NEW YORK -- Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol seemed to shift Monday from #NeverTrump to #MaybeTrump.
“On the one hand, I’ll say #NeverTrump,” the conservative writer and pundit told Newsmax, “and on the other hand, I’ll say never say never.”
Kristol tweeted that he was joking and reiterated his #NeverTrump stance, a position that could become increasingly more difficult for conservative media figures as the general election nears. It's one thing to have joined the #NeverTrump bandwagon during the Republican primary, when there were legitimate conservative alternatives. But with Donald Trump expected to win the Indiana primary Tuesday night, and amid increasing calls for party unity in advance of the general election, conservative editors, columnists and TV pundits who have railed against the real estate mogul for months will be forced to decide if never really means never -- especially if the alternative is Hillary Clinton.
This week, former John McCain speechwriter Mark Salter and George Mason law professor David Bernstein went a step beyond #NeverTrump by saying they'd rather vote for Clinton. But it's more likely that prominent anti-Trump voices will adopt the #NeverHillary stance in order to rationalize supporting Trump, or that they'll end up backing neither the Republican nor the Democratic standard-bearer.
This is a departure from recent election cycles. Both Arizona Sen. John McCain, in 2008, and Mitt Romney, in 2012, struggled to win over conservative writers and talkers during their respective primary fights. But when it came to the general election, the right's media apparatus largely fell in line, boosting the Republican candidates and bashing Barack Obama. Though Trump, as nominee, would surely have the support of already sympathetic voices like Fox News' Sean Hannity and Breitbart, he'd be unlikely to have the broad swath of conservative media in his corner -- that is, if the #NeverTrump crowd doesn't crack.
"Obviously, I’m not going to turn into a Hillary Clinton supporter," said Erick Erickson, an influential radio host, editor of the recently launched site, The Resurgent, and leading #NeverTrump voice.
Erickson said he could spend all his time on air covering Clinton stories during the general election, presuming she beats Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, but indicated he wouldn't ignore the likely Republican nominee's missteps in a two-person race. "Trump’s going to do dumb stuff on the campaign trail, and I’ll certainly talk about that as well," he said.
Conservative hosts are "obviously not going to be on board with Hillary Clinton and will spend a lot of time highlighting problems with her, but I don’t know if they’re going to actively lift a finger to help Donald Trump," he added. Erickson said he, for one, wouldn't.
In May 2012, Romney met with dozens of conservative journalists and pundits after becoming the Republican party's presumptive nominee, in an effort to shore up his conservative media flank. Erickson doesn't believe a similar meeting between Trump and his ardent critics now would be as effective.
"I think the dynamic is different this time," Erickson said. "Because by and large, it comes down more to a character thing than a policy thing with Trump for so many of his critics. ... I didn’t like McCain or Romney, and held my nose to vote for them, but didn’t doubt they were good people. The overwhelming criticism of Trump from the right is that he’s just not fit for office, regardless of policy positions. So I don’t know how you get people in the room and convince them that somehow you are fit for office."
Matt Lewis, a prominent conservative columnist, author and TV commentator, suggested he couldn't be swayed, either.
"I think that the real danger is Trump basically redefines what it means to be a conservative and he’ll turn the Republican party into a basically right-wing, white identity politics, populist, protectionist party," Lewis said. "For me, I can’t do it."
Lewis said he'd respect a Trump critic's decision to support the nominee, but it would depend on their motivation during the primary. For instance, a pundit arguing Trump was a poor choice because of his policy positions could understandably come around if they believe Trump's now receiving better counsel or has modified his views. But Lewis said he'd take issue with a critic who argued Trump was a racist, demagogue and authoritarian and then suddenly began supporting him.
"That’s discordant and it ... leads people to at least question whether your principles are that strong and if this is not a matter of expediency," Lewis said. "Its sort of a collaboration with your new conquerors." (He likened such an abrupt change of heart to "Simpsons" newsman Kent Brockman welcoming his "insect overlords" after believing giant ants were headed toward Earth).
Lewis noted that the priorities of the TV business could prompt some conservative commentators to eventually side with Trump. That's because cable bookers planning a one-on-one political slugfest may seek a Republican counterpart willing to give a full-throated defense of his or her party's nominee.
"If one person is drinking the Democratic Kool Aid and just likes Hillary Clinton to the hilt, and you’re like, ‘Well, Hillary’s not great, but I also think Donald Trump’s wrong about his protectionist policies,’ you’re not really representing the Republican side and it’s not going to be great TV," he said.
Conservative radio host Charlie Sykes, who grilled Trump in the days leading up to his loss in the Wisconsin primary, said "it’s going to be very, very difficult" for conservative critics of Trump in the media. Still, Sykes isn't waffling, and on Tuesday morning, tweeted that he remains squarely in the #NeverTrump camp.
“#NeverTrump means never, I mean, never in hell," he told HuffPost. "Maybe we need to change it to #TrumpNFW."
Sykes said the challenge for conservative hosts is that they're going to have to critique the Democratic nominee, and yet "a lot of the things the Democrats are going to say about Donald Trump are exactly the kind of things that we’ve been saying about Donald Trump."
Sykes said a Trump nomination may lead him to talk more in the coming months about downballot races, or he joked, the Green Bay Packers.
However, Sykes said there's a liberating quality to being what he described as "hard #NeverTrump" versus the "soft #NeverTrump" conservative who could still be swayed to back him in the general election.
"I think that’s going to be brutal," he said of the latter. "If you know who Donald Trump is and you have to carry water for the guy, what fresh hell. Whereas, I’m like, hey, I don't have a dog in this hunt, I’m an honest broker. I can tell you exactly what I think."
Editor's note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist