OPINION: How We, the #NeverTrumpers, Lost

Under Trump, millions of former Republicans became partyless

To the strategic or statistically-minded voter, Donald J. Trump has always posed as a sort of political Tinker Bell, the fictional fairy who needs applause and a coterie of believers to live. What mattered was never the scope of his ground game or details of his policy, but the size and vigor of his arenas full of fans. Sure, Trump's swaggering braggadocio resonated with an angry, economically illiterate stadium, but he didn't have the vision, the principles or the understanding of why America was great to win — or so this #NeverTrumper thought.

Early on the evening of election night, I interviewed some spectators at a pub in Downtown Los Angeles. An older black man named Teddy told me that he hadn't voted.

"Do you really think there'll be a difference?" he asked. "He won't make America great again, but she's just a part of the problem."

Another couple, dressed in suits on a very late lunch break from their office, looked aghast.

"How could you not vote for the first woman president? Or let someone who hates you win?" the woman said.

"Thank god he can't win," her suitor reminded her. He looked over at me knowingly, expecting me to nod in solidarity.

I merely shrugged and said that yes, it was highly unlikely.

Part of that belief came from the fact that Trump was not like Marco Rubio, his rival for the Republican nomination who spoke glowingly in terms of personal agency and American gift of opportunity. As a registered Republican from Los Angeles, I had finally found a fellow strategist in Rubio.

Few others in the Republican primary were able to do what Rubio did well: divorce themselves from the dated fallacies of staunch social conservatism — heralding self-reliant immigrants instead of vilifying all of them, avoiding losing battles like marriage equality, which is a libertarian concept in theory and in practice and so on — and appropriate the language of political correctness, a favorite of the left, to fit the narrative of individual liberty, responsibility and the American experiment.

That is what I, as a red girl in a blue state who received a dress code violation in middle school for wearing a McCain-Palin shirt in '08, thought was the key to winning over those who had been culturally bullied into believing in the evil of political uniformity and correctness.

Rubio is blessed with an ethnic background that gives him a pass to the identity politics-driven left, but he speaks the conservative language of the right. It was easy to say that the whiter-than-chalk Mitt Romney's economic policies "played on racial resentment," as Jamelle Bouie did in Slate. But Rubio, a first-generation Latino American, could openly discuss the merits of laissez-faire policies without being accused of latently wanting to harm his fellow immigrants and people of color. He was our Obama, a conservative ideological warrior in liberal's clothing.

But while Rubio could play the identity politics game masterfully, Trump would simply approach the game board, grow tired of the whole thing and break it in half.

He invoked no dichotomy between hard-working immigrants who embodied American values and those who came with regressive notions of gender equality or intent to mooch off American taxpayer dollars. Instead, Trump threw out his SparkNotes copy of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson and delineated a version of American exceptionalism bounded by physical borders and wealth and threatened by "rapists" and "murderers" from Mexico, as opposed to an America entrenched in values.

After all, Trump didn't care about smaller government or economic freedom. Instead, he saw the world in purely consequentialist terms. Bad deals! The worst deal! So what if NAFTA embodies free market capitalism? Mexicans are stealing our jobs! We're gonna win! Big league!

Surely, I thought, voters would disdain that disregard for the rules of the American experiment. I knew that I found Trump's disregard for the Constitution and individualism unacceptable. Simply obsessing over quotas and outcomes — that was a tool of the left, like affirmative action or boasting a candidate on the basis of "identity" as opposed to ideology. Or so I thought.

That was the great trick of Donald Trump, the one that gave him the power of a thousand applauses to overcome what was, in my view, the most talented, demographically and ideologically diverse presidential field in American history. Trump didn't appropriate the veneer of the left; instead, he took its fundamental modus operandi and wielded it against them.

Republicans spent decades trying to assert that the American system, at its core, grants opportunity to all. Democrats deeply dissented, framing a narrative of a system rigged against all minorities. As the Obama coalition began to tout notions not just of a legacy of racism, but that all modern Americans exhibited implicit bias, the far-left became empowered by Occupy Wall Street. Money itself became a system of oppression. Trump didn't have to look much further than the Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders campaign to develop a battle cry.

As Trump asserted in a campaign spot called "Hillary's America":

"In Hillary Clinton's America, the system stays rigged against Americans. Syrian refugees flood in. Illegal immigrants convicted of committing crimes get to stay, collecting Social Security benefits, skipping the line. Our border open. It's more of the same, but worse.

"Donald Trump's America is secure, terrorists and dangerous criminals kept out. The border secure. Our families safe. Change that makes America safe again. Donald Trump for president."

Here was the impending standard bearer of the Republican Party, ignoring decades of a conservative commitment to shrink the scope and power of the federal government, trading in a legacy of empowering the individual for a candidate promising government intervention and embodying the strongman. And the Republican base — which six years ago lived and died at the helm of the "small government" tea party ship — absolutely loved it.

Once the Republican field whittled down, I was sure that, in a battle of principles versus persona, a policy-minded Republican such as Rubio would win. Yet the Trump Train gained an intractable momentum, carrying the Republican Party far from the land of Adam Smith and into the tribalism of Thomas Hobbes.

The philosophical children of Smith and Locke believed in a system based on one color that didn't discriminate: green. As an adherent, I have always viewed the social constructs of race and historical inequities of gender to be transcended. However, Hobbes believe that tribes must be based on identity, not ideology.

To me, the decision was obvious. Hillary Clinton was pandering to the same tribalism Barack Obama had been for the last eight years, but so was Trump. I refused to support a big-government fool who pandered to the identity politicking base, regardless of party preference. Perhaps because I'm from such a staunchly blue state, choosing between the lesser of two evils seemed asinine.

After I'd finished interviewing election spectators downtown, I headed back to South Los Angeles to defend my vote for Libertarian presidential candidate Gov. Gary Johnson on Annenberg Media's election night broadcast. I had no intention of voting for a winning candidate and had resigned myself to the reality of four years of a bumbling, boring, deadlocked Clinton administration. But I knew that I could sleep at night committing to a principled and proven, albeit flawed, conservative.

Over the year and a half leading up to election night, I penned comical pieces lambasting Trump's economics as French — believe me, I know a Luddite when I see one — and didn't hesitate to call him, as recently as two weeks ago, "a perversion of conservatism."

Tinker Bell Trump carried a vocal, eager entourage, but surely, I thought, the silent majority would agree with me. Trump lacked the discipline to keep himself from sending out his men to rile boos during Ted Cruz's "vote your conscience" speech at the Republican National Convention, even if it meant making his own convention look divided. Trump lacked the cash on hand and the ground game to motivate the masses.

He would just be Tinker Bell. Applaud more. Believe in him and he will win. Or, to quote the estimable Bill Mitchell, "the ground game is in our hearts."

I quietly resigned myself to the unspoken truth of Cruz's speech. Many Never Trumpers I spoke with agreed that they'd focus down-ballot and prepare for four years of blockading an expanding government. Better to come back four years later, strong and unified under a real banner of conservatism than ride around the gilded Trump Train and crash toward disaster.

Public opinion polls actively documented Trump's perversion of the Republican brand. Pew found in 2013 that nearly three in four Republicans supported increased international trade. In March, nearly a year after Trump had acquired a national stage to lambast NAFTA and the TPP, Pew found that that figure was almost reversed, with a majority of Republicans claiming that free trade is a bad thing for the country, with four in ten in support. Similar trends can be found in the difference of public opinion of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin's favorability among Republicans increased nearly 50 percent from 2014 to 2016 according to Economist/YouGov Polls.

I never believed those words spoken by Michelle Obama at the Democratic National Convention — and repeated by Clinton when she was faced with allegations of sexual misconduct of her husband at a presidential debate.

Not that I was accountable for the Democratic Party. I was accountable for the party of Lincoln.

But my party didn't go high.

Even though Trump had been quietly tolerated as an ineffectual sideshow by the mainstream left during the primaries — Vox published "Why I'm more worried about Marco Rubio than Donald Trump" less than 10 months ago — they found themselves exhausted of the language to condemn Trump's increasingly egregious stunts.

On the morning of Election Day, I found myself giving the same stump speech I've been giving for the past 13 months.

"Trump doesn't know why America is great, and the country knows that," I said, for probably the one thousandth time in the past year. "Trump only cares about making deals and winning. He's a great snake oil salesman, but tonight his Breitbart base will realize that he's not a winner because you never win by playing the reverse of the left."

The friend with whom I was speaking was dubious.

"Really? You don't think that he's tapped into something real?"

President Obama traded the white working class to consolidate minorities under the banner of hope and change. By re-aligning the political sphere to vote along racial demographic lines instead of on economic terms, he coerced a quarter of the country to defy principle in favor of the tribe, the charismatic persona of a strongman.

As the sky over election night grew darker, so did the faces in USC's Wallis Annenberg Hall. Everyone, myself included, frantically reloaded the New York Times' Upshot meter and FiveThirtyEight.

"It can't be."

Obama lived by the sword of identity politics. As the ultimate Faustian bargain gets paid in full, his legacy has died by it too. And now, with the advent of Trumpism, the country is bleeding red, and we, the Never Trumpers, have nowhere left to go.

Tiana Lowe studies mathematics and economics at USC Dornsife and attended the national political conventions in Philadelphia and Cleveland this summer. You can reach her here.