The stage is pictured November 7, 2023, during a media walkthrough ahead of the third Republican presidential debate held by NBC (OSV News photo/Mike Segar, Reuters).

There are two kinds of Republican Never-Trumpers: those who see Donald Trump as a threat to the Republican party and its chances for victory in November, and those who see Trump as a threat to democracy.

The first group can be divided further. Some Republican Never-Trumpers are mainly pained by what he has done to the political party they long called home—and they realize that a Trump victory would cement that transfer of ownership in place. Other Republican Never-Trumpers are mostly worried about the possibility of Biden’s reelection and the ensuing demise of the Trump tax cuts scheduled to expire in 2025. They might be called “Never-Trumpers for the Moment.” Once Trump is the party’s nominee, they will quickly become Never-Bideners, or Never-More-Taxes.

Not that the Republican Never-Trumpers focused on protecting democracy don’t have divisions as well. Some are maintaining their conservative tenets while Trump trauma has made others reframe their party loyalties, shifting to the left.

In any case, right now—before the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary—is the time for the real Republican Never-Trumpers, those alarmed at the danger he poses to democracy, to stand up. It is not hard to see what needs to be done. Simply criticizing Trump or supporting Haley, DeSantis, or Christie, while staying mum on what course to take if Trump is the nominee, no longer suffices. Trump and his team are counting on the likelihood that once his candidacy is assured, others (like Haley and DeSantis, though evidently not Christie) will shut their mouths, hold their noses, and fall into line. At most, some would stay at home on Election Day.

Genuine GOP Never-Trumpers need to do more. They need to make a clear declaration that if Trump is the Republican nominee, they will vote for whoever is his Democratic opponent, the supposedly hapless Biden included, and forcefully urge others to do the same.

That kind of outright declaration could still make a difference in the Republican primaries.

The formula is easily outlined. Part One is bona fides. Part Two is filling in the blank. Part Three is the pledge.

Bona fides: “I have long been a loyal Republican because I believe in ….”   

Filling in the blank: Small government, low taxes, balanced budgets, minimal economic regulation, protecting unborn life, strict limits on asylum seekers and immigration, upholding traditional patterns of sexual conduct and family ties, enlarged military forces and alliances assertively mobilized in support of national interests, especially vis-à-vis rival superpowers like Russia and China, or (conversely) curtailing undue overseas entanglements. Choose one or more.   

The pledge: “I still believe in these goals and will pursue them as a Republican in whatever responsible way the party allows. But if Donald Trump is the Republican candidate, I will vote and campaign openly and energetically for the Democratic alternative. Mr. Trump has proved himself pathologically narcissistic, temperamentally volatile, shamelessly indifferent to truth, morally unanchored, and politically ruthless. He is dramatically unfit to lead this nation, as many who have worked with him have testified. Above all, he attempted to prevent the peaceful transfer of power, as provided by the Constitution, to the freely and fairly elected choice of voters in 2020, and he has relentlessly and brazenly bombarded the electorate with falsehoods about “stealing” the election when that is precisely what he himself attempted. Having already demonstrated his contempt for the rule of law and the norms of constitutional democracy, he now appears even more determined to make them central to a second Trump presidency.

“Confronted with this danger, I will not only abstain from supporting Mr. Trump but devote my energies and resources to defeating him by endorsing, supporting, and voting for his Democratic opponent.”

That kind of outright declaration could still make a difference in the Republican primaries. If not, it will be essential in the general election.

Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

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