A New Hope?

An Interview with William Kristol

William Kristol is one of the keenest observers of American political life and one of the most prominent opponents within the GOP of our current president. In this interview, he discusses the damage Trump has done and will keep on doing, the future of the Republican party, and how to overcome the polarization currently plaguing our national discourse.

Octavian Report: What is your read on the Trump administration at a year and a half in?

William Kristol: In some ways it's less disastrous than I expected. Some of the appointments were pretty good; people who were terrible were replaced by people who were pretty good. H.R. McMaster replacing Mike Flynn as National Security Advisor was an important thing. People like Gary Cohn probably prevented Trump from going too far off the deep end on free trade. The economy has chugged ahead reasonably well and there are no obvious foreign policy disasters yet. In some ways, one can take some comfort that the country is strong and resilient. The institutions are strong; it turns out you don't need a lot of sensible or even sane leadership in the White House.

Having said that, I think we've been coasting on borrowed time a bit: we haven't seen the consequences of some of Trump's policies and personnel yet in a way that we unfortunately may in foreign policy and even economic policy.

Secondly, that all ignores the deeper question of what he's doing to democratic norms and values and procedures, and the coarsening of our discourse. All in all, it's been a bad experience — and not one we should endure. We have to endure for as long as it goes, I suppose. Maybe it'll get cut short by whatever Mueller finds, maybe it'll go for four years. For me, it makes a huge difference whether Trump is a four-year parenthesis in American history or — if he gets re-nominated and re-elected — an inflection point in American history.

OR: How serious is the damage he has done to our norms, and do you see a way back from it?

Kristol: There were already tendencies and trends in society that were not going in a terribly healthy direction in terms of our public discourse and respect for truth and appreciation of facts. Trump's made it much worse. We'll see whether this is a moment from which there's no recovery, one in which all we can do is slide downhill maybe a little more slowly at times and then more quickly at other times, or whether there is a chance to snap back.

I have some hope that we can snap back if people look up and say, "This is not the way it has to be, the way it should be," and in a sense collectively, with a decent leadership, restore norms or invent new ones. You never go back to exactly where you were before. There are plenty of examples in history of societies going through very bad patches, with their constituent citizens thinking they were on the road to perdition, and then pulling it together in a slightly different way than before. I think there are technological challenges; there are obviously all kinds of educational and civic challenges and psychological challenges. But I don't want to be too fatalistic or too pessimistic about it.

OR: What do you see as the cause of the general decline in public trust in the media?

Kristol: I think that we probably have a slightly rosy and nostalgic view of the media. It was never that great. Though it has probably gotten somewhat worse in the last 20 or 30 years in terms of accuracy and reliability. I do think technology makes a difference. The economics of the media have changed, which means there are fewer people covering foreign news at major newspapers and TV networks. And then, obviously, there is social media — with everything implied by that phrase, you might say. People can put themselves in silos in somewhat unprecedented ways. There's a lot going on in general that's probably corroded public trust and common feeling and common citizenship in our country, and there are a lot of sociologists who have written about this. Trump makes it worse.

I was in a meeting the other day, and some of the other people were saying, "Well, let's not focus on Trump. He's just a symptom and we need to talk about these deeper issues: the ones cited by Charles Murray, by Robert Putnam, by Alexis de Tocqueville.” We could all talk about these things, and we should. They're important. But people are too quick to jump over Trump in that respect. He may just be a symptom, but some symptoms can be serious enough to exacerbate the underlying cause. Sometimes the symptoms end up being fatal. Not to be morbid, but I think having Trump as President is a big problem.

We've had demagogues as major figures in American public life. They have done a fair amount of damage. But they were senators, they were governors, they were radio hosts. They held sway for two, three, four years, they shaped the thinking of a certain part of the population — Joseph McCarthy, Huey Long, Father Coughlin — but that's very different from being President. As President you are a much bigger figure. It's an obvious point, but you are the person elected nationally in the U.S., and it changes everything to have a demagogue — and a shameless and irresponsible demagogue at that — as President. I don't think we've ever really had one. Or at least not in modern times.

OR: How do you see the Congressional midterms playing out?

Kristol: I think the Democrats will do well. I think the out party tends to do well, so I'm not sure how Trump-specific the result's going to be. Insofar as he's the incumbent President with a mediocre approval rating, that doesn't help the in party. I have a fairly conventional view that Democrats will probably pick up the House. The Senate is a little harder to read. The Republicans might hold the Senate. Democrats will win some governorships, win some state legislative chambers. There will be a more equal playing field, I would say, between the Democrats and the Republicans than there has been for the last two years. I think the dreams of a new Republican ascendancy will take a hit in the midterms.