Bill Kristol Wanders the Wilderness of Trump World |


Early this September, The Weekly Standard embarked on its annual
cruise, for which its subscribers pay several thousand dollars to secure
a berth and a chance to spend time with the eminences of the
conservative opinion journal, including its founder and animating
spirit, Bill Kristol. The cruise set off this year from Dublin, where
Kristol admired a Vermeer exhibition, and then proceeded south to
Cherbourg, France. Most of the cruise passengers travelled to the D Day
beaches of Normandy, but Kristol had visited them before, and so he went
instead to see the Bayeux Tapestry, a two-hundred-and-thirty-foot-long,
eleventh-century embroidery depicting the events leading to the
Battle of Hastings, in 1066. “Really amazing!” Kristol reported.

It was somewhere between Dublin and Lisbon when Kristol noticed that a
subtle shift had occurred in his relationship to the rest of the
passengers. Readers of The Weekly Standard incline toward loyalty:
they have remained by Kristol’s side when he pushed for the invasion of
Iraq, when he urged John McCain’s campaign to select Sarah Palin as the
Vice-Presidential nominee, and when he grew appalled by the nativism of
the Donald Trump campaign. When the primaries were all but over, he
conducted a high-profile and increasingly quixotic search for a
right-leaning alternative to run as an Independent candidate. Mitt
Romney, Ben Sasse, and James Mattis all took meetings with the editor
but rejected his entreaties, until finally Kristol settled on a
national-security blogger named David French, whom he had met a few
times; eventually, French declined, too. Weekly Standard readers were
in Kristol’s corner during the decade he was an eminence at Fox News,
and they stood by him during the Presidential campaign when he called
the network “ridiculous” and pronounced Tucker Carlson’s show “close now
to racism”; “Donald Trump Is Crazy, and So Is the GOP for Embracing Him,” the
headline of a Standard dispatch from the Republican National
Convention, in Cleveland, read. But Kristol’s sardonic sense of the
gallows had lingered into the Trump Administration, and among his
readers this had begun to chafe. Throughout the cruise, passengers kept
coming up to the editor to say that he was being “too tough on Trump,”
and that the continued drumbeat of criticism might have grown pointless,
Kristol recalled at lunch in Washington the other day. He was still a little
perplexed at the memory. “And these are Weekly Standard subscribers!”

Among those Republicans who think that the President is an abomination, the
progress of the Trump phenomenon has unmasked the nature of their own
coalition. Within the libertarian movement, a nativist strain had
festered; the family-values faction turned out to be quite tactical in
withholding criticism in exchange for access to power. Certain
revelations did not surprise Kristol. “One always knew, if one was
intelligent, that there was this strain of xenophobia,” he said. “The
idea that democracies could be vulnerable to demagogues is not a new

The real surprise for him, unfurling in stages, and fully apparent only
this fall, was the ways in which Republican élites had accommodated
themselves to Trump: elected officials, conservative pundits, donors—in
a very real sense, Kristol’s people. That more or less the full House
Republican caucus has taken up the President’s war against the F.B.I.
was especially distressing (“They’ve gone full conspiracy”), but the
general pattern he saw went further than that. “People are defending
things that I think a year and a half ago would have horrified them,”
Kristol said, and ticked them off: the demonization of the F.B.I., the
racial attacks on Barack Obama, the personalization of politics, “the
kind of business deals Jared”—Kushner, the President’s son-in-law, who
serves as a senior White House adviser—“is doing.” Kristol has been an
operator in Washington for a generation; he is, he stressed, not a naïf.
“But to see it in real time and to see so many people on your side, so
to speak, fall for it, or rationalize it . . .” The word concentrated
his attention. “It’s the rationalization,” Kristol said.

When Trump offered only equivocations after the white-supremacist
demonstrations in Charlottesville, last August, Kristol had assumed that
the same Republican leaders who had spent months telling him in private
that they could not stand Trump would finally break with the President.
When they did not, Kristol and his wife, Susan Scheinberg, a classics
scholar, were so infuriated that they sent a two-hundred-dollar donation
to the campaign of the Democrat Ralph Northam, who was running for
governor of Virginia against the Republican Ed Gillespie, whom Kristol
considered something of a friend. “What happened with Charlottesville?”
he wondered, at lunch. “Wasn’t that supposed to be a big moment when all
the businessmen were like, ‘You know, I can’t be on the board.’ And
three months later, ‘Hey, great work on the tax bill!’ What happened
there?” Kristol paused. “So, yeah, I’m a little freaked out.”

He has been conducting something of an internal experiment on how much
his partisan loyalties might bend before they break. The results have
been interesting to him. When Northam won the Virginia governor’s race,
in November, and enough Democratic legislative candidates won to turn
the suburbs from red to blue, “I found myself pleased,” Kristol said. He
has been wondering how he would feel if Democrats won the House in 2018.
“I’m a little surprised by my own reactions over the last two or three
months along those lines,” he said. “One really is conflicted. I really could make
a case that the country would be better off with the Democrats running
the House, because, if the Republicans aren’t willing to check Trump,
someone has to.”

Kristol, who is sixty-five, has been an indispensable conservative
operator since the end of the Cold War, when he served as Vice-President
Dan Quayle’s chief of staff and, later, circulated an enormously
influential policy memo that marshalled Republican opposition to the
Clinton Administration’s health-reform plans. In 1995, he co-founded The Weekly Standard, which became an institutional home for his strain
of neoconservatism, the system of beliefs that his father, the famed
intellectual Irving Kristol, had originally helped to assemble and which
had its greatest influence in the prelude to the Iraq War. For a
generation, whenever conservatism and power coincided, he has been
nearby: as a key intellectual architect of the Iraq War, as an
influential adviser to the McCain and Romney campaigns. In Trump’s
Washington, however, his place has been on the periphery, as one of the
less likely members of the resistance. His contract with Fox News was
cancelled a few years ago; when he appears on television now, it is
usually on CNN or MSNBC. He knows maybe “a couple of people” in the
Administration, but that’s it.

Part of the emotional condition of semi-exile in Washington is to be a
little less sure of why any given decision is made, and a little more
sure that each of these decisions will turn out badly. “The tide is
towards Trump,” Kristol said, a little gloomily. Even as popular opinion
has turned against the President, the élites of his party have
consolidated around Trump. “It’s gradual. So you start off saying, ‘This
is terrible, but we’ll get a few things out of it.’ Two months later,
‘It’s not that terrible.’ Four months later, ‘The media’s unfair, and,
furthermore, if he didn’t blow things up, he wouldn’t be achieving his
goals.’ And, six months later, they’re kind of on board.” Kristol said,
“Rationalization turns out to be a stronger psychological force than I

In the spring of 2017, Kristol handed the day-to-day operations of his
magazine to a longtime colleague, Stephen Hayes. Kristol still has a
column, and still commutes to work each day from the Virginia suburbs,
but the new arrangement means that he has more time to himself. This
fall, the Kristols travelled to Japan, where Bill gave two public
talks—something between an excuse for the trip and a reason for it. He
met Japanese officials, journalists, political operators; they were “so
polite, diplomatic, indirect,” he reported, that it usually took a few
minutes to breach the deeper wells of anxiety. First, Kristol would hear
some proud noises about how well Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had managed
the President, and then there would be some comforted cooing that
involved the syllables “H. R. McMaster.” After that, though, it was a
beeline to trauma. Kristol recalled the questions he was asked: “ ‘Do
they know what they’re doing?’ ‘Is there a strategy?’ ‘Do they
understand’ ”—this part vis-à-vis North Korea—“ ‘that we’re right
here?’ ” Kristol held up his hands, mimicking his own defensive
replies: “Maybe, I don’t know, I hope so!”

Trump’s Ambassador to Japan, a Tennessee businessman and “pretty good
guy” named William Hagerty, asked him if he could say something
“reassuring.” Kristol took it under advisement. At his first talk, he
opened by saying that, though he had been asked to be reassuring, he
could not, because he himself was not reassured. “And it was, like,
laughter, nervous laughter. And I could see the woman from the Embassy
who had come from the talk. And she was, like, ‘Aaaah!’ She has to
report to the Ambassador that Kristol is not entirely on message.”

Kristol is often asked to predict what will happen in politics. In 2002,
he said that military action in Iraq “would start a chain reaction in
the Arab world that would be very healthy.” He insisted that the Bush
tax cuts would ease the deficit, rather than exploding it. In 2008, he
predicted that Obama would not win a single Presidential primary;
in 2011, that Rudy Giuliani would run for President; and, in 2015, that
Joe Biden would. On different occasions late in the Obama era, Kristol
declared that Jennifer Granholm, the former Michigan governor, was about
to be picked as a Supreme Court Justice and likely to wind up on a
national ticket as Obama’s Vice-President.

Lately, Kristol has been wondering if, in some fundamental way, he has
misapprehended the country. Over the years, he had come to think of the
nativist right as a generally static force in American life—there had
been George Wallace, and Pat Buchanan, and Ron Paul, but their support
had a limit. “It was contained,” Kristol explained. For our lunch,
Kristol had picked a familiar haunt, a small, slightly fussy hotel
restaurant a few blocks from his office, and he started to talk about
the end of the Cold War. Then, there had been a great feeling that a
break with the past was imminent—Jeane Kirkpatrick, Ronald Reagan’s U.N.
Ambassador, was calling for a renewed domestic focus; Francis Fukuyama,
a neoconservative fellow-traveller, was declaring a beneficent end of
history, in which the world might no longer need a policeman. And yet,
as the nineteen-nineties evolved, America continued to play more or less
the same role, at times idealistic and at times profoundly cynical;
there was no sharp break with the past. “It was a huge moment, but
Clinton and Bush kind of carried forward,” Kristol said. “In a weird
way, all of the prophecies or hopes that there would be a radical
discontinuity turned out not to be the case. We’re not going to have a
unipolar world. Europe’s not going to be a power equal to the United
States.” The experience of watching the Cold War end and the United
States soldier on, Kristol said, “probably misled you into thinking that
the thing was more stable than it actually was.”

This was a condition of Kristol’s politics, and his generation’s: that
the country could handle a war, a bit of populism, and a conservative
turn on immigration without succumbing to nativism or demagoguery.
Surely a nation that could stagger through the end of the Cold War
essentially unaltered could make it through that. Kristol will often
wonder out loud—as he did in Tokyo—whether Trump represents a
“parenthesis” or a more permanent turn. “I think there’s a lot about the
country in the last seventy years or hundred and seventy years that is
probably a little less secure than we thought,” he said.

Kristol stayed at home over Christmas and the New Year, and so, when
anti-government protests gathered momentum across Iran, he had a lot of
time to watch the news and to consider what to do. The protests were
geographically broad, not just limited to Tehran or to élites, and they
were pointed: the reports were that some Iranians in the streets had
been shouting “Death to the Dictator,” just as they had shouted “Death to
the Shah,” in 1979. “I thought it was a big moment,” Kristol recalled,
and then edited himself slightly: “Or could be a big moment.” If any
foreign-policy emotion brings together the Republican Party, it is an
existential alarm at the regime in Tehran, and suddenly that regime
seemed to be wobbling. Kristol’s daily life for the past two years had
been heavy on caustic tweets. Here was an opportunity to do something:
“I got excited.”

Quite quickly, he found the old rhythm. “I really have no expertise in
this,” Kristol said, meaning Iran, but he does have some experience in
finding ideas and marketing them. “You make some calls,” he said. “You
see what’s what, who’s where, what congressman could do something. You
talk to a couple of members and their staff. You sort of suggest, ‘Hey,
you should take a look and maybe we could have some non-nuclear
sanctions or maybe you could help the protesters with
communication’—whatever.” He thought any initiative should be
bipartisan, and so he nudged the neoconservative Mark Dubowitz to
co-author an op-ed with the Obama Administration diplomat Daniel
Shapiro. If he had little faith in the President’s instincts, then he
had some real confidence in the national-security adviser, H. R.
McMaster. The Iran-policy community in Washington is mature, and Kristol
is near the center of it; after a few days, it seemed that the government
might respond, that for all the madness of Trump, permanent patterns
were reasserting themselves. Kristol told me, “I remember thinking,
O.K., this is what Washington is.”

It is, at least, a particular view of what Washington is, one that
seemed especially resonant during the Iraq War, in which a consensus
formed among a small group of people that bombs should be dropped on
other people in a faraway corner of the world. But the vision was
fleeting. The protests in Iran had begun on December 28th. By the
morning of January 1st, someone had prevailed on Trump to
tweet about them. “Iran is failing at every level despite the terrible
deal made with them by the Obama Administration,” he wrote. A day later,
the President
called the
Iranian regime “brutal and corrupt,” writing, “The people have
little food, big inflation and no human rights. The U.S. is watching!”
Kristol was, on balance, encouraged. “Not how I would have put it,” he
explained, “but directionally right.” In his own conversations with
staffers and policy intellectuals, however, he could sense an
atmospheric turgidity. “It’s just—it’s not a very competent
Administration,” he said. “Some of the appointees aren’t great. Some
jobs aren’t filled. Some of the normal exchanges with Congress that
would have been going on for a year don’t exist. So it’s a little bit
scrambling to put things together from scratch.” The project of
determining the best way to intervene in Iran seemed stuck in the
think tanks; no one seemed to know quite how to get something done.
Kristol said, “Then he tweets about Hillary”—Clinton—“and he tweets
about the F.B.I. and it’s, like, Geez, we’re back in Trump World.”

Right now, much of Republican Washington is enveloped in the problem of
the potentially persuadable tyrant. The more ignorant, distracted, and
internally inconsistent you believe Trump to be, the more likely you are
to think you might sway him. “Bob Corker breaks with him and everybody
says Bob Corker’s great, and then Bob Corker’s on Air Force One, saying,
‘I want to work with him,’ ” Kristol said. If Kristol understood the
allure, it was because he was occasionally susceptible to it—able to
revisit the old certainties, suspend his doubt. “You can’t be totally
paralyzed and check out of world politics for four years because Donald
Trump is President—that would be totally irresponsible. On the other
hand . . .” Kristol trailed off. On the other hand, there was the
ignorance and variability of the President and the darkness of his
movement. Real power ran through it. “This is the problem everybody


No votes yet.
Please wait...


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here