The 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference made it clear the conservative movement now belongs lock, stock, and barrel to President Trump. During those balmy days at the Gaylord Resort in Maryland, it seemed everyone’s loyalty was being tested, and woe to those who came up lacking.
Among the stranger bits of swag at the conference was a “Draft Sheriff Clarke for Senate” lip balm. On the label it read, “For the treatment of low T RINOs and GOP Eunuchs…ineffective for Lindsay Graham-ism.” But if Graham was the most hated conservative politician at the conference, the most hated journalist was very clearly Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol.
From the beginning of Trump’s candidacy, Kristol has arguably been his most ardent critic on the Right. A year ago, Kristol’s position was shared by almost every voice in conservative journalism. National Review ran an entire issue arguing that Trump was dangerous, not just for conservatism but for the country. In the wake of Trump’s victory, most of us have found ways to come to terms with it. Not Kristol.
Why Bill Kristol Has Changed When Others Have Not
There are good reasons why many formerly fierce critics of the president have accepted their diagnosis as eunuchs and sought out Trumpian treatment for the condition. A cynical reason is financial, as McKay Coppins put it in The Atlantic: “For those aspiring stars of the conservative media considering a rebrand, there’s no lack of successful role models. Talking heads like Kayleigh McEnany, Scottie Hughes, and Jeffrey Lord went from relative obscurity to cable news fame during the 2016 election by emerging to fill the void of pro-Trump pundits on TV. Meanwhile, a new journal called American Affairs launched this week offering a platform for intellectuals seeking to defend Trump’s vision.”
But beyond the bandwagon of money and fame there are responsible reasons for reconsidering absolute opposition to the president. It is clear that he spoke to a much larger percentage of the American people than most conservative pundits a year ago believed possible. In part, coming around to Trump isn’t just coming around to Trump; it’s coming around to the millions who voted for him and trying to understand why. For some Never Trump veterans, this means fully supporting the president now, for others it means calling balls and strikes on his policies and ignoring his untamed rhetoric, but for Kristol, nothing has changed.
For his conservative critics, the question for Kristol is why can’t he just get on board? He is portrayed as a sore loser, a weak figure of a former age who clings to principle and refuses to understand that conservatism is in a no-holds-barred war with progressivism.
A glance back through Kristol’s impressive biography might offer clues to his recalcitrance. Kristol is a scion of neoconservatism. His father, Irving, helped forge in the smithy of City College of New York the Trotskyite foundations of what would become conservative internationalism. In the late 1970s Bill worked for Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a hawkish Democrat who preached personal responsibility.
As that kind of Democrat slipped from existence, Kristol and many other neocons switched allegiance to the GOP, where for several decades they held outsized influence. So, even 40 years ago, Bill Kristol was not tied to a political party so much as to a political philosophy. On many issues, such as trade, the Iraq War, immigration, and myriad others, Trump’s political philosophy is anathema to Kristol’s life work.
Trump and Conservatism Need Dissent
In the CPAC straw poll, a whopping 86 percent of conservatives approved of the job the president has been doing. But if 14 percent at what amounted to Trump-a-palooza disapprove, that number is surely higher in the rest of the conservative sphere. According to an NBC poll, for example, only 63 percent of Republicans believe the president is off to “great start.” That means millions of Republicans still feel trepidation.
Under normal circumstances the unease many conservatives feel towards the president and his policies would result in jockeying, compromise, and thoughtful debate. But these are not hallmarks of Trump or his most ardent supporters. It isn’t just “With us or against us,” it’s “With us, or you are an enemy of the American people.”
Meanwhile, those on those Right who are still offering milder criticism of the president say “That’s just how he talks,” or “Ignore the rhetoric and focus on results.” That may be sound advice, and there is certainly no shortage of unhinged progressive reaction to the president’s every utterance. But given the fractures in conservatism right now, there must also be a place for full-throated opposition on the Right to the very real changes Trump’s Reform Party brand of conservatism is ushering in.
Many conservatives who are not willing to trade in their traditional values for populist nationalism feel politically homeless. This is not the first time this has happened. In 2003, in National Review David Frum wrote an article called “Unpatriotic Conservatives,” excoriating those who questioned the adventurism of the Iraq War. That kind of name-calling is not very different from the attacks Trump-supporting outlets today level at conservatives who are not sufficiently deferential to the president.
Squashing dissent was wrong in 2003, and it is wrong today. Going along to get along and admitting mistakes has its place, and it is where most on the Right stand today. But a president who angrily tweets before breakfast and has harsher criticism for Sen. John McCain than for Russian President Vladimir Putin makes many conservatives uneasy. Kristol provides a service as one of few conservative voices left who refuse to shrug and say, “This is fine.”
Bill Kristol Makes Space for Necessary Criticism
Kristol’s acerbic attacks on Trump provide space for the more modest criticism the rest of us offer. Rest assured, without the target Kristol provides, those more constrained attacks on Trump would be squarely in Trump’s crosshairs.
One of the things many conservatives have long valued is diversity of opinion. We rail against those on college campuses who refuse to listen to ideas they disagree with. We rightfully consider such attitudes close-minded and un-American. If we cling to nothing else as conservatism changes in the age of Trump, we must cling to this. CPAC’s disinvitation of Milo Yiannopoulos this year was troubling in exactly this regard, as are the over-the-top attacks on Kristol, which included Breitbart calling him a “Renegade Jew.”
If Kristol never wrote another word, his place in the history of American conservatism would be secure. Many former liberals, myself included, came to conservatism through his pragmatic and convincing ideas. Perhaps this is why he feels free to attack the president as vigorously as he does. He need not bend his knee nor kiss the ring of the power.
Free voices are important and should be heeded. He’s playing hardball and making people angry, but then again, so is the president. We still need Bill Kristol and, luckily for us, he isn’t going anywhere.