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Bill Kristol thinks “people are just too unhappy with the status quo”

I spoke with the conservative commentator about Trump’s rise and liberals’ “strange new respect” for Kristol.

The Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol (L) leads a discussion on PayPal co-founder and former CEO Peter Thiel's National Review article, "The End of the Future," at the National Press Club October 3, 2011 in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Two years ago, Bill Kristol’s conservative credentials were sterling. He is the founder and editor-at-large of the conservative magazine the Weekly Standard.

In the 1990s, he helped kill Bill Clinton’s health care plan, ushering in what one Slate commentator called the death of the “reasonable Republican.” He helped launch Sarah Palin’s national political career. He served as a foreign policy adviser for John McCain during his 2008 presidential campaign.

And he fervently supported the Iraq War, saying in 2003 that US forces “will be welcomed in Baghdad as liberators” and that “very few wars in American history were prepared better or more thoroughly than this one by this president.”

Then came Donald Trump, who, after failing to get Kristol’s support, called him “a dummy” and “a loser.” (Breitbart called him a “renegade Jew.”) Kristol quickly emerged as the never-est of the Never Trumpers — Republicans and conservatives who could not and would not support Trump’s nomination for the presidency.

In March 2016, Kristol told CNN’s Jake Tapper, “People really need to stop and think, do you want Donald Trump to be the national spokesperson through an entire presidential election for the Republican party and the conservative movement? Is that acceptable?”

That’s led to a surprising bedfellows coalition with some liberals, who supported his efforts to find a third-party candidate to challenge Trump and have followed him on Twitter by the thousands.

I talked to Kristol about his feelings on liberals (he thinks they should “rethink their mindless progressivism”), what responsibility conservatives bear for Trump’s rise, and why he thinks Trump may have changed conservatism forever — for the worse. But we started our conversation by discussing the relationship between the conservative movement and conservative voters. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Bill Kristol

Every political movement, and certainly [every] intellectual movement, is obviously a bit orthogonal to the actual interest of voters. I think conservatism has been pretty successful, actually, at navigating between being a sort of excessively abstract movement that would be out of touch entirely of voters and simply capitulating to or mirroring voters’ instincts, prejudices, and so forth.

I mean, it’s not like Pat Buchanan hasn’t existed. It’s not like Ron Paul hasn’t existed. It’s not like there aren’t a lot of things that people like me found, not just distasteful, but really important to defeat within the conservative ambit. I kind of assumed Trumpism was just the latest iteration of that, [like Ross] Perot, if you want to be nicer.

Jane Coaston


Bill Kristol

Who wasn’t, you know, I think bigoted the way Buchanan and Paul are, but still, it was a mixture of sensible unhappiness with certain things and then some various crackpot theories. And so that was the surprise. I think conservatives had gotten too complacent, just too confident, in a way, that these things could be managed. So I wasn’t surprised that the voters weren’t where I was on a lot of things.

I was surprised that Trump was able to be a very successful demagogue and foster anxieties and resentments in ways that couldn’t be overcome by the, quote, “normal” Republican candidates in 2015-2016. I was then surprised that he won the election, as I guess everyone was. I’m not entirely shocked, because I always said during the campaign that he had a one-in-four chance of winning, just because when you’re in a wrong-track environment, the candidate of the status quo always has a risk of losing.

But it is true that once he becomes president, it’s a whole different story. Presidents have real effects on the country, on their own party, on the movement which they’re vaguely associated with. And in that respect, I think it’s very much up in the air for me, you know, how fundamental the effect of Trump is.

Could it be ultimately a kind of unfortunate parenthesis in the history of the Republican Party and of conservatism, modern American conservatism? Or is it an inflection point where the party has to fundamentally rethink itself, or you need to have a new party, or conservatism has to be almost fundamentally redefined, or you have to say, “that was a good 60-year run for American conservatism, but time for something else”?

That, I think, is really, for me, an open question, and more of an open question at the end of this year [2017] than it was at the beginning. I think if we had had this conversation 10 months ago, I would have said, “You know, I think we can get beyond Trump.”

But now the degree of rationalization by Republicans, among Republicans, the degree of excuse-making for Trump, the degree to which Trump has changed, apparently, Republican voters’ views.

That, I think, could be temporary, and yeah, they’re susceptible to that. Voters tend to follow the president of their own party that they voted for. But the degree to which he’s sort of changed conservative thinkers’ views, or seems to have, that’s unnerving and worrisome, and makes me think maybe we are in a more fundamental inflection point.

Jane Coaston

Why do you think voters did not agree with you? If conservatism is working, why do voters not see it?

Bill Kristol

Well, it’s not.

It’s not working as well maybe as it could. It certainly got a little out of touch. I mean, I wouldn’t overdo it. I mean, I think progressives like you would be the first to admit that, much to your displeasure, conservatism has been electorally quite successful. And last I looked, there is a Republican Congress and there are Republican governors, and a fair number of conservative policies are being pursued — some of them intelligent, some of them not so sound. Certainly, the dissatisfaction with elites of both parties is very great.

There were aftereffects of 2008, obviously, and of Iraq and other things, but the degree of unhappiness with elites of both parties and of both ideologies, if you will, is greater than certainly than I would have expected.

Some of that is real, based on stagnant incomes and other things. Some of it is ... people get themselves whipped up and overly unhappy with the way things, are and if politicians can tap into that, people can be very unhappy, even if the objective facts might suggest they shouldn’t be quite that unhappy. At some point, you do have to educate voters and make your case to voters, not just capitulate to them.

The capitulation across the board on the right has been very striking to me. This was a movement that was full of people who had kind of proud memories of themselves or others standing up to the voters at times. And the whole point of conservatism, in a way, is not to believe that the people are always right.

It’s not to believe that history goes in one direction. It’s not to believe the arc of history tells you what you should do. It’s to be a little bit resistant to all that. And because Trump wins one election with 46-point-something percent of the vote, we’re all supposed to just decide that everything we’ve studied for years, all the history we’ve read for years, all the people we’ve admired for years, that was all wrong.

Jane Coaston

There was a lot of talk before Inauguration Day that under Trump, we’re going to be setting fire to NAFTA and that there’s going to be widespread change of a more populist, kind of a Steve Bannon-esque line. But this year, Trump has run, in many ways, a largely standard Republican platform. When Trump is making decisions that you agree with, but it’s still Trump doing it, is that challenging for you, and how do you examine that?

Bill Kristol

It’s somewhat challenging, because of course who makes the decision and how he justifies it does matter as well. So the balls and strikes thing is just simple-minded and silly, ultimately. I mean, you’ve got one team, if you want to use this analogy and belabor it, that isn’t committed to playing the game according to the traditional rules.

At that point, you can’t just sit there and say, “I’m just calling balls and strikes and I don’t care if the pitcher is, you know, stepping 20 feet off the mound and throwing spitballs and trying to bean the other team’s batters.” At some point, you have to say, “We have to defend the rules of the game.”

So it does get complicated. I’m not on the “balls and strikes” side. I’m not on the “fanatically opposed to everything that the Trump administration does because it’s done by the Trump administration side,” either. So I support the moving of the [US] embassy to Jerusalem, or the revision of Title IX, or traditional positions the Weekly Standard has argued for before Trump even existed.

But I think it would also be foolish to go the other direction and say you don’t rethink anything. The fact of Trump is a big fact. You’d be foolish not to rethink your judgment of some aspects of conservatism, insofar as it’s enabled Trump, insofar as so many conservatives are enabling Trump. It has made me rethink certain aspects of conservative doctrine and dogma.

Jane Coaston

Like what?

Bill Kristol

It’s something like voter ID [laws]. Obviously you have to have some way of making sure people don’t vote many times. On the other hand, there are legitimate arguments about how to do that. But someone like me would have said a year or two ago, “Come on. Is having a driver’s license such a big deal?” But I’m a little more sympathetic, I’d say, to the arguments of the left on some of those issues, that there are racial undertones to some of these policies, especially in certain parts of the country.

On other issues, one has to also just say, look, if certain policies are right, or if the world is going to be safer if we do this, the fact that the public is, quote, “war-weary” or the public has certain instincts about how they don’t want to do X, Y or Z, those instincts have be challenged. I mean, just like in the ’30s, the public had all kind of instincts, and a lot of them were very damaging over the next 10 years.

Jane Coaston

I’ve talked to [conservative commentator] Ben Shapiro, for example, about conservative media, and something that Shapiro brought up is that there used to be gatekeepers. One of the first things that [William F. Buckley, founder of National Review] did was essentially kick out the John Birch Society and say, “Okay, we can’t have rampant anti-Semitism. We just can’t do it.” I can even think of National Review basically saying, “Okay, John Derbyshire, you’ve got to go.”

Bill Kristol


Jane Coaston

But what Shapiro says is that over the last five, six, seven years, is that there’s no need for those gatekeepers, so you’re getting kind of the more Breitbart-y, far-right conservatism. What do you think about that?

Bill Kristol

I think a lot of that is just technology and social media, obviously. I’m not one to think that, you know, oh, in the good old days, there were these gatekeepers. I mean, a) they didn’t keep the gates very well. I mean, people are a little too nostalgic about the good old days, and there were a lot of other people who weren’t expelled and a lot of people who did very well in the era of radio in the ’50s. Joe McCarthy existed before social media.

I think people are too nostalgic, on the one hand, and maybe too despairing about the current situation. It’s a free country, you know.

Breitbart is entitled to have their website, and they’re entitled to make their case. Maybe we haven’t done a very good job of making the alternate case. Maybe sometimes the mood just sweeps you along and you have a bad few years.

Again, none of this would be that noticeable, honestly, if Trump hadn’t won. And, look, I don’t mean to minimize that he won, so it’s a big deal. [But] it wasn’t inevitable that he was going to win. He won in a somewhat flukey election.

Jane Coaston

Because of your opposition to Trump, you’ve now got a bunch of liberals who are now saying, “Ah, yes. I have this strange new respect for you,” perhaps changing their views of you in the process. What do you think of that?

Bill Kristol

Well, they should rethink. That’d be good. If they rethought their mindless progressivism and realize that limited government is a good thing. Having a president who doesn’t control the rest of the country, a government that doesn’t control the rest of the country, is a good thing. Federalism is a good thing.

In a lot of states, the locality is morally right, the private sector is a good thing. You don’t want government, the president, personally choosing what companies flourish and which don’t, so you want some markets, sort of impersonal markets to work.

You don’t want America First foreign policy, and that does mean if the alternative is just America withdrawal, there also shouldn’t be America withdrawal, but kind of American-global leadership, so that gets you back in the business of everything from nation building to international alliances.

I mean, Trump in a way is the ultimate victory of a certain kind of identity politics. He saw it as, “Well, gee, if everyone else gets to have identity politics, let’s just have white working-class identity politics.”

And guess what? The white working class is big, and the white working-class identity politics turned out to be pretty nasty, and since they’re bigger than the various minority groups that were engaged in identity politics, it turns out they win an election and can follow up some of these things in a very nasty way.

Jane Coaston

It’s interesting that you said that, because there is a reflexive anti-liberalism that is a part of, I think, some of modern conservatism.

Bill Kristol


Jane Coaston

Where the point is not, “This is a good policy.” The point is, “This is going to make liberals really upset.”

Bill Kristol


Jane Coaston

And you hear from Trump supporters that, “Well, conservatives just never fought.” What do you think about that?

Bill Kristol

They should go back and read histories of Reagan’s uphill struggles and others’ later on, and fights over the Iraq War, which you mentioned. It did not end up being a popular position to support the surge in 2006 and defend it in 2007, so I think we’ve fought plenty. Look, any movement will have a certain reflexive, “If they like it, we shouldn’t like it.” You and I do this. I’m sure everyone does this.

As a serious guide to policy or to politics it’s, of course, idiotic, and it’s depressing how many conservatives don’t see that. This is honestly the essence of their understanding of politics, as hating the things that the people they hate like.

Why do they even hate the people in the first place, though? I mean, that’s sort of — it’s sort of circular, right? I guess because I don’t know why, because they’ve been fighting them for 10 years or they have temperamental dislike for them or something like that.

It is right-wing identity politics. The left in America today is multicultural, multiethnic, younger, diverse, different from some of these Trump supporters’ view of America, and they look at that and they just recoil; then they decide they love Trump because he’s making [the left] very angry. That’s childish. And we all probably indulge that a little too much on the right.

I guess I’ll make this point. You mentioned earlier about people being so unhappy. There’s something a little crazy about our discourse now, I think. I mean, America in 2016, 2017 is not the worst country in the history of the world to live in.

The liberal world order, with America at its core over the last 70 years, has not produced the worst 70 years in history of the world, let alone in the history of the last 100 years.

We kind of know what the first half of the 20th century was like. It’s not so that there hasn’t been progress in a huge number of social spheres. Here, I will argue against conservatives and give liberals some credit for that.

People are just too unhappy with the status quo, in my opinion. If you came down and looked at America and at the world, you’d say there’s a fair amount to be happy and be grateful for.

And that’s always what conservatives were pretty good at, actually, was making the point to progressives that, “Hey, slow down here. There’s a lot to be grateful for, and you shouldn’t take it for granted before you race off to change this or that.” That’s a kind of sensible conservative instinct. And it would be nice to have a bit of a return of that.

Jane Coaston

Do you think that conservatism or the conservative movement bears any responsibility for Donald Trump?

Bill Kristol

Yeah. Just practically speaking, I mean, most conservatives opposed Trump in the primaries, and that’s good. But there was a fair amount of accommodation to Trump even early and then, of course, some massive accommodation to Trump once he clinched the nomination.

So just in a very practical sense, conservatives and the conservative movement bear some responsibility for the fact that he’s president. ... And since he’s been president, there has obviously been a lot of rationalizing of him, so again, just in a very kind of concrete way, the answer has to be yes. In a deeper way, in terms of the last five, 10, 20, 30, 40 years, I would say yes.

There was a kind of, in retrospect, excessive tolerance of things that should have been denounced more firmly. I mean, I thought we denounced them. I will say, you know, the Weekly Standard was pretty unapologetically anti-birther and anti-Buchanan and anti-Ron Paul, and anti- so many things that Trump exploited. Pretty liberal on immigration, but maybe in retrospect we didn’t take those things serious enough.

When we started denouncing Trump, it seemed to help him in a way. There was always that argument of, “Well, if you establishment types denounce him, that’s just going to make him look stronger.” I never bought that. I think that’s a big excuse people use. I mean, it’s idiotic. You have to make your case as much as you can even if people will try to turn it against you.

I am personally surprised by the amount of rationalizing and enabling of Trump. I think I underestimated the power of rationalization as a human psychological fact. They start with a very hardheaded look, [saying] he’s not good and the tweeting is horror, he’s a jerk, and the tweeting is distasteful, but you know, we’ll get this and this. He’ll be better than Hillary and we can live with it, but we’ll have to control him.

And then a month later it’s, “The media is being very unfair in their attacks. He’s getting more done than you realize.” And a month later it’s, “Some of the stuff you think is vulgar is probably necessary to really break though.” And then a month later it’s, “I kinda think he’s saying some things that other people haven’t said.”

Within six months, people I know personally, they started off with a very hardheaded, limited defense of Trump. And they’re now all in and saying that Robert Mueller is some partisan hack who wants to destroy Trump and no other Republican has ever fought for anything. It’s just kind of idiotic Trumpy talking points. That slippery slope is more slippery than I realized.