In exile with Bill Kristol, the Republican resister-in-chief

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist

When I found Bill Kristol this week at the Weekly Standard, the conservative magazine he created and edited for 20 years, he was still thinking about his friend Jeff Bell, who died a few weeks ago.

A fixture in Republican Washington for decades, Bell launched one of the first successful insurgencies of what would become the Reagan Revolution, knocking off New Jersey’s moderate Republican senator, Clifford Case, in a 1978 primary. (He lost the general election to a guy named Bill Bradley, despite drawing diagrams of the Laffer Curve all over the state.)

In his last years, Kristol told me, Bell became an ardent internationalist and a vocal defender of immigration.

“That was one of the impressive things about the American conservative movement,” Kristol mused as we sat in his office, surrounded by a near-avalanche of political tracts from the last few decades.

“It had a lot of odd, interesting characters with combinations of views that from the outside you might not always think would go together. But it was a genuinely vibrant movement and pretty good — pretty good — at policing its borders.”

By this, Kristol — whose father, Irving, helped found the neoconservative movement that stood for expansionist military policy abroad and a rejection of cultural liberalism at home — didn’t mean borders in the sense that President Trump talks about them. He meant the borders that separated hard-line conservatives from dangerous, reactionary populists.

“We fought against Buchanan in the ’90s,” Kristol said. “We fought against Ron Paul. We were pro-Jack Kemp on race issues. We tried to prevent that virus from being too dominant, or dominant at all.

“Look, American history has always had elements of what we now think of as Trumpism,” Kristol went on. “Joe McCarthy, George Wallace, Father Coughlin. It’s not as if these things haven’t always existed, and they were powerful. The big difference is Trump is president.

“Think of Joe McCarthy being the nominee in 1952 and winning,” he said. “That is where we are.”

Kristol and I were talking a few days after the venerable activist conference known as CPAC left town. This year’s gathering seemed to have severed the last narrow isthmus connecting Reagan’s upbeat conservative movement to the new mainland of irate Republicans.

Among the speakers at CPAC (in addition to Trump and Vice President Mike Pence) were Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the youngest in a family of extreme French nationalists, and the top two officials from the NRA, who savaged the media in the wake of yet another school shooting.

Meanwhile, Mona Charen, Kristol’s friend and fellow traveler, was loudly booed for trying to talk about sexual harassment in the context of Roy Moore and, yes, Trump himself.

The message could not have been clearer: A year into Trump’s presidency, Republican activists in the rest of the country seem to have rallied around his politics of grievance, while in Washington, conservative thinkers who once ran the country huddle together in exile. Now it’s Kristol and his contemporaries who find themselves on the frontier side of the border.

I asked Kristol if he could still call himself a Republican, and whether he would if Trump was reelected in 2020.

The answer to the first question, he said, was yes. The answer to the second was no.

I wondered whether he held himself at all culpable in having led us to where we are. He looked a little agonized by the question. He answered carefully.

“Yeah, to some degree,” Kristol said, nodding. “I think the failures of Republican governance led to a distrust of Republican elites, which is fair enough. I myself am part of that distrust.”

*****

For all the ubiquity of the term, there are myriad meanings to the hashtag #NeverTrump inside the disenchanted conservative world.

Some of the longtime Republican leaders who took a stand against Trump during the campaign take the view that “never” actually meant “at least not until he wins.” These Republican insiders wake up every morning looking for reasons to support the president, and — except for the odd day when Congress passes a massive, debt-spiraling tax cut — generally go to bed disappointed.

On the other side are the pro-governing conservatives who see Trump as a kind of Vichy government leader whose occupation of Washington must not be enabled. They castigate friends who work in the administration as traitors to the cause, if not the country.

Kristol is mostly in the second camp. He’s fine with — even grateful for — figures like the national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, or the defense secretary, James Mattis, who have chosen to serve and, in Kristol’s view, mitigate the danger of a Trump presidency.

And yet, in a way that is truly remarkable for a guy who was once Vice President Dan Quayle’s chief of staff, Kristol uses Twitter and his platform at the Standard to launch an unrelenting assault on his own party’s president. You could say he is the clearest and most credible voice of Republican resistance in Washington.

(Almost as strange is the fact that a lot of the liberals who used to detest Kristol for his outspoken support of George W. Bush’s foreign policy are now retweeting him daily and generally holding him out as an example of sanity. Trump has a way of building unlikely alliances.)

“He has the character of a con man or demagogue,” Kristol said of the president, matter-of-factly. “And it’s really bad for the country to have a demagogue as president, even if he’s a demagogue who 30 percent or 50 percent or 70 percent of his policies are defensible or even correct.

“I’m absolutist on Trump,” Kristol told me. “He shouldn’t be president. We should limit the damage he can do as president. And we should try as hard as we can to prevent him from being renominated or reelected.”

To that end, Kristol has begun talking to like-minded conservatives about mounting a serious primary challenge or even an independent bid in 2020. His highest draft pick at the moment would be Nikki Haley, Trump’s U.N. ambassador, who might be the perfect insurgent save for the troubling fact that, as of today, she is still Trump’s U.N. ambassador.

“If he’s not renominated, you can say, ‘You know what, it was an aberration,’” Kristol said. “Now, it’s an aberration from which one has to learn lessons. I’m not trying to say there aren’t elements of conservatism that were there already that Trump magnified, exploited, brought to light — that we don’t have to rethink certain things.

“But the way I think about it, we could try to make it more of a parenthesis than an inflection point. More of an unfortunate interruption in an otherwise honorable movement.”

When that movement got its start, back in the 1980s, Kristol and his contemporaries were the interlopers of their day — brash, ideological, worshiping of William Buckley and contemptuous of the mushy old guard. They wrested power mainly by following Jeff Bell’s example and threatening to primary their party’s leaders into extinction.

Now, of course, it’s Trump’s supporters who are terrifying elected Republicans with the specter of hostile primaries. And Republican leaders who once opposed the president are flying white flags of surrender.

Kristol, who saw himself as a kingmaker in the party, once touted to me the sky-high potential for politicians like Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Rudy Giuliani and Paul Ryan. Now he admits to being stung by all of their betrayals — and especially the complicity of Speaker Ryan, who was once the sober voice of budget reform in Washington, before passing policies in recent weeks that will make any real reform all but impossible.

“Ryan has been disappointing to me,” Kristol admitted. “I’m not sure any speaker would have been much different. I had hoped Ryan would be better than the average. I think he’s just turned out to be closer to the mean of House Republican members.”

Kristol has lost some old friends, too. In the conservative world, everyone is making the choices they have to make in the moment, and longtime relationships are fast unraveling.

Many years ago, Kristol hired a young writer named Tucker Carlson at the Standard; later, he appeared regularly on Carlson’s cable TV shows. In January, though, the two got into a nasty back-and-forth over Carlson’s Fox show, on which the once thoughtful host has lately reshaped himself into more of a Trumpian nativist.

Kristol, in an interview with CNBC’s John Harwood, accused Carlson of  “dumbing down” and coming “close to racism,” at least. Carlson called Kristol a coward for not coming on the show.

“There are people who were friends who are now acquaintances,” Kristol told me with resignation, “and people who were acquaintances who I now don’t see much at all.”

*****

Harder for Kristol than facing the judgment of some old friends, perhaps, is facing the verdict of history. The war in Iraq, for which Kristol himself famously whipped up support, probably did as much to corrode faith in the good intentions of government, generally, as Watergate did three decades earlier.

If it didn’t, then the financial collapse of 2008, brought on by a kind of reckless disregard in Washington, certainly finished the job. Absent these cataclysmic events, Trump could not have existed as a political proposition.

It’s hard to imagine a world in which cultural conservatives would have looked past all the things that made Trump unpalatable — the New York values, the crudeness caught on tape, the disregard for conservative orthodoxy — were it not for their intense and slow-burning rage at the establishment he ran against.

Kristol doesn’t like to acknowledge the failure of his own promises about Iraq; he’s quick to pivot to the troop “surge” that came later, which he says was an unqualified success. But he agrees that the unrest in the party was largely a result of failed government.

“That’s why people like me were sort of friendly to the tea party, because we thought it was an understandable reaction, and an important reaction,” Kristol said.

I suggested that by trying to use the resentment of popular uprisings, by playing to elements of the base with anti-government and xenophobic rhetoric over the years, he and other conservative strategists had made credible Trump’s dark, demagogic worldview.

“Yes,” he said. “But on the other hand, what would it have meant not to use them? They were there. And Republicans were the less pro-government party, so you were going to get everything from responsible skepticism toward government to insane anti-government views. But they were still going to vote Republican.”

Before I could untangle this line of thought — that if people were going to vote for you anyway, there was really no point in telling them they were wrong — Kristol got down to the truth.

“Having said all that, yes, I think there was probably a little too much fuzzing of those lines and failure to educate our own supporters, so to speak,” he said. “The Republican elites were a little more discredited than we realized.”

To Kristol, all of this is second-guessing, the stuff of graduate seminars decades on. “To the degree that people like me could have done more,” Kristol told me, “then I think we need to do more now.”

He left unsaid the corollary: For the outcast leader of a defunct movement, there’s really nothing left to lose.

Watch the full interview

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