Having served in senior positions for Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush before eventually becoming the editor of the Weekly Standard until 2016, Bill Kristol is an establishment Republican who has been an outspoken critic of Donald Trump. How he believes the GOP should move forward while Trump is president makes for an interesting discussion, which could be seen when he was at American University last night to give a talk on “the future of conservatism and the Republican Party.”
If folks in attendance didn’t already know Kristol wasn’t a big fan of Trump’s, it became apparent almost right from the beginning. He highlighted how Trump was the first president who hadn’t served as an elected official, cabinet member, or high ranking military leader. His status as an “outlier” wasn’t over there as his whole campaign was based upon differentiating himself from the political establishment.
Through things like launching his campaign by talking about how Mexico is sending over drugs, crime, and rapists, attacking a judge with Mexican heritage for how he handled a case involving the Trump organization, or proposing the Muslim Ban after the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Trump made it clear he wouldn’t be running a traditional campaign. But, perhaps because of his experience as a reality TV star, he was able to use this to his advantage and tap into the sentiments expressed by some portions of the general public. People simply were fed up with the elite political establishment who they viewed as out of touch.
Kristol asserts that some of the change people wanted was a candidate who would tap into their sense of nostalgia. Over the course of the last two generations, after all, the voting public had become much more diverse and minorities were playing a larger role in elections. Trump has directly played into this fear people have by claiming Democrats only want to allow illegal immigrants in so that they’ll be able to vote against him in 2020 — a claim that clearly ignores how long the process to become a citizen actually takes.
Although we haven’t necessarily seen it to the degree we do know, these themes aren’t anything new. Kristol pointed out that Trump wasn’t the first “protest candidate” who clearly separated himself from the political establishment. We’ve seen it several times before, but the “protest candidates” traditionally did well in a couple of the early primaries and eventually lost steam as the political establishment reclaimed the throne.
Even during the 2016 Democratic primaries, for instance, Bernie Sanders tapped into a lot of the same sentiment that Trump did. While Bernie was never super harsh on Obama, he did occasionally speak out against him and clearly did not like the policies promoted by either one of the Clintons and was quick to distance himself from their wing of the Democratic Party. He even received roughly the same percentage of primary votes that Trump did (about 45 percent), which means that about half of all primary voters were expressing opposition to the establishment of their political party. Kristol claimed that many analysts, including himself, underestimated this sentiment.
Kristol also highlighted how we often see a large portion of the general public coming out against the political establishment when there’s something major going on. We saw it during Vietnam, for example, and after the Great Depression started. But while there are some major concerns like the endless wars we appear to be battling in the Middle East, Kristol didn’t think it was obvious what major issue folks appear to be revolting against by abandoning the political establishment so quickly.
Despite desperately trying to distance himself from the political establishment, the president was able to attract some of these people to his side during the general election and it was these folks who “put him over the top” in 2016. Kristol referred to this group as “reluctant Trump voters” who were willing to look past some of his rhetoric by claiming he’d be better than Clinton on many of their issues. He really gave Sen. Mitch McConnell a lot of credit for holding Scalia’s seat on the Supreme Court open and reminding the GOP base that the Court is a major issue during the election.
Considering that Krisol is a conservative analyst, it shouldn’t be too surprising that the crowd was largely filled with other conservatives. After Kristol criticized Trump and GOP leaders for buying into a lot of conspiracy theories and inflating statistics to help promote their argument, for example, one student challenged him and claimed it was really the Democrats who promoted conspiracy theories. He claimed the whole Russia collusion investigation as an example of this — something Kristol quickly responded to by pointing out that while we might not know exactly what happened, close Trump associates had clearly met with Russians and then lied about it.
Another person railed against “redistribution of wealth,” but spoke about the need for allowing low income families to have funds to go to college and to receive grants to go to better performing K-12 school systems. This was a somewhat interesting interaction since many of the students in the room might have been benefiting from a similar program, especially since American University cost almost $50,000 a year to attend.
With such a large portion of the crowd appearing to be conservatives, there was a lot of interest in Kristol’s beliefs for how the Republican Party can move forward. This is where Kristol seemed to be a little more optimistic in tone. He claimed that despite how Trump’s presidency represents “unchartered waters” and a blow to American exceptionalism that’s “something you’d expect to see in Europe,” the institutions already in place have provided a check on the Trump Administration.
While Congress didn’t do much to stand up to Trump during the first two years of his presidency and Kristol was appalled by Mitch McConnell’s decision to block legislation to reopen the government if he didn’t know Trump would sign it, the new House of Representatives has made it clear they’ll provide a check on the executive branch. Furthermore, despite all the conservative judges that Trump has appointed, the court system has also stood up to Trump through actions like forcing him to change his Muslim ban on several occasions. Kristol declared “Madison knew what he was doing when made it so one person couldn’t destroy the country.”
Moving forward, Kristol is actively trying to recruit someone to run in the 2020 presidential primaries against Trump. This would represent a drastic change from the last 25 years, which saw three straight presidents serve two terms without facing primary challenges from their own party. It’s perhaps with this sentiment in mind that Kristol claimed the next 20 years will be more like the period between 1960 and 1980, which included multiple presidents not serving out two full terms and incumbent presidents being primaried (like Ted Kennedy taking on Jimmy Carter in 1980).
When Kristol is challenged about why he’s so concentrated on finding a primary challenger, he argued that you have to deal with the short term problem before you can begin implementing the long term change that would be needed to strengthen the Republican Party. “Trump is a symptom that makes it hard to get to the cause,” Kristol exclaimed. He even jokingly pointed out that Democrats should be happy with Trump being primaried because no president has been reelected after facing a serious primary challenger.
In regards to their own primary, however, Kristol insisted “Democrats will have fun with 86 presidential candidates. I don’t think it will hurt them to have this massive field.”
Even among audience members who were strong Trump supporters, many folks appeared to be relieved that there were intellectual conservative thinkers like Kristol who were thinking about the future of the Republican Party. Since a healthy democracy can only serve to help provide the best programs for the general public in contrast to allowing the right flank of the GOP to take over, this is something Democrats would also likely support. It will therefore be interesting to see how people like Kristol are able to move forward with their plans.