The past month since Donald Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee has been a rough one for the Never Trump movement. Their dream candidate, Mitt Romney, refused new calls to mount a third-party campaign that, while doomed, would free some people from having to choose between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. They’ve likewise been rebuffed by their dark horses, like Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, and their never-was-a-horses, like David French. All the while they’ve watched as much of the GOP establishment has slowly but surely rallied around the man they warn will be the end of their beloved party.
Nonetheless, I offer a prediction: Here comes the #NeverTrump2.0 boomlet.
Conservative pundit Hugh Hewitt set the stage for it on Wednesday when he used his influential radio show to suggest that Republicans rewrite their convention rulebook so they have the option of denying Trump the nomination in Cleveland. While that’s a long shot (to be far too generous), it is still technically possible—convention delegates are largely bound only by their imagination—which is all the excuse cable news talking heads need to start speculating anew about their quadrennial fever dreams of a contested convention. (Those who raised the stop-Trump flag in the first place were quick to gleefully point out Hewitt’s conversion to their cause on Wednesday morning.)
“I wanna support the nominee of the party, but I think the party ought to change the nominee—because we’re going to get killed with this nominee,” Hewitt told his listeners, going far beyond what he’s said in the past about Trump’s viability. “They ought to get together and let the convention decide. And if Donald Trump pulls over a makeover in the next four to five weeks, great, they can keep him.”
Hewitt may have left open the possibility that Trump could still win him back, but he also made his current feelings extremely clear, veering from one Trump-will-be-the-death-of-the-party metaphor to another during the course of his show. Among them: The celebrity businessman is “stage-four cancer” that the party has been diagnosed with but refuses to fight, a mountain that the GOP is about to crash directly into, and (to my ear, at least) a gun that Republicans are using to kill themselves. All that from a man who had previously suggested that he’d vote for Trump if he became the Republican nominee.
So just how big of a deal is Hewitt’s reversal in the grand scheme of things? By itself, it would be easy to shrug it off as simply one more in a string of conservative pundits and politicians who have sounded the alarm about Trump. Yes, his call for a convention revolt means slightly more given his reputation among both conservative media and GOP establishment types as someone who toes the party line and who prefers nuanced policy talk over bombast. But it’s hard to see how his preference to stop Trump carries more weight than previous efforts led by, say, Mitt Romney. It’s also far more difficult to take the nomination away from Trump now that he has it effectively secured, than it would have been to deny him in the first place.
But Hewitt’s comments weren’t made in a vacuum—and his suggestion doesn’t have to be heeded by GOP delegates to have an impact. His remarks came less than 24 hours after Sen. Mark Kirk became the first Republican senator to revoke his endorsement of Trump, and at a time when party leaders like House Speaker Paul Ryan are getting their first taste of what it will be like to have to respond to every vile thing that falls from the new GOP standard-bearer’s mouth between now and November. After weeks of Republican officials, conservative journalists, and GOP donors running toward Trump, some are now backing away, albeit slowly.
Trump—for all his bluster about changing for no one—appears willing to take at least a few superficial steps in their direction to close the gap. On Tuesday night, for example, he used a teleprompter to deliver a rather un-Trump-like victory speech that sounded like it came from a party-approved script. “I understand the responsibility of carrying the mantle and I will never ever let you down,” he assured the crowd. Hewitt’s comments will send a signal to Trump that it will take more than that to convince his skeptics.
Don’t expect GOP leaders to publicly lend their voices to Hewitt’s cause—they are, after all, still struggling to simply rebuke Trump when he says something even they admit is racist. But they can and will try to use the whispers of a convention coup to their advantage as they try to rein in their presumptive nominee. Will the threat work? Maybe, at least in the short term. But all Trump will need to do is be a good boy until the balloons come down in Cleveland. After that, his Republican critics will no longer have anything he wants and he’ll be able to go back to doing whatever his heart desires, which is nothing good.