In the weeks since Donald Trump effectively ended the Republican presidential contest with a stunning victory in Indiana, speculation about a third party challenge from conservatives unwilling to back the GOP nominee has continued to build. But with no credible candidate stepping forward to take up such a daunting task the #NeverTrump forces began to lose ground and the trickle of conservatives choosing to endorse Trump became a flood in recent weeks. Yet the third party talk persisted if only because The Weekly Standard publisher William Kristol kept feeding it, especially with his Memorial Day weekend teaser on Twitter in which he said, “here will be an independent candidate — an impressive one, with a strong team and a real chance.” Who might that be? By Tuesday, we had the answer: attorney and writer David French. French, who has called for more famous Republicans like Mitt Romney to jump in, is reportedly considering running for president. Which is to say that any serious discussion of a credible alternative to Trump on the right is officially over.

French, who writes regularly for National Review and has contributed to COMMENTARY, is a brilliant thinker whose essays have helped inform me and countless others. He also happens to be a decorated combat veteran with a biography that ought to make anyone recruiting candidates for Congress sit up and listen. Those, like author and talk show host Michael Medved, and others who are asking why a person like French should be considered less qualified than Trump are right. French is admirable in many ways and well versed on policy while Trump is not. He is an impressive person with a story worth telling, and I suppose a strong team might be put together for him. But he also has no chance of having any sort of impact on the presidential race.

Conservatives have good reason to want an alternative because of Trump’s obvious shortcomings in terms of his character, behavior, lack of principles and a toxic combination of ignorance of policy and advocacy for ideas that are bad like protectionism and neo-isolationism. Polls have consistently said the voters would like another choice. But the notion that putting forward a candidate that virtually no one outside of the intellectual world has ever heard of as late as June at a point when it would take legal challenges to get another party on the ballot in many states is absurd. While French might provide principled conservatives who can’t force themselves to back Trump with an alternative to not voting, that’s about all you can say about such an effort.

French’s name recognition is comparable to Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein and far less than that of Libertarian standard-bearer Gary Johnson, whose name will be on the ballot in all 50 states. If Stein and Johnson are fringe candidates — and they are both without a hope in hell of winning a single vote in the Electoral College or even coming close to doing so — then what can one say about an effort led by French that would be lucky to do as well as the Greens and almost certainly fall short of the total of protest votes that the Libertarians are likely to pile up this year?

It is no disrespect to Kristol and French, both of whom I greatly admire, to say that if promoting a candidate with zero chance of having an impact on the election is the best they can do, it’s time to call it a day for the conservative #NeverTrump effort.

Had a candidate come forward who was well known and with the financial resources to attempt the herculean task required, there would at least be a chance to create a last-minute movement that would provide a haven for disillusioned conservatives. But even then it might have been too late as most of the GOP establishment has already waved the white flag to Trump and gotten onto his bandwagon, even if they were not enthusiastic about it. The vast majority of Republicans, including the majority that didn’t vote for Trump in the primaries and the caucuses, has concluded that they’d rather back a candidate that is unfit for the presidency than sit back and watch Hillary Clinton win. It can be argued that they are wrong to do so but if there was ever a chance to get a significant percentage of them to back a conservative challenge to Trump, that moment has already passed. And if anyone was going to persuade them at this late date to change their minds, it is not going to be an intellectual writer/veteran that is a virtual unknown.

Conservatives need to understand that their choices are limited. They can vote for Trump or Clinton, or they can choose not to vote for neither, which may well be the moral option for those who don’t wish to bear even theoretical responsibility for the election of a person who isn’t fit for the office.

From the point of view of the future of the Republican Party and the conservative movement that might actually be better than if a more credible challenger to Trump from the right managed to find their way onto the ballot. If Trump is to lose, the last thing conservatives should want is a scenario where a strong right-wing alternative actually could be blamed for costing him the election.

Of course, if Trump does lose, he and his followers will lash out at anyone and any group that did not back him in order to find a scapegoat. But if Trump were to lose states by margins that were exceeded by the vote totals gained by the third party conservative (think about the way Ralph Nader cost Al Gore Florida in 2000), that would provide the fuel for an ongoing vendetta against the GOP establishment that could keep this populist wave going for future election cycles. That may happen anyway as it is possible that the protectionist/isolationist sentiments that Trump has tapped into may now be what the majority or something close to it of Republicans actually support. But if there is any chance of beating that destructive assault on conservative principles back after 2016 it will be made much harder if a Trump defeat can be credibly blamed on Republicans rather than his own unpopularity and poor judgment. Anyone who doesn’t relish spending the next four years listening to Trump and his apologists whine about being “stabbed in the back” by conservatives should be grateful that a more credible alternative to him like, for instance, Mitt Romney, isn’t stepping forward instead of French.

At this point, conservatives may mourn the hijacking of the GOP and lament that they have no one to vote for this year. But if they have any hope of picking up the pieces and seizing back their party after Trump has been beaten — an outcome that is likely but by no means certain given Clinton’s own weakness and unfitness for office — then at this point they would probably do better to stand down.

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