Was Palin the Harbinger of Trump?

Bill Kristol on whether we could have predicted the rise of demagoguery back in 2008.

William Kristol
Bill Kristol.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Joshua Blanchard/Getty Images for Politicon.

On this week’s episode of my podcast, I Have to Ask, I spoke with Bill Kristol, the editor at large of the Weekly Standard, the magazine he co-founded more than two decades ago. A former aide to Dan Quayle, Kristol has for many years been one of the most visible conservative commentators, famous for his support of the Iraq war and so-called neoconservatism. Kristol has more recently become a loud voice in opposition to Donald Trump, first trying to recruit a challenger and now frequently attacking his assaults on democratic norms and institutions.

Below is an edited excerpt from the show. In it, we discuss the psychological reasons why Republicans have gone along with Trump, whether Sarah Palin set the stage for Trump’s populism, and the ways in which Kristol has re-examined issues like global warming in light of Trump’s attacks on facts and truth.

You can find links to every episode here; the entire audio interview is below. Please subscribe to I Have to Ask wherever you get your podcasts.

Isaac Chotiner: From the time you got to Washington until, let’s say, the Weekly Standard launched, or through the Bush administration, would you say your politics changed at all in any noticeable way, or do you think, for those first couple decades, it was fairly consistent or constant?

Bill Kristol: I think fairly consistent. The issues of the day change. Obviously, when the Berlin Wall falls, the focus goes to different things, and after 9/11, and so forth. I think I focused on different issues, and like any normal person, I adjusted my views on some things. I hope I became a little less dogmatic. I don’t know. When one grows older, one does see a little more complexity of things, but no, I would basically say they were fairly consistent.

Really, from when I got here in 1985 to about 2015—that’s 30 years—you can draw a pretty straight line in my case and I think in that of most others.

A lot of us got to know each other in the late ’80s, and there were occasional breaks and ruptures, but basically the circle of friendly acquaintances, quasi-colleagues, associates with whom one felt one was vaguely on the same side—a lot of those same people were there in 2012, let’s say, as had been there in 1990. For me, at least, that changed in the last year or two.

Does the fact that Trump was able to win the Republican nomination, and take control of the party in many ways, and gain so much support from Republican officeholders and even Republican writers, make you reappraise the whole movement or look at it in a different way?

To some degree. A lot depends, I think, on how lasting that is. If Trump turns out to be a parenthesis, a one-off, gets nominated once, elected once, wins over conservatives and Republicans for a year or two but it all fades away, then one can say it was an unfortunate parenthesis. I think that’s been true of other movements. If he’s renominated, if that stickiness stays there with conservatives continuing to rationalize and defend him … and make excuses for him, then I think that makes a big difference for me going forward.

Retrospectively, it makes some difference. You’d have to be foolish not to rethink some things and wonder what the weaknesses were that made this possible. You also don’t want to overinterpret. These things are overdetermined. Every movement has its demagogic strains, its exploitable aspects. The irony for me is I thought we had beat them back pretty well on the conservative side. [National Review founder William F.] Buckley expelled the Birchers way before my time, but in my time, we fought hard against Pat Buchanan in the ’90s, and really the Buchanan strand of conservatism seemed to have been pretty thoroughly beaten by the time of George W. Bush’s election in 2000. Then that strand, a slightly different version of it, came back in Ron Paul.

If you had asked me, this is one of the most surprising things to me about Trump: In early to mid-2015, I generally would have said the Republican Party was in pretty decent shape. A lot of attractive young members of Congress and governors had been elected, some diversity, both intellectual and ethnic and so forth, and among those younger members, some little different strains—some libertarianism, some hawkishness, some social conservatism—but I thought a reasonable mix of them, as you’d expect in a big party. The conservative movement intellectually—the reformicons, as they’re called—was trying to think through a more reformist agenda, a little less dogmatically free market, a little more concerned about the working class, that hadn’t done as well for the last 10–20 years as wealthy people, as better-educated people, as corporations.

I didn’t think things were in such bad shape, and then it turned out that they really were in such bad shape, and it just happened that Trump won. Winning makes a huge difference. That’s where I would say that one can overinterpret these things. He was lucky to win, but he won.

I notice in your lineup of figures, with the John Birch Society, and then Pat Buchanan, and then Ron Paul, you didn’t mention Sarah Palin, who I know you supported for at least some time, who to me in a way seems the most Trump-y figure in terms of the way she talked, sometimes the populism she appealed to, the way she tried to wink at, let’s say, religious and racial issues. Do you put her in that category?

I don’t think she winked. I don’t think she winked at racial issues at all, for example. I think it’s partly right. Obviously she turned out to be … she’s a big disappointment. She turned out not to be what some of us hoped. For me, she was the second choice in 2008 for the vice presidency after [Joe] Lieberman, and it was a gamble, but I thought actually it was a way of co-opting, and obviously I was wrong to some degree—a kind of populism that I could see coming, so I’ll take a little credit for that. She was [John] McCain’s running mate. There was not a touch of protectionism. There wasn’t any isolationism. There was no racial issue with Palin at all really, honestly.

There was birther-type stuff in the way she talked about Obama.

No, that’s later. That’s once Obama wins, but not in the campaign. I wouldn’t say everything was perfect, but I think Palin as a McCain—she turned out to be personally flawed in a way I didn’t expect, but the idea of Sarah Palin as a running mate to someone like McCain, bringing in a kind of populism that could be educated, I don’t think was crazy. I’m not going to defend her personally. She just turned out to be much shallower and more vulnerable to all this silliness and demagoguery than I expected. So I take the criticism in the sense that it was a misjudgment about her personally, and she has become Trump-y, so it’s easy to then say there was a lot of Trumpiness there from the beginning. Certainly, she became Trump-y pretty quickly after 2010 or so, but I think what she looked like in ’08, whatever her flaws and limitations, and I’m not going to deny those, it didn’t look to me much like Trump.

You don’t think that some of the ways she talked about facts, and the way she would talk about scientific issues, or just the—

Maybe. She wasn’t well-educated, but I don’t think there was the kind of systematic attempt to deny truth and truthfulness and make up things and just lie the way Trump does. She was proud of being the first woman to be nominated as vice president. (Editor’s note: Geraldine Ferraro was the first woman to be nominated as vice president.) On the gender issues, you can’t accuse her of that.

I don’t mean to defend Sarah Palin excessively. I’m perfectly willing to say that given what I now know about her, she would not have been a good vice president. Maybe her rise was a little bit of an indication, but again, that’s always been there in American politics on both sides, elements of that. It’s just Trump is just a whole different level, I think, in terms of the combination.

I’m not saying Trump isn’t sui generis. I guess you said before we got to Palin that you thought that the party had conquered these things—

Fair enough. Just to take your point, though, when the Palin experiment happened in ’08, she resigned as governor. She then ended up not having much of a future, it appeared, in the party. In 2012, we had Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, whatever you think of them, probably the most unpopulist ticket, earnest policy-ish ticket that you’re going to get. I’d say most of the 2014 candidates went across the spectrum from more moderate to more conservative, but a lot of the people who won in 2014 in the House and the Senate, and the governors seemed to me to be pretty impressive. I would have been wrong, but I would have said in early 2015, “Yeah, the Palin thing was kind of unfortunate, and turned out not quite the way some of us hoped, but not really a marker for the future.”

Once Trump comes along, one looks back in a different light and says, “This was a precursor or something.” I don’t quarrel with that in retrospect, but I don’t think it needed to have been that way. I’m very struck by that with Trump—once he wins, of course, both the nomination and then especially the presidency. It’s an interesting question if Trump had lost the election, as one expected, how much of a dent he would have left, but being president is just very powerful. Presidents do reshape parties and movements. I’m not a minimizer of Trump. Quite the contrary.

I don’t disagree with you that there are contingencies here, and Trump wasn’t destined to win the primary or the general election, but it seems to me that it’s worth examining not just for Republicans but for all people that this guy, who I think you and I both find grotesque in some way, that he could in any circumstance win 46 percent of the country—even against an opponent like Hillary Clinton—what that says about the people who voted for him, and what it means about the party that the infrastructure of the party was willing to go along with it—and largely speaking have gone along with it—in Congress, no matter what he tries to do.

Yeah, I agree. There are all kinds of things one can say, such as elites being out of touch in general. That’s the reason I was sympathetic to people like Palin—I thought the elites were a little out of touch. Certainly, after the events of 2008 and of Iraq for that matter, and the sense of the elites leading us astray and not having paid a price in ’08 or ’12, all the way down to the—what’s the word I’m looking for—unpleasant underbelly of the Republican Party and conservatism, which turned out to be more unpleasant and a bigger underbelly, to mix metaphors, than people like me thought. I don’t deny that at all.

I would also distinguish between people reluctantly voting for Trump, which was true of a fair number of Republicans who rationalized it in terms of the courts, policy, and “he’ll be constrained,” and then the continued rationalization when it became clear he wasn’t changing as president. …

What’s most horrifying is the way—and this has been a human psychology lesson—it’s hard to sustain a position of very skeptical support of anything. You rationalize that, you articulate that, but you’re not comfortable with it. Then you want to tell yourself, “He’s actually better than we thought. His enemies are worse than we thought. He’s accomplishing more than you realize.” Suddenly these people whom I’ve respected and liked and been generally allies with for years, one hears them saying about Trump and about Trump’s opponents and about the current situation politically, and you really feel like, “Gee, we’re looking at two different countries.”

When I see things about Trump’s appeals to bigotry, or Trump’s appeals to untruth, as I said before, I see him as a sui generis figure in American politics and an unprecedented danger in a way that other Republicans were not. But I also look at things like the way Republicans talk about African Americans and voting rights and global warming, and I think there are sparks from this from within the mainstream Republican Party that have given oxygen to most of Trump’s worst qualities. Do you think that’s fair?

I think that’s fair, and I’ve rethought some of those sparks, so to speak. I’d also say one could always make that case about any demagogue—that he’s picking up things that weren’t fully suppressed and were tolerated and even indulged by major parties. That’s probably been true on both sides and on all sides. It is always going to be the case that they’ll be there somewhere. Maybe they could have been condemned more systematically on the Republican side. There was a relaxed attitude toward some of the idiocy, in a way, on the right, because it hadn’t had much effect—it didn’t seem to me at least, in terms of governance, in terms of the actual presidential candidates, the actual big-state governors, the actual leadership in Congress.

Again, whatever one thinks of some of these individuals, they didn’t seem to have that character, so one thought, “OK, there’s this stuff going on out there, but it’s not really an infection that needs to be cauterized. It can just be left at boil,” again to mix metaphors. I think that was maybe again, in retrospect, a mistake. I do think I, on some of these issues, now look back in a slightly different way at things I tolerated, or turned a blind eye to, or was critical of, but wasn’t really very worked up about.

The global warming stuff—

Global warming would be a good instance.

Yeah. That was not a fringe thing in the GOP.

Right, but it was sort of an academic issue in a certain way in the GOP, in the sense that—

Well, when we all die from giant waves, but yeah.

I’m just saying governors don’t do much about it. Obama did whatever he did by regulation, and whatever was going to happen, there would be a time when Republicans would have to make some serious policy choices. I’ll give you an example: We published probably 10 articles in favor of—in different degrees of favor—a carbon tax or some form of energy tax, as a hedge against global warming and as a very effective way to raise money better. You could actually use that money to cut the individual payroll tax and so forth. It was part of a reformicon agenda, almost, of getting more money to working-class Americans. Whatever your view of global warming, there’s no reason not to tax carbon emissions a little more, so we published those pieces.

In retrospect, do I wish I had personally looked at the science more and been a little more harsh on those who were simply denying the truth as opposed to saying, “Look, whatever you think about it, let us convince you that this particular tax isn’t so bad, even if you don’t want to sign onto the whole global warming agenda.” I don’t think it was crazy of us to take that point of view, but I do think in retrospect a lot of stuff was maybe tolerated with a benign neglect, to use [Sen. Daniel Patrick] Moynihan’s term, on the right—and reasonably benignly so, I would even say in defense—but it all turned out to be out there.

The birther thing, which we were all critical of—I remember harshly criticizing Romney when he had that … was it a press conference? I can’t remember, with Trump, when Trump endorsed Romney.

Yeah, Trump Tower, wherever it was.

Yeah. I remember saying that, “This was really disgraceful. This guy is disgraceful. Romney shouldn’t stoop to even welcoming his support. He doesn’t need to do that.” I think we wrote about it for a week, and then we moved on. One assumed, “OK, that was unfortunate.” The idea that a birther could be nominated by the Republican Party in 2016, that really I did not expect.

The Weekly Standard for a while was owned by Rupert Murdoch, and obviously you were on Fox News for a long time, I guess no longer. I was wondering what effect you think Fox News has had on the conservative minds in this country and if you’ve re-examined that, or what you think of it today, or if you think the network has changed, or any of the above.

I’d say all of the above. Again, these are hard things. You don’t want to sound defensive. I don’t want to also misrepresent. The truth is that when I was on Fox News Sunday, which was really my main thing for about 10 years, I’d be pretty happy to go back and look at those shows, moderated by Chris Wallace and with me and Juan Williams and Mara Liasson and Brit Hume as the panel, and say they were good discussions. They were tilted a little conservative, and I was heterodox some of the time. I was criticizing [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld. Brit Hume really didn’t like that, I remember, in 2004, 2005, 2006.

Fox News has gotten much worse, if you want to put it that way, I think. The parts of it I didn’t have much to do with and didn’t personally go on were pretty silly, I thought, but again, I do think it’s changed. I think they dumbed things down, but the degree of just sailing off into real conspiracy theories, real idiocy, I think that’s much more dominant than it was 10 years ago. Again, as is often the case in life, you have these things that are mixed bags, and you think the part you don’t like is the lesser part, and the less influential part, and the part that you just have to put up with. Then one day you wake up, and it’s a Frankenstein-type moment, and the part that you just were putting up with is now running everything.

If Trump does something really, really quite serious, in terms of an attack on the democratic fabric of the country, and people interpret that in different ways, whether it be firing [Robert] Mueller, firing many people at the Justice Department, or something like that, what is your sense of the Republican willingness to go along with this stuff? I know you’ve said you’ve been disappointed in how they’ve been so far, but I’m curious what you’re feeling about that and how optimistic you are.

I’m worried. I think for people like me, that could really be the moment where things snap, and we just say, “You can’t really be part of a party that’s not going to stand up on something so fundamental.” Or you could say, “Thank God the party is coming to its senses a little bit.” I hope we don’t even have to test this, in a funny way, but I imagine we will have to one way or the other.

I’ve spent a little time trying to urge Republicans to in effect draw some red lines. It’s one thing to vote for a tax bill. It’s another thing to just launch attacks on Mueller, or to either willingly or almost carelessly help lay the groundwork for Trump to move against, let’s say, the special counsel. That I’ve been depressed by, though. There, the degree of unwillingness to stand up—

How do you understand it? Is it politics? Is it tribalism? What’s going on? The people you must talk to, people on the Hill, they must at some level know Trump is a somewhat ridiculous figure who doesn’t have their best interests at heart, doesn’t care about them? How do you understand it?

It’s a good question. Some tribalism, some fear and intimidation. I think he does maintain the support of a good chunk of the Republican base. Not all of it, and people are a little too fatalistic about assuming that will necessarily be the case two years from now. He’s had a good economy. He’s had no obvious foreign policy real crises yet. He’s had one or two things that most conservatives like, the courts and so forth, so it’s easier not to face the reality of Trump. One way I think about it is that it’s like a phony war almost for a lot of Republicans and conservatives. People like me complain and complain and complain, and they just say, “Come on, what’s really happening out there? It’s not so terrible.” I think that’s kidding themselves, but it’s hard for me to prove that until something happens.

If you had asked me six or eight months ago, I would have said, “I think we can save the Republican Party. Trump could become an unfortunate parenthesis, but we can get back on a reasonable course.” I’m much less certain about that now. I really am open to the notion that people like me will end up attempting to try some new centrist party, or independent candidates, or who knows what, but the notion that you could just put Republican Humpty Dumpty back together again, even the conservative Humpty Dumpty back together again, for me that’s become pretty questionable.

Have you talked to Lindsey Graham about this?

Occasionally. Not recently. He’s now recently been tweeting about how much he likes playing golf with Trump.

He’s the one I can’t understand the most. I find it the most puzzling, because he was so critical six months ago.

These guys do go back and forth quite a lot. It seems to depend a little on—they’re politicians, and they have short-term interests. It’s a rationalization.

The power of rationalization is something I think I really underestimated, though, the degree to which you can just tell yourself that I can help shape what Trump does on X, but to do it, I have to flatter him a little, but so what? I just flatter him a bit, and then I have to flatter him a little more, and then I better not criticize him on this, because then he’ll get annoyed at me, and it’s still playing for a different game. You end up going down a very slippery slope with the excuse-making and the rationalization. A lot of people who are not bad people, and they’re not simply weak people, even, but they are rationalizing a lot of behavior that I think if they could step back and look at it, they would say, “God, what am I doing?”