Conservative "thought leaders" like Bill Kristol paved the way for Trump

Many leading conservatives are disgusted with Trump; a few have even said so. When will they face their own guilt?

Published October 15, 2017 11:00AM (EDT)

Bill Kristol                       (AP/Janet Van Ham)
Bill Kristol (AP/Janet Van Ham)

It's been nearly a year and a half since Donald Trump won the Indiana presidential primary last May, all but locking up the Republican nomination. Despite the passage of time, conservative intellectuals and policymakers have yet to admit their own role in his rise.

Before Trump, the Republican Party was primarily a two-front battle: There was the “conservative establishment” of Washington activist groups and fringe media figures, and there were Republican political professionals who were nearly as conservative.

As before, party elites and the grifters are still around. But their power has been shaken by the emergence of distinctly Trumpian nationalist-conservatives. Even the long-forgotten GOP moderates seem to be finding their voice again, thanks largely to Maine Sen. Susan Collins and a handful of other Senate colleagues who occasionally have joined her in opposing Obamacare repeal and other legislation.

The new mix on the right has been both befuddling and angering to Republican elites, many of whom are fully aware of the degree to which Trump used appeals to racial and religious bigotry to dispatch successive primary opponents and are upset that their power has been undermined. Many are also plainly aware how Trump utilizes grievance politics to keep his base of voters distracted from his ineffective and disorganized presidency.

While most of the GOP’s leaders, such as House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have been privately appalled by Trump’s serial failures and basic lack of decency, they are mostly keeping quiet and trying to focus on using their congressional majorities to enact conservative legislation. Every so often during the campaign, Ryan would emerge to criticize Trump but starting in May, he appears to have decided that he is “not going to comment on the tweets of the day or the hour.”

A few leading Republicans, such as Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, have been willing to openly denounce Trump for his many breaches of political protocol. While their criticism has sometimes been embraced by liberals who feel similarly outraged, it’s noteworthy that the president’s elite GOP critics still largely vote with him and, more important still, have refused to admit their own role in enabling Trump’s rise by utilizing cultural populism as a substitute for economic populism.

In the media realm, probably the best example of a Republican who has been unwilling to admit to his own mistakes is Bill Kristol, the founder and editor-at-large of the Weekly Standard.

Kristol has been Trump’s most outspoken critic on the right, repeatedly denouncing the real estate billionaire from the early days of his candidacy in his own publication and pretty much anywhere else he can find a platform. Along with frequently condemning the future president during the GOP primaries, Kristol was also fond of diagnosing various controversies as “peak Trump,” errors that made him the subject of much mockery on the left.

Kristol took his opposition to the next level after Trump had successfully captured the GOP nomination by feverishly searching for someone willing to run as a conservative third-party candidate in hopes of spoiling things for Trump in various states. After being rejected by former GOP nominee Mitt Romney, Sasse, and many others, Kristol eventually settled on Evan McMullin, an unknown former CIA officer who ended up getting about 750,000 votes nationwide.

Throughout all these efforts, however, Kristol has never apologized for his own role in laying the groundwork for Trump. Kristol tirelessly advocated for the disastrous 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, which badly damaged the GOP in the minds of American voters. Less obviously, he also promoted then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as John McCain's vice-presidential running mate in 2008 — an action that elevated anti-intellectualism to the highest reaches of the Republican Party and surely paved the way for Trump.

Though he is slightly contrite about his Palin boosterism, Kristol rejects the charge that he shares blame for helping Trump rise to the top.

“Basically, this argument is, anyone active in conservative debates over the last 15 years is responsible for Trump,” he told Politico’s Michael Crowley last year.

Any number of other factors played a role, he argued, from “political correctness" to the Barack Obama presidency to a "failure to enforce the law on immigration. ... In this respect, Trump is kind of over-determined.”

Though not part of the Republican elite as Kristol is, talk radio host Glenn Beck also seems to believe that the Trump phenomenon emerged ex nihilo, with no encouragement from the conservative media and political machines.

“What have they done in the last three years?” Beck said in a September monologue in which he described what he saw was ailing the GOP.

“They've co-opted the alt-right. Because why? Because they're racist? No. ‘Because every vote counts and so we'll use them,’” Beck said. “Because it drives money and drives votes. Hate drives money and drives votes."

All of that is true -- but Republican politicians have been leveraging the proto-alt-right for much longer than three years.

As Jonathan Chait noted at New York magazine last year, “the Trump constituency factored into conservative calculations all along. Conservatives courted them, defended them, and understood all along that their votes would supply the margin needed to implement conservative ideas, even if many of those ideas (like supply-side economics and neoconservative foreign policy) had little natural appeal to those voters.”

A perfect illustration of Chait’s point is that Jeff Flake, the Arizona senator who just released a book that is scathing in its criticism of Trump, decided to title his work “Conscience of a Conservative,” an homage to Barry Goldwater, the Republicans’ 1964 presidential nominee who began the party’s decades-long relationship with racism, which continued through Pat Buchanan's infamous “Southern Strategy” through Ron Paul’s racist newsletters all the way to Trump and the frog-bearing fascists.

Today’s emergence of explicit white Christian identity politics was something that Jackie Robinson, the groundbreaking baseball star who was also an ardent Republican for most of his life, saw firsthand in 1964.

As historian Leah Wright Rigueur chronicles extensively in her important book "The Loneliness of the Black Republican," Robinson tried repeatedly to warn his pary about the fusion of racism and limited-government arguments that Goldwater was trying to make.

“A new breed of Republicans has taken over the GOP,” Robinson wrote in an opinion column published just after Goldwater claimed his party’s nomination. “It is a new breed which is seeking to sell to Americans a doctrine which is as old as mankind — the doctrine of racial division, the doctrine of racial prejudice, the doctrine of white supremacy.”

In fairness, Jeff Flake is almost certainly unaware of the less savory aspects of Goldwater’s candidacy. Most politicians aren’t exactly known for their interest in history and philosophy. Nonetheless, this suggests that Flake is not in contact with anyone who knows what happened in 1964 and how that relates to what happened in 2016.

That kind of callous ignorance is exactly why today's Republican elites won’t be able to rid themselves of Donald Trump in 2020, and will not easily free themselves from the Faustian bargain they’ve made with white nationalism.

Update: 2017-10-16. Breitbart News chairman, former top Trump adviser, and alt-right champion Steve Bannon provided another great example of the commonality between early conservatism and today's far right during a speech on Sunday to the Values Voters Conference put on by the Christian nationalist group Family Research Council Action.

During his 37-minute address, Bannon cribbed a famous line from National Review founder William F. Buckley who frequently liked to say that he would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than 2,000 people on the faculty of Harvard University.

Bannon borrowed the sentiment but changed it to be a criticism of his former colleagues at the investment banking firm Goldman Sachs.

"If you ask me if I would rather be governed by the first hundred people that walked into this conference today or the top hundred
partners at Goldman Sachs I would take the first hundred people every day of the week," he told attendees.

By Matthew Sheffield

Matthew Sheffield is a national correspondent for The Young Turks. He is also the host of the podcast "Theory of Change." You can follow him on Twitter.

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