‘We are in a new era’: Trump critic Bill Kristol on the future of conservatism

Feb. 13, 2020, 11:58 p.m.

Despite hints of a scathing rebuke of Trumpism, neoconservative political analyst Bill Kristol delivered a generally temperate discussion of the historical transformations of conservatism, liberalism and liberal democracy at an Arrow Lecture on Thursday evening. 

Kristol began the lecture, titled, “Is a Responsible Conservatism Still Possible? Was It Ever?” by admitting his intention to diverge from the intended subject matter. 

“I am much more convinced than I was even a few months ago — we are facing a crisis of liberal democracy, not just a crisis of conservatism,” Kristol said. 

In the following hour, Kristol presented a historical narrative of how “the mood for change” among both parties’ constituencies culminated in the current American political moment. After more than three decades of what Kristol characterized as largely predictable, cautious calculations about whom to elevate to the office of the presidency, Kristol called attention to the “startling” outcomes of both parties’ 2016 primaries as the beginning of a break with traditional inclinations.

In the wake of those primaries and the following general election, Kristol has found himself in an increasingly lonely “Never Trump” camp, as most of his fellow GOP pundits have fallen in line behind President Trump.

“People like me, who hoped there’d be rebellions at different points or separation or at least some flicker of a flame of non-Trump Republicanism, have been thoroughly disappointed,” Kristol said. “The conservative movement, conservative intellectuals, mostly have accommodated, or rationalized, or even embraced Trump and Trumpism.”

Despite dwindling “Never Trump” sentiment in the Republican Party, Kristol’s opposition to Trump’s reelection remains steadfast. In a New York Times opinion piece, Kristol urged Republicans to back a primary opponent against Trump. When contenders Joe Walsh and Bill Weld failed to gain momentum, Kristol organized outreach encouraging right-leaning independents to support a “responsible and electable candidate” in early Democratic primary elections.

What moved Kristol, a veteran of both the Reagan and the H.W. Bush administrations and the founding editor of the neoconservative political magazine The Weekly Standard, to break rank with Republican peers who stepped back in line when Trump ascended to the presidency? 

Kristol expressed concern that conservatism could collapse into “the challenge of Trump and Trumpism … [the] kind of national, nationalist, populist, demagogic, somewhat authoritarian spirit.”

Kristol conceded that elements of Trump’s peculiar brand of conservatism “were always present in conservatism; they’re probably always present in any big, mass movement.” 

But the “capitulation of the [conservative] movement to those elements,” Kristol said, “is a very depressing thing.”

Speaking to the present and future of American politics, Kristol said, “We are in a new era.”

To answer the lecture’s titular question, Kristol proposed another: Can conservatism rise to the new challenges of a new political moment?

“I’m optimistic that we’ll meet them,” Kristol said. “But I think it’d be foolish to be complacent about that.”

Contact Jackie O’Neil and jroneil ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Jackie O'Neil '21 is The Daily's Vol. 259 staff development director and the former executive editor for Vol. 258 and managing editor of The Grind for Vols. 255 and 256. She's a Richmond, Virginia native studying political science, psychology and ethics. Contact her at joneil 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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