“WHAT IS HAPPENING?”
The question—framed in uppercase urgency on Bill Kristol’s Twitter feed—is redolent of the sheer, shrieking panic of the teenage girl in the 1982 horror movie Poltergeist as she witnesses her home being invaded by demonic spirits.
The 64-year-old Kristol—longtime Republican theorist and operative, founding editor of The Weekly Standard, son of neoconservative icon Irving Kristol, frequent television pundit, and sworn enemy of all things Trump—added in his tweet on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving: “The GOP tax bill’s bringing out my inner socialist. The sex scandals are bringing out my inner feminist. Donald Trump and Roy Moore are bringing out my inner liberal.”
“That tweet got a little more attention that it deserved, I’m sure,” Kristol told The Daily Beast in a wide-ranging interview that touched on the recent sexual misconduct scandals that have swept over Sen. Al Franken, New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush, and fired CBS This Morning cohost Charlie Rose; the attempts to infantilize the news media by White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders; and the uncanny human ability—as demonstrated in the cases of Donald Trump and Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore—to rationalize almost anything, no matter how appalling.
Kristol, who has good-naturedly acknowledged in recent years that most of political prognostications were wrong (an entire Twitter handle, Kristol in History, is devoted to his erroneous predictions), also seemed a tad baffled by the strange and disturbing things currently befalling his beloved nation’s capital.
“I’ve been in D.C. more than three decades,” he tweeted on Thanksgiving Eve. “I’ve always had something to say (or at least I’ve always thought I had something to say). In the face of this headline” [“#BREAKING: GOP lawmaker apologizes after photo of his penis is posted online”]...“I’m speechless.”
Kristol added on Twitter: “It’s obviously time for a 28th Amendment to the Constitution: ‘Until we can figure out what the hell is going on, only Americans of the female sex shall be eligible to serve in the Congress of the United States.’”
All of which has prompted liberal Vox writer Matthew Yglesias to speak for many in Washington’s chattering class: “Woke Bill Kristol is the most surreal 2017 trend.”
“It’s a moment where maybe I don’t know what’s happening, is the short answer,” Kristol said in the interview. “I don’t know what’s happening in terms of where it goes for conservatives, where it goes for the Republican Party, and where it goes for the country. The highest hope, I guess, is that Donald Trump was a one-off, with his fluke-ish victory in the primaries and his fluke-ish victory in the general election, and we can make it through this term and then end up with a basically healthy Republican Party and conservative movement.
“But, a year after the election,” Kristol continued, “that’s much more in question. The degree to which Republicans are stuck with Trump, and conservatives rationalize Trump, makes me wonder where things are going.”
Kristol sounded especially worried about the growing number of fellow Republicans who reflexively defend the president, no matter how dubious his statements and actions.
“One of the things I’ve learned is the power of rationalization; I guess psychologists can speak intelligently about it,” Kristol said. “Trump corrupts… Once you start rationalizing Trump, you rationalize minor things, you rationalize major things, then you rationalize the criminal behavior of other people for the sake of Trumpism.”
Kristol counts the Trump White House’s support for Senate candidate Roy Moore—to say nothing of his diehard backers in Alabama—as an example of this phenomenon.
“What strikes me about the Roy Moore thing is that there is no real question that he did what The Washington Post discovered he had done with a 14-year-old girl,” Kristol said. “It’s very credible and I do find the Roy Moore thing appalling.”
Meanwhile, Kristol, who was an occasional guest on Charlie Rose’s eponymous (and now canceled) PBS program, said “I’m neither shocked nor not shocked” about the mushrooming sexual misconduct allegations against the disgraced television journalist. “I had heard a couple of the rumors… It sounds like his behavior is pretty outrageous, but with some of the other people getting swept in this, maybe a little less so.”
Concerning Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken, “I would not call for his resignation,” Kristol said. “I’m basically against these calls, and I’m generally against elected officials resigning. There are times when they should resign, there are times when they should be disciplined, and there are times when the voters should make the decision… I’m not against calling for an investigation in Franken’s case,” and the Senate Ethics Committee is pursuing such a probe. “I’m a hardliner on sexual harassment stuff,” said Kristol, the father of two daughters.
Kristol, meanwhile, ridiculed press secretary Huckabee Sanders’ edict, during Tuesday’s White House press briefing, that reporters were required to say what they were thankful for in order for her to answer their questions.
“You can’t even parody anything anymore,” Kristol marveled. “It reminded me so much of third grade, where the teacher goes around the class and wants the kids to say what he or she is thankful for. ‘I’m thankful for Roy Moore.’ Trump is thankful for himself… Did anyone have the nerve to say they were thankful for Robert Mueller?”
Not exactly, but a couple of White House correspondents in the briefing room pointedly expressed gratitude for the First Amendment.
Kristol—who, like much of the media-political complex, never imagined that Trump could be a serious candidate, let alone the 45th president—is the embodiment of Beltway insiderism, the sort of Washington establishment swamp creature that the former reality television star spent his angry-populist, demagogic campaign inveighing against, and continues to trash from the White House.
Even worse, Kristol is a card-carrying elitist.
Unlike the book-averse, Queens-born Trump, he grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side the child of intellectuals (his mother, Gertrude Himmelfarb, was a celebrated historian), and received his undergraduate and doctoral degrees from Harvard University, taught political philosophy at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, worked in centrist-Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1976 Senate race, and toiled in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush (where he was Vice President Dan Quayle’s chief of staff, nicknamed “Quayle’s Brain”).
In other words, Kristol is everything Trump’s more rabid supporters on social media seem to despise.
Things got ugly, and arguably anti-Semitic, during last year’s campaign when Stephen Bannon’s Trump-loving Breitbart News published a May 2016 attack under the headline: “BILL KRISTOL: REPUBLICAN SPOILER, RENEGADE JEW.”
Kristol, who at the time was trying to recruit a third-party candidate to derail the speeding Trump Train, responded back then: “I’m a proud Jew, strong supporter of Israel. I don’t think I’ve ever been called a renegade Jew before… It’s a big country, a lot of people, and people can build their websites and engage in that kind of rhetoric and put headlines on pieces like that, I suppose.”
These days, Kristol is a champion of sorts of the Resistance, neoconservative division.
In his columns for The Weekly Standard, where he stepped down last year as editor in chief but remains editor at large, he has called for Trump to resign the presidency, writing recently that even if it’s easy to dismiss the notion as “impractical and wishful,” “Why not think more seriously about whether such a thing could become possible and how the groundwork might be laid for such an eventuality? Is it a dereliction of duty not to work towards such an outcome? Such an outcome is, after all, what sensible people would be pushing for if we lived in a parliamentary system. Why not borrow a page from the British?”
And he has described the Trump-occupied GOP as “torn between demagogues who appeal to the lowest-common-denominator concerns of voters and establishment types who roam like zombies on a terrain they can no longer navigate, among citizens for whom they have little in the way of answers.”
It’s probably no surprise that Kristol—who once led earnest, think-tanky discussions limning the future of the party and successfully pushed for George W. Bush to intervene militarily in Iraq (with disastrous results)—has been marginalized by the Republicans controlling the levers of power in the White House and on Capitol Hill.
In a more conventional political milieu, this policy wonk was accustomed to being listened to, and even seeing his ideas enacted. For instance, it was Kristol, in 1993, who was credited with formulating the Republican strategy that defeated first lady Hillary Clinton’s crusade to remake the nation’s health care system.
“Look, it’s important to stand up and do my best in this moment,” he said. “I think it would be bad for the country if the choice is between Donald Trump and his authoritarian nationalist populism, on the one hand, and Bernie Sanders and his intolerant, close-minded progressivism, on the left. The country deserves a better choice than that. So that’s my simple-minded view.”
Kristol said his famous father, who died in 2009 at age 89, would have been “distressed” by the Age of Trump, “but he liked to say he was a cheerful pessimist”—an attitude the son seems to have taken on board.
“There are a lot of good people in politics,” Bill Kristol insisted, hopefully. “There are some ethical members in Congress of both parties, although I’m more inclined to Republicans in general. And they need to be encouraged.”