Thank you, Bill Kristol. The Weekly Standard editor and career strikeout leader among active pundits is generally viewed as a blight on public discourse, but he provided a valuable service this week (albeit unintentionally) when he offered a succinct catchphrase that explains how he and the rest of the Republican Party hacks that inhabit his orbit will eventually warm to likely GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump.
Asked by Newsmax host Steve Malzberg if there was anything Trump could do to win Kristol’s favor, despite the fact that he has been a vocal proponent of the #NeverTrump movement, Kristol offered this flawless diamond of cognitive dissonance to explain his thinking: “I mean, I guess never say never. On the one hand, I’ll say #NeverTrump, and on the other hand, I’ll say never say never. I'll leave it ambiguous.”
It’s really just too perfect. If I weren’t able to hear that quote with my own ears I’d suspect that someone had made it up. Kristol identifies as #NeverTrump, but he will also refuse to say “Never,” which is, of course, the whole point of the hashtag movement.
This was always going to be the fate of the #NeverTrump movement. The permanence of “Never” was used only for dramatic effect, and the people who were viewed as leaders of the movement, like Marco Rubio, couldn’t bring themselves to actually state outright that they would not back Trump if he won the Republican nomination. #NeverTrump’s continued existence has always required a viable Republican alternative to Trump, and now that Ted Cruz, the last remaining semi-viable GOP candidate, seems to be on the decline, the final impediment to a Trump presidency is likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. That means the partisan reflex among Republicans and conservatives is starting to take hold. “Never Trump? Well, ‘never’ is a long time…”
Kristol likes to present himself as someone who has a deep understanding of Republican politics, but he doesn’t. He’s just bobbing along on the surface, letting the political currents take him wherever they will, pausing only briefly to announce what position he’s been swept to. Last summer, Kristol was Trump-curious, counseling Republican candidates that “a little touch of Trump in the rhetoric, the attitude, the bearing of the other Republican candidates could go a long way toward making this election more like 1980 than 1992.” Then he transitioned to dismissing Trump as a fad, predicting a series of “peak Trump” moments that never came to pass. Then Trump started winning, and Kristol tried positioning himself as a die-hard #NeverTrump, drawing up fantasy plans for a third-party conservative candidate (that were never followed-up on). Now that Trump looks like he’ll prevail, Kristol is laying groundwork for accepting him as the Republican nominee. Throughout all of this, there’s one thing that has not changed: Trump himself.
And, as Kristol himself makes clear, he doesn’t expect him to change. Kristol isn’t reacting to Trump so much as he is orienting himself to the conventional wisdom surrounding the candidate. Trump won’t have to change one iota and probably won’t – it will be Kristol who remolds his own views to discover things about the immutable Trump that render him tolerable, if not downright electable.
This process will repeat itself countless times within the Republican establishment and conservative media as they’re forced to make a seemingly impossible choice between supporting Donald Trump and throwing the presidential election to Hillary Clinton. For a good number of them, the thought of President Hillary will be too abhorrent to even contemplate, so they’ll find some pretext to come around to Trump. And Bill Kristol has provided them the perfect mental roadmap for abandoning their lately discovered principles and reconsidering the “never” portion of #NeverTrump.