William Kristol: Trump to be challenged in 2020
MIDDLEBURY — When former Vermont governor Jim Douglas introduced fellow Republican William Kristol Tuesday night at Middlebury College’s Dana Auditorium, he joked that Kristol’s lecture topic, the future of the Republican Party, might result in a “short talk.”
In the midterm elections earlier this month, Democrats won a decisive victory among voters 45 and younger. Republicans, on the other hand, Douglas said later in the evening (paraphrasing political analyst Charlie Cook), “are strongest among those who are maybe best characterized as the pre-dead.”
Kristol, a leading New York intellectual perhaps best known as the founder and longtime editor of the conservative Weekly Standard magazine, had plenty to say about his party’s future, however, and how Republicans — and the country — need to be saved from President Trump.
“I didn’t vote for Donald Trump and have spent most of the last two years criticizing him and trying to help rally Republicans and others against him, and I am part of a group that hopes to launch a primary challenge to him in 2020,” Kristol told his audience.
That raises an obvious question, he acknowledged: Why bother? Why try to stay a Republican? Over the next 45 minutes, he attempted to answer that question, mounting a vigorous, intelligent defense of his party, “properly speaking,” and of conservatism in general.
The GOP hasn’t always been nativist and authoritarian, he said, and it hasn’t always nominated demagogues for president. No matter what people might think about Republican presidential nominees over the past 40 years, they were “serious people who cared about the country and its procedures, constitutional norms, processes and democratic institutions.”
With mostly bipartisan support in this country, Kristol suggested, the Republican approach to foreign policy since the end of World War II — promoting free trade and U.S. leadership abroad — has fostered an era of unparalleled global peace and prosperity.
President Trump’s “America First” approach to foreign policy, on the other hand, hearkens back to the dark days of the early 20th century.
“People don’t realize this these days but ‘America First’ literally was the slogan of those who opposed U.S. intervention in World War II,” Kristol said. “Some of them were decent people who just thought we shouldn’t get involved in this war, but some of them were Nazi sympathizers and some of them were anti-Semites who thought the ‘Jewish cabal’ was maneuvering to get the U.S. into that war. That’s the slogan (Trump) picked. Of all the slogans you could pick to characterize your own foreign policy...”
Where the economy is concerned, Kristol summed up Republican philosophy in three words: “Markets produce wealth.” Without that wealth, he added, there would be nothing to “redistribute.” He did acknowledge that the complexity of current economic challenges won’t be solved by deregulation, free trade or growth-oriented monetary policies alone. “They require serious governance and serious debate about policies.”
Which is one of the reasons Kristol finds the current American political moment so depressing.
“We have almost no serious debate, or much less serious debate, about actual public policies,” he said. “Everything is anxiety-mongering or virtue-signaling, identifying with one group or another and claiming to speak for that group against the people who want to hurt that group, instead of actually saying ‘these policies would work in this way to help these people.’”
Referring to the violent protests that greeted conservative author Charles Murray when he visited Middlebury College in March 2017, and to similar confrontations nationwide in recent years, Kristol emphasized the importance of free speech.
“You really do want a diversity of views ... partly to test your own views,” he said, citing with some hope a resurgence (on both the right and left) of the 19th-century British philosopher John Stuart Mill and his theories about liberty. “The price of that sometimes is that people are offended. And people are sometimes genuinely wounded. But it’s better, I think, than the suppression of views.”
One can’t complain about the repressive atmosphere at Trump rallies, for instance, and then turn around and justify repressive responses to campus speakers with unpopular opinions, he added.
President Trump is uniquely dangerous, Kristol acknowledged. Trump puts himself first and he has made the country’s divisions worse by fostering anxieties and resentments, Kristol said. And if he wins again in 2020, then future presidential nominees from both parties will view demagoguery as a sure path to political success.
But mounting a successful primary challenge against a sitting president is unprecedented in the modern era. The most notable attempts — by Democrats Eugene McCarthy (1968) and Edward Kennedy (1980) and Republicans Ronald Reagan (1976) and Pat Buchanan (1992) — failed, though in all of those cases the incumbent party went on to lose the White House in the General Election.
“Trump isn’t stupid,” Kristol said. “He’s an effective demagogue. And the people who voted for him don’t want to be called idiots or racists or to feel like they’ve been the victims of a con man.”
The president’s greatest vulnerability, Kristol suggested, is his character. The question Kristol would put to Trump voters is, “Do you really want four more years of this?”
Trump’s appointment of Matthew Whitaker as interim Attorney General the day after the midterm elections, which was widely viewed as politically motivated and perhaps even unconstitutional, was just further proof of the president’s recklessness, Kristol said — a lesson that Trump is only getting more confident in the abuse of his office.
Preliminary polling in Iowa suggests Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina who served as Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations until her recent resignation, might be a strong candidate to challenge the president in 2020, Kristol said. Perhaps because she worked for the president, her candidacy might feel less like a repudiation of the votes most Republicans cast in 2016.
At the moment, though, the future favors the Democratic Party, which has strong support in the fastest growing demographic categories and holds sway in areas with the strongest economic growth.
Ironically, this may help some Republicans change their minds about Trump.
“It’s easier to make the case (for a primary challenge) now that Trump has been dealt a losing hand (after the midterms),” Kristol said. “Do we really think that Trump is going to get back in 2020 what he lost in 2018?”
Reach Christopher Ross at firstname.lastname@example.org.