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William Kristol on how to fix American politics

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.

I think the consequences could be interesting in ways people haven’t quite focused on yet. For example, in the Congress, there is a big group of Democrats who ran either as incumbents or challengers and won and who said they wouldn’t for Nancy Pelosi as Speaker. I’ve taken that with a grain of salt. I think that’s a thing you say in a moderate district, but then you show up in D.C., you end up getting your arm twisted, and you vote for Pelosi as Speaker.

But I was talking to a Democrat the other day who said, “No, don’t count on that. If you’ve said 50 times on the stump that you won’t vote for her for Speaker, you probably won’t vote for her for Speaker.”

There is also this to consider. You have a situation where Ryan is stepping down as Republican leader. If Democrats win a majority but Pelosi doesn’t have the votes to get actually get elected speaker, maybe the Democrats just replace Ryan with a line-voting Democrat. But you could also attempt to change the rules of the game a little bit and find a bipartisan Speaker, or make a deal in the way the committees work, the way discharge petitions work, the way the rules work so that it’s a little less partisan and the Speaker has a little less power.

I think with the legislative branch, citizens, but also legislators themselves — especially younger members of Congress — aren’t happy with the way it has worked and is working. I do wonder whether you could get lucky and have a disruptive moment where things get shaken up in that respect.

On the presidential level, November 7th, 2018 is an important date. The day after, I think, Republicans will no longer look backwards to 2016. Trump supporters, especially reluctant Trump supporters, no longer have to justify their vote. They no longer have to say that Trump’s better than Clinton would’ve been. They don’t get stuck with “but Gorsuch” and deregulation. Beginning November 7th, Republicans have to face up to a real question: who do you want for the next four years? Now, it’s one thing to say, “People like Kristol were wrong, it was right to vote for Trump. He’s done better than we expected.” It’s another thing to say, “You know what? Four more years of Trump is what we need.” I really think a fair number of Trump supporters think about that and think, “Four more years will be chaotic and crazy. He’s bad for country in certain ways, even if you agree with some of the policies, and he’s not so young.” I think for that reason there’s more of a potential challenge to Trump on the Republican side then conventional wisdom has estimated.

OR: Do you think the Republicans can right themselves, or do you think the party’s pandering to Trump has irrevocably damaged them?

Kristol: I don’t know. I think that is the big question of American politics. It’s fifty-fifty, I guess I would say. I feel personally that my best use, short term, is to try to save the Republican Party from Trump. It is one of our two major parties. It would be bad for the country if one of the major two parties went to the nativists, went in an authoritarian, xenophobic, demagogic direction. So if the Republican Party can be saved from Trump, even if it’s a 1-in-3 chance or a 1-in-4 chance, it’s worth trying. Now, if it can’t be saved, it can’t be saved. If he’s nominated, he’s nominated. Then we’ll have to look at independent candidacies, or third parties, or maybe moderate Democrats.

OR: Are you concerned about the bad demographic news coming down the pike from the Republicans?

Kristol: Yes. I think the Trump coalition is not a long-term majority coalition, but it can hang on for another election or two, develop a sense of comfort about its future, and end up getting swamped. I’m generally not a big believer in demographic determinism, I’d say, but in this case I can’t believe that a Trumpian message is going to attract a lot of young voters or a lot of minority voters. There are more young voters coming into electorate; the old voters are aging out; the country’s becoming more diverse. That would be one reason to try to move the Republican Party away from Trumpism. But I think the more serious reason to move the Republican Party away from Trumpism is that Trumpism is bad for the country.

In that moving the party away from Trumpism, it can’t just go back to where it was in 2013 or 2011. It had its good elements then, it had its limitations then, but it’s just a different world and there are issues where thinking needs to be updated and new realities need to be confronted. Maybe in that respect the challenge of Trump is an opportunity really to rethink these issues and build a newer and fresher Republican party.

OR: If there were a challenge to Trump, where would it come from?

Kristol: I think there’s some obvious people, but history would suggest that these things are not easily predictable. Sometimes it’s Reagan against Ford, Kennedy against Carter. Those were reasonably predictable people to launch their primary challenges, but at other times, it’s Pat Buchanan in the 1990’s. He did some damage to Bush. I think it’s hard to know. Someone like Kasich, who ran last time and got a fair number of votes, had been a successful two-term governor — someone like that would start off with the inside track in the Republican sweepstakes to challenge Trump. More than one person might run. I think at the end of the day, it’ll narrow down to probably one challenger because of the way the system works. For those who don’t want Trump, there’ll be a wish to consolidate forces.

You can imagine a 1968-type dynamic where a modern Eugene McCarthy — a more fringe, less well-known candidate — is the first one to take on Trump and does surprisingly well, and then someone serious or heavyweight comes in à la Bobby Kennedy. The assassination, of course, colors everybody’s memories of that year (as is inevitable), but Kennedy could have won. That was the most successful primary challenge in recent times.

I do think if you end up with Trump as a weak Republican nominee, and Sanders or maybe Warren as the Democrat, there’s a huge opening for an independent candidate. I’d say more than in my adult lifetime. A real chance for an independent candidate to say, “This is a ridiculous choice. It almost epitomizes what’s wrong with our politics.” It might be a Macron-type possibility. I’m not sure who that is. Maybe it’s someone who’s been around, who has name ID, or wealth like Bloomberg. Maybe it’s a fresh face, maybe it’s a businessman or retired general. Maybe it’s Ben Sasse and maybe it’s two 9/11 veterans, younger people. You can write a lot of different scenarios.

In a funny way, Nikki Haley might be a good candidate. Someone who worked for Trump but then says “No” and finds an occasion to quit, someone who says, “We can do better. We did some good things, but it’s time for generational change.” That could be a very powerful way of challenging Trump. The person who says, “Look, it wasn’t crazy. We got some good things done. He disrupted things. I voted for him, but the experiment has run its course here and it’s risky to run another four years. We can do better. We can thank him and move on.” You can imagine that tone of criticism, almost more in sorrow than in anger, being more powerful.

I really don’t know.

OR: What’s the most productive way to talk to people who are on the opposite side of the fence politically?

Kristol: That’s a good question. I’m not sure there is one answer, and I’m not sure I have it either. I’d say there’s more chance to do that than people think. Precisely because everyone has so internalized the notion that we’re hyper-partisan that the contrarian opportunity is to be a little bit bipartisan.

The public really isn’t as hyper-partisan as Washington is, and certainly as Congress is — it’s a long story, how that happened over decades. Trump has made everything so much more bitter, more personal.

So there’s some market for politicians who stand up and say, “This is ridiculous.” If I were advising a young 37-year-old person running for Congress or a new member of Congress, I would say the rewards of trying to be not hyper-partisan, of finding ways to work across the aisle, of being a bit of a problem-solver and not a bomb-thrower, are bigger than you might imagine.

I think therefore it’s important that it just not be, “Let’s have a meeting about talking across the aisle.” It has to be: “Here’s an issue: opioid abuse or Medicare reform.” Not all these issues are ideological. A lot involve being intelligent about using government where you should use government and letting market forces work in cases where they occur. I think working together on a concrete issue is better than talking about working together. If I were advising a young member of Congress, I’d say, “Find a Democrat you respect, find an issue you both care about, and see if you can’t work together on it and come up with this improvement in the defense procurement process or the drug approval process. It doesn’t have to be that sexy.” I think the example of doing it would be gratifying to a lot of people and get a lot of attention.

The best way to prove that it can be done is to do it. There is too much talking about being bipartisan and overcoming labels and and common ground; there are probably not enough people saying on a concrete issue, “What would a compromise look like that we can really support, one that actually would be an improvement on public policy?” You see more of that the state level and the local level, but that makes me think it could be done at the federal level.