The Columbia University College Republicans invited “Never Trumper” Bill Kristol, former editor-at-large of The Weekly Standard, to campus last night. Senior Staff Writer Abby Rubel attended the talk, whose topics ranged from an analysis of the 2016 election to the future of the Republican Party.
In previous semesters, CUCR has invited inflammatory speakers like Pizzagate conspiracist Mike Cernovich, Ann Coulter, and Tommy Robinson. This semester, however, they seem to be backing away from that high-profile yet controversial strategy by inviting establishment figures like Bill Kristol and National Review editor Rich Lowry, who will appear at a future event in April.
For those who haven’t kept up with who’s who on the neoconservative scene since the alt-right started grabbing headlines, Kristol is a political analyst most known for his work at The Weekly Standard, a conservative opinion magazine. (The New Yorker described it as “the most influential, and often the most interesting, publication of the American right.”) The Standard was killed over the winter, partly because it promoted firmly unpopular (with Republicans) anti-Trump views. Kristol himself is a vocal critic of the president.
Wary of last year’s disruptions, CUCR took the precaution of stationing a public safety officer outside the room, but no protestors made their presence known. In fact, the only confrontational moment came when an audience member challenged Kristol’s statement that Trump is pushing the Republican Party to the “wrong side of history” on many social issues.
Kristol’s attitude is best summed up in a story he relayed about a Trump rally he attended. He spoke with a woman who recognized him as a Trump critic, and he asked her why she supported Trump. The woman replied that she wanted to “blow things up” because they “couldn’t be worse.” Kristol was shocked. “Really? Isn’t that a little dangerous?” he asked incredulously.
Throughout his talk, Kristol seemed positively bewildered by the path the Republican Party has taken. He sounded like he could not quite grasp the deep resentment felt by Trump (and Bernie Sanders) supporters, because he thought things had been going just fine. When the Trump supporter told him she wanted radical change, Kristol couldn’t comprehend why that would be—wasn’t America working like it was supposed to? “It’s hard to say ‘this isn’t great, but it could be worse,’” he said, “that’s not a popular argument.” Yet, it seemed to be the argument he was making. Kristol constantly alluded to the improvements both in America and abroad, and seemed almost puzzled that people could find so much fault with the current order.
Kristol opened by stating that he didn’t want to litigate the Trump question any more than he already has, although Trump dominated the talk anyway. “If we think the Republican Party has something to offer,” he said, “we should try to save it from Trump and Trumpism.”
He then presented his analysis of the 2016 election, which he said was the story of both Trump and Sanders, two populist candidates running against their party’s establishment. In a year without an obvious, extraordinary amount of social, economic, or geopolitical turmoil, the appeal of these untraditional candidates was highly unusual. Clearly, Kristol said, there was more discontent than most realized at first. He also admitted that he “underestimated” the impact that instant communications would have on the election. Social media, in particular, proved “pretty disruptive in all kinds of ways.”
Kristol attributed much of Trump and Sanders’s appeal to the social, ethnographic, and cultural changes of the last few years. Although he argued that these changes, primarily a result of globalization, were overwhelmingly positive, he acknowledged that the establishment was complacent and didn’t explain or defend them well.
He then turned to Trump’s candidacy specifically. “I didn’t think Trump would win the Republican nomination,” Kristol said, although he “always thought Trump had a chance in the general election” because “being the candidate of change is pretty powerful.” He took this opportunity to defend George H. W. Bush’s administration, saying that the reason Bush lost to Bill Clinton in 1992 was that Clinton was the candidate of change and that Bush’s main selling point, “competent foreign policy,” was no longer desirable because “we had won the Cold War, basically.”
Generally, Kristol said, people will pick the candidate with bad answers over the candidate with no answers. (Fans of Hamilton will remember the moment where Hamilton supports Jefferson over Burr for exactly that reason.) However, Kristol said, Trump’s answers were bad enough that he thought people would be repelled by them, that they would be scared enough of the implications of Trump’s policies that they would settle for Hillary Clinton’s.
He also defended the tradition of the Republican Party. “Republicans should feel that they’re basically vindicated,” he said, particularly with regard to foreign policy and free markets. He acknowledged the criticism Republicans have faced on social issues, and said the party was “on the wrong side of history” on that front. Overall, however, he said, “the Republican tradition is a good one; it deserves to move forward.”
How, then, can the Republican Party avoid becoming a “Trumpian” party? Kristol said the answer lies partly with Congress. Although most of America’s institutions have limited Trump’s damage thus far, he said, he criticized congressional Republicans, particularly establishment ones, for supporting a candidate who essentially ran against them. Kristol concluded by predicting that the next 20 years of presidential races will look a lot more like 1960-1980, with serious primary challengers to incumbents and unpredictable elections.
In the question and answer period, Kristol touched on the dangers of a strong executive. A second Trump term would be particularly scary because of the potential constitutional crises. “People do not appreciate how dangerous” an envelope-pushing executive can be, he said, and they “don’t appreciate the gains” of the last 50-60 years. He also spoke about American policies regarding Israel and bemoaned the lack of partisan consensus on foreign policy issues. “Foreign policy has to last longer than one presidency,” he said.
Then Kristol was asked to defend his statement that Trump is pushing the party in the wrong direction on social issues. In response, he focused on Trump’s “demonization of immigrants,” which he said has worsened ethnic relations. “I very much hold against him the immigration comments,” Kristol said, mentioning Trump’s “willingness to appeal to prejudice” as another negative. Kristol seemed ambivalent about the practical impact of Trump’s rhetoric, but said that “history would suggest that that stuff can take off in a very bad way.”
He then briefly defended the war in Afghanistan and argued that America ought to continue to exert its influence in the world through both humanitarian and military measures—a classic neoconservative position. Kristol concluded the talk by talking about the 2020 elections. Trump has a strong approval rating (80%) among Republicans, but around 30% of those might be willing to defect, Kristol said. He predicted that a Republican primary challenger could be successful, especially because Trump’s numbers are low given the strength of the economy. If the economy worsens, Trump could be quite vulnerable.
Photo via Columbia University College Republicans