to be able to have agenda control. You’re going to end up with much more moderate versions of anything he wants.”
This is the logic motivating several Never Trumpers who say they are planning to vote for Sanders over Trump if—to their unending horror—it should come to that. Frum, a senior editor at The Atlantic who spoke during Saturday’s luncheon, is in that camp. He tweeted in late January that he would vote for Sanders “as a forlorn gesture of protest” against Trump.
“One problem at a time,” Frum told me when I asked him how he would respond to conservatives who see Sanders as an unacceptable alternative. “We have to deal with this problem”—meaning Trump—“and then we deal with the next problem. This problem is so pressing and so urgent. One problem at a time.”
Nichols, a professor at the Naval War College and prominent Twitter pundit, called Sanders “a silly old crank,” noting that he’d been one of the senator’s constituents while living in Vermont in the 1990s. As much he opposes a socialist agenda, Nichols said, “I know how to argue against policies like that. I don’t know how to argue against mendacity as a policy.”
But, like Frum, Nichols believes Sanders would lose to Trump. “The Democrats have a talent for finding a way to lose an election to the worst candidate in the world, but that doesn’t mean you throw up your hands in frustration,” Nichols told me. “We are all pleading with the Democrats not to put us in this situation.”
Miller said Trump distinguishes himself from Sanders because the president is “a bigot” with character “as low as any person I’ve encountered in my life.” It’s part of why Miller would also vote for Sanders over Trump, though he stressed that the choices of Never Trumpers at Saturday’s summit weren’t representative of Republicans across the nation.
“I think there’s a tendency to talk about all of us in here, who are in the MSNBC green room and write for The Bulwark,” he said. “That’s great. We have outsized public profiles. But there are a ton of Trump-skeptical or Trump-hostile conservative Republican voters out in the country, and I think Bernie will be uniquely ill-suited to getting them.” Miller was specifically thinking of those who voted for Clinton, McMullin, Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson, or a write-in candidate in 2016—many of whom are found in and around cities like Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Detroit, he said.
“They’re pure swing voters, totally up for grabs, and Bernie is by far the weakest,” he added. “He’s got a super narrow path. He’s either got to sweep the upper Midwest or bring another old blue state like Iowa or Ohio back on the map, because he’s off the board in Florida, almost certainly off the board in North Carolina and Arizona.”
Whatever their divisions over Sanders, most of the Never Trumpers at the summit were united in their opposition to the president—and how he’d transformed the American right. “His presidency has undermined trust in institutions, sown bitterness and extremism, and further radicalized the Democratic Party,” Charen told the crowd. “It seeks to destroy objective standards in favor of blind leader-worship. It subverts our commitment to the rule of law and to the truth. It tosses aside concerns about a mounting national debt and forgets everything we’ve learned about excessive government power.”