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Big Read: The Republican rebels aiming to take out Trump

With less than 100 days until the US presidential election, members of the president's own party are rallying against him. Have they left it too late to stop their nemesis winning a second term? Niall Stanage reports from Washington DC

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Transactional: For many Republicans, one problem in the Trump mythology is that there is very little evidence that he is a true conservative

Transactional: For many Republicans, one problem in the Trump mythology is that there is very little evidence that he is a true conservative

AFP via Getty Images

Fascinating dynamic: Arch Trump critic George Conway

Fascinating dynamic: Arch Trump critic George Conway

Getty Images

Kellyanne Conway, counsellor to Donald Trump, whose husband George is a leading light in the anti-Trump Lincoln Project

Kellyanne Conway, counsellor to Donald Trump, whose husband George is a leading light in the anti-Trump Lincoln Project

Getty Images

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Transactional: For many Republicans, one problem in the Trump mythology is that there is very little evidence that he is a true conservative

It's Donald Trump's party now - or is it? America's Republican Party has been transformed in a hundred different ways since the businessman came down an escalator in the Manhattan skyscraper that bears his name five years ago to declare his candidacy for president.

At the time, he was seen as a joke - if not a particularly funny one. He had flirted with presidential runs in the past and never jumped in. Now, when he did so, there was a darker, more menacing air. In that first appearance, he warned of 'rapists' coming across the border from Mexico. It would be the first of many uproars - often centred on race - that would follow Trump from the campaign trail and into the White House.

Back in the summer of 2015, it seemed as if there was no way the Republican Party - the party of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, the 'Grand Old Party' (GOP) founded in 1854 - would select Trump as its standard-bearer.

There would eventually be 17 candidates seeking the Republican presidential nomination for 2016, including several with real political pedigree: Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, who was both the brother and son of past presidents; Marco Rubio, a charismatic young senator, also from Florida; and Ted Cruz, a harder-edged conservative senator from Texas.

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Fascinating dynamic: Arch Trump critic George Conway

Fascinating dynamic: Arch Trump critic George Conway

Getty Images

Fascinating dynamic: Arch Trump critic George Conway

Trump vanquished them all. Then he defied the pundits and polls to defeat Hillary Clinton. Since then, he has largely bent the party to his will. Some of the people who were once his fiercest internal opponents have become his most ardent backers. Cruz reliably lines up in support of Trump these days. During the campaign, Trump traded in innuendo against Cruz's wife and suggested, without evidence, that the senator's father was somehow connected to the assassination of President John F Kennedy.

Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina senator, went nowhere in his bid for the 2016 GOP nomination. After Trump proposed a ban on Muslims travelling to the US in late 2015, Graham told CNN he was "disgusted". Trump, he added, was "a race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot".

Graham is now a frequent golf partner of the president and was one of his most vigorous defenders during the impeachment process earlier this year.

There have always been some strains of resistance to Trump within conservative circles. One such centre of dissent was National Review, a long-established conservative magazine. In late 2015 and into 2016, it published numerous articles assailing the then-candidate. It can lay as good a claim as anyone else to giving the anti-Trump forces within the GOP a name that stuck: the Never Trump movement.

The election that will decide whether Trump gets a second term is less than 100 days away. Various manifestations of the Never Trump movement are picking up speed. The most high-profile effort is the Lincoln Project, a group of former Republican strategists who have run stark anti-Trump TV ads, incurring the president's wrath.

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Kellyanne Conway, counsellor to Donald Trump, whose husband George is a leading light in the anti-Trump Lincoln Project

Kellyanne Conway, counsellor to Donald Trump, whose husband George is a leading light in the anti-Trump Lincoln Project

Getty Images

Kellyanne Conway, counsellor to Donald Trump, whose husband George is a leading light in the anti-Trump Lincoln Project

Some former Trump allies have turned against him. John Bolton, Trump's former national security advisor, wrote a fiercely critical book, published in June. Anthony Scaramucci, who served an infamously brief stint as Trump's White House communications director, is now a vehement critic.

Another book has hit Trump at a more intimate level. His niece, Mary Trump, has a current bestseller about the psychological damage she believes was done to the future president by his domineering father.

Weakened state

There has been open disagreement from elected officials, too. Justin Amash, a Republican member of the House of Representatives, left the GOP in protest and now sits as an independent. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, earlier this year became the only senator in history to vote to remove a president of his own party from office.

Even so, it is important not to exaggerate the extent of any Republican split. The vast majority of elected GOP officials stand by Trump. Romney was the only Republican in either chamber of Congress to cross party lines on impeachment.

Even in his current weakened state, opinion polls typically show Trump's job performance winning the approval of about 85pc of Republican voters. Then again, Trump prevailed in 2016 because he won three crucial states - Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan - by margins of less than 1pc. Even slight erosion could make a difference this time around.

Can the Never Trump forces prevail? Or have they left things just too late?

Donald Trump's adherents - the true-believer, MAGA-hat wearing battalions - believe he is their champion. They see his rise to the White House not just as a rebuke to Democrats or the hated media or even to his predecessor, Barack Obama. It was also a finger in the eye of the Republican establishment.

In Trump World, the GOP establishment was timid, sclerotic and corporatist. It placed the ways of Washington and the priorities of multinational businesses above the needs or sensibilities of the working men and women who gave the party their votes. In short, a lot of working-class conservatives believed the GOP looked down upon them. Trump, in their view, did not.

Like many mythologies, this view is not entirely wrong. Republicans such as Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell or former House speaker John Boehner are creatures of Washington. The party's power-brokers in DC are prone to patronising or simply ignoring the footsoldiers in the heartlands.

But the Trump myth has plenty of holes, too. One is that the tycoon president - a professed billionaire who lived in a golden tower in New York City- understands the struggles of factory workers and shelf-stackers.

Throughout his life, Trump has courted the rich and famous, seeking to claim his place among them.

The controversial radio DJ Howard Stern got to know Trump well during his days before entering politics. Trump even attended Stern's wedding in 2008. In May, Stern expressed his consternation at the idea of Trump as a tribune for working people. "The oddity in all of this is the people Trump despises most love him the most," Stern said on his radio show. "The people who are voting for Trump, for the most part… he wouldn't even let them in a f***ing hotel. He'd be disgusted by them. Go to Mar-a-Lago [Trump's Florida resort], see if there's any people who look like you. I'm talking to you in the audience."

The other major problem in the Trump mythology is that there is very little evidence that he is, really, a conservative.

It's not just his U-turns over the years that create doubt - though it's worth noting he was once in favour of abortion rights, and has been all over the place on whether he supports universal health coverage. It's also that his views on some issues - notably immigration and free trade - have more in common with outright nationalism than conventional American conservatism.

Other areas of his approach, such as his apparent belief that the justice system should serve to punish his foes and protect his friends, appal many long-standing conservatives.

"He doesn't believe anything that a true conservative believes. I don't think he actually believes anything at all, but to the extent that he pretends to believe something now, it is right-wing populism, not conservatism," says John 'Mac' Stipanovich.

Stipanovich was for years a fixture of Republican politics in Florida. He was executive director for President Reagan's re-election effort in the state in 1984. He was later chief of staff for Bob Martinez, who served as Florida's governor, and a senior advisor to Jeb Bush. He has been an ardent Trump foe from the start.

Stipanovich ran through a checklist of some of the views he contends characterise real conservatism: a belief in incremental rather than disruptive change; a limited role for government; individual freedoms and rights; free trade and free markets; support for the international 'architecture' of organisations such as Nato and the United Nations.

"Right-wing populists on the other hand - and the Trump operation in particular - [their] organising principle is fear," he says. "Fear of immigrants, fear of competition in international markets, fear of anarchists and socialists and cultural change. Fear, fear, fear."

Versions of this argument are often heard in the Never Trump ranks.

Rick Tyler is a long-time GOP operative who served as Ted Cruz's communications director during the 2016 campaign. He is another harsh Trump critic and the author of a recently published book, Still Right.

The Lincoln Project

"Trump doesn't have a governing philosophy," he says. "Trump is president because it satisfied a deep ego need to be important and liked - though the irony is now that he is so disliked."

To Tyler, the extent to which Republican elected representatives have toed Trump's line has led to a corruption of the whole movement.

"Trump is just not a conservative... He doesn't have any policy. It is all ad hoc. It is all just transactional."

The transactional nature of Trump's presidency is a common lament from another prominent conservative, David Frum. A former speechwriter for President George W Bush, Frum brought out a book this year. The title - Trumpocalypse - says it all.

The Lincoln Project, the group of Republican or former Republican operatives that has run ads against Trump, has attracted attention partly for its membership. Its leading lights include George Conway, husband of Kellyanne Conway, the White House senior counsellor and Trump 2016 campaign manager. His vehement denunciations of Trump and Kellyanne's daily defences of him create a dynamic that has fascinated Washington - and apparently the president.

The Lincoln Project first came to real prominence in early May, when it released an ad titled 'Mourning in America' - a pun on a much more uplifting Reagan-era commercial called 'Morning in America' - that lambasted Trump's handling of the coronavirus crisis.

Trump duly turned to Twitter to brand the people behind the Lincoln Project "loser types" who "don't know how to win". Regarding George Conway's role, the president tweeted: "I don't know what Kellyanne did to her deranged loser of a husband, Moonface, but it must have been really bad."

Another of the co-founders of the Lincoln Project, Rick Wilson, expressed mischievous delight at Trump's reaction, which ended up amplifying the ad's message. He and his colleagues have been "extremely gratified by the response from Donald Trump," he said.

But Wilson, who is also the author of two recent books excoriating Trump, was earnest about the project's overall aim: "To beat Donald Trump and the pernicious political philosophy of Trumpism at the ballot box."

Trump, Wilson insisted, "is the most dangerous political figure of our lifetimes". That status is enough for conservative figures like Wilson, Conway and their colleagues to be, in effect, seeking a Joe Biden victory in November.

Their efforts are met with outrage from the president's backers. "They should be ashamed of themselves," said Brad Blakeman, a Trump supporter who served on the senior staff of President George W Bush's White House. "They are not party people. If they were party people, they would work within the party to change things," he says.

"If you take Donald Trump down, and the Senate along with him, how have you helped the party? Joe Biden doesn't agree with any plank of the Republican platform."

The Lincoln Project people, he said, "are going to be pariahs in the Republican Party. The Democrats are embracing them now, but after the election, they are going to kick them to the kerb."

The battle within conservatism and the GOP may be ideological, but it is also deeply personal. To figures like Blakeman, the Trump critics are betraying the cause.

For the critics, Trump's only cause is himself - his whims, his enmities and his desire for self-aggrandisement.

There is no doubt that the bulk of Republicans still back Trump. To the critics, that is a reprehensible failure to stand up for principle.

"It was a disappointing, stunning lesson," says Tyler, the former Cruz strategist. "When you are ideological, as I am, and you believe in all these people who have been in the battle with you for your entire political career - you thought they believed in the same things you believed. And when the first snake-oil salesman comes along, they fall for it."

Whether Trump wins or loses in November, for his critics, the Republican Party's journey back to any kind of respectable conservatism is a much longer, more difficult path.

"It's terribly disappointing to me," says Stipanovich. "It is, in effect, the repudiation of a significant portion of my entire life. I believed that Republicans would stand up for representative democracy and American creedal values at any risk, including the risk of losing office."

"I was wrong," he says. "They are afraid of Trump."

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