Intimate Conversations with America’s Change-Makers
Burn the Boats is an award-winning podcast featuring intimate conversations with change-makers from every walk of life. Host Ken Harbaugh interviews politicians, authors, activists, and others about the most important issues of our time.
Former leading Republican Bill Kristol discusses media echo chambers and anti-democratic enablers within the Republican Party
Bill served in two presidential administrations and founded The Weekly Standard, an influential conservative magazine. After leaving the Republican Party, he helped launch Defending Democracy Together, an organization created by Republicans with the goal of preserving democratic institutions. He also is the host of Conversations with Bill Kristol, a video and podcast series.
The accommodation was so thorough, and this is where the party capitulating to Trump was the kith. In a way, historians, I think, are going to look at it and say, that was a really key moment, was more of a key moment than Trump winning the nomination or winning the presidency.
People have always known a demagogue could conceivably, if you got lucky, sort of at a bad moment, win the presidency. But people didn't quite expect, and I didn't either, was that one of our two major parties would succumb to that.
I'm Ken Harbaugh, this is Burn the Boats, a show about making tough calls in tough times. America today faces a critical test. Our democracy is under threat, but good people are rising to the challenge. Now, is the time to go all in. Now, we burn the boats.
My guest today is Bill Kristol, a lifelong Republican who served in two presidential administrations and founded The Weekly Standard, an influential conservative magazine. We had him on Burn the Boats some time ago, and that interview still holds up, I just re-listened to it.
But since then, he has helped launch Defending Democracy Together, an organization created by Republicans with the goal of preserving democratic institutions. Bill, welcome to Burn the Boats.
Thanks, Ken. And I'm glad that old interview holds up. I never listen to my old stuff or read my old stuff because like God knows what I said, but everyone should take your word for it, that it holds up well.
I normally don't, I'm not that self-indulgent, but I wanted to make sure we didn't just do a repeat. And there's no chance of that because a lot has happened since we last talked. And I think we should tackle the big one first: the McCarthy tapes and the decision by the Speaker of the House to turn over 44,000 hours of footage from January 6th to the propaganda arm.
And you've referred to it as such, of the Republican Party, Fox News and Tucker Carlson. Most of us saw it coming, but it is still shocking, isn't it?
Yeah, so far as anything could be shocking anymore but of course, one still has to be … if one maintains some hope in the country and maybe for conservatives and conservatism, and maybe for the Republican Party, one will be shocked.
But just on your original point, which I think is an important one, you made sort of implied in passing that this was a while ago, we had our conversation and how much has changed. I think people don't recall that.
And I was talking to someone about this yesterday who’s also an original never-Trumper — and we were never Trump for good reasons, it turned out, I think very accurate reasons. But it wasn't obvious it was going to go the way it went or all the way it went. I mean, it was not crazy in 2017/18 to think, okay, maybe the damage will be contained.
Maybe the Republican Party won't go entirely in with Trump. Maybe they'll constrain him in the administration as they were doing somewhat at the beginning with H. R. McMaster and those people. And it wasn't crazy in 2020. You think some of those people would come out and actually say Trump shouldn't be reelected president.
And it wasn't crazy in 2021, certainly after January 6th, to think maybe they finally will turn against him. And it wasn't crazy after November 2022 to say, “Okay, maybe this is really the warning shot that just for self-interest, Republicans will go in the other direction.”
But it wasn't crazy, and I sort of didn't entertain too many of those because I was pretty pessimistic once Trumpism got unleashed (and you've talked about this a lot), it's hard to put that toothpaste back in the tube, and we've all seen that.
But still, it is striking how bad things are, at least on the conservative Republican side. I mean, the country's rallied in certain ways and they've been some good election results. And Biden's been a pretty good president, I think. So, I'm not a doom and gloom guy in general.
But we now take for granted a level of demagoguery, a level of nativism and anxiety, fostering and grievance mongering, and totally reckless and irresponsible behavior like McCarthy is showing with Fox, and whitewashing of January 6th, and being either pro-January 6th or anti-January 6th, either pro-Putin or anti-Putin.
We just think, okay, that's kind of what the Republican Party is. Of course, DeSantis is going to come out against helping Ukraine in a serious way, because that's kind of where Trump is. And where Trump is, is where the Republican Party is.
But taking all that for granted, it shows how far things have gone downhill and what a serious problem for the Republican Party and for conservatism, what a serious problem that is for the country because it's one of the two big parties.
Do you ever grow numb to the outrage? I think we both share a real concern that the voters are growing numb to it. The Overton window has shifted so much that what would've been shocking just a few years ago is now normal. Do you ever get tired of sounding the alarm?
Yeah, I don't get tired, really because I think it's important. I mean, James Carroll wrote a wonderful piece for The Bulwark which you've written a good piece for too in just October 2020. And James has been to many presidential campaigns and been a major, major figure in American politics and done campaigns around the world and commented on everything.
And it was a moving piece. He said, “I've never cared more about anything than this fight to stop Trump and Trumpism,” and in a way, that's putting it too negatively, to stop Trump, but to save our democracy, let's say, and straight to it, ultimately, of course.
And I was moved to have James write that. This is the guy who was the main architect of a Bill Clinton's winning presidential campaign. Whatever you think of Clinton, how many people are the main architects of a winning presidential campaign? That's a pretty rare group to be in. And he came out of it respected, and people like him and so forth and respect him.
And for him to say that, I sort of feel that too. You get a little tired sometimes. You feel like you're saying the same thing for the 30th time, but it's really important. And I've had the privilege of being in government at a reasonably, somewhat high-level and editing for prominent magazines and so forth.
But I do think this fight is as important as any … and I think it's both a defensive fight, obviously, against demagoguery and Trumpism and nativism and bigotry and so forth, but it also could lay the groundwork for strengthening of our democracy here at home and around the world. I think we see that with a reaction to Ukraine to some degree.
So, I don't get too tired of being alarmed, but I have to think of new ways to say I am alarmed, I suppose.
How do you decide what to focus on? I'd love your help defining this fight as you put it, because there are so many elements of it. Just yesterday, I think you tweeted something about this Republican congressman, I'm going to pull it up here.
Andy Ogles, and this is the tweet, I’ll share your response in a second. He raised nearly 25,000 for a child burial garden using a photo of a stillborn child, promising a place for burial of babies with benches for families and a life size statue of Jesus, and he stole the money.
And your response of course, the House Republican Conference, there is no bottom between that and Marjorie Taylor Greene and George Santos, and Trumpism writ large. How do you focus on the fight?
I mean, everyone has to make his or her own mind up, obviously. Well, not just what's most important, but where they have the most … what's the term I should use? Value-added. Obviously, we can't all be experts on everything, and they can be very important issues that I don't have anything much to contribute beyond.
And all I could do and do, do is cite other people, which is, I think an important thing to remember. You can contribute by publicizing the work of other good people. You don't have to be an expert on everything yourself.
I personally am very interested in foreign policies. Ukraine has been a big focus over the last year, obviously, and before to a considerable degree. I’ve been to Europe a couple times in the last six weeks to try to talk to people about how we can do a better job, sort of outside government coordinating the case for Ukraine and just some of the policies, actually, the efforts with some of our European friends.
I do think January 6th, democracy, the kind of fore sickness of Trumpism, very important to focus on. But one learned over the years that the way you get people to notice things, and this is totally reasonable of people, is by giving them an example. You can't just abstractly talk about democracy 24/7. It isn't very persuasive at some point, and nor should it be in a way.
It's kind of well, what's the example when you say this party is corrupt? So, that's where I pick up something like that. I haven't done any research on it, to be honest. I read the article, it seemed well-researched, and I retweeted it.
So, I think it is important to make people see what it is they're embracing when they embrace or even rationalize or excuse the much of the current Republican Party.
And you don't ever worry that the performative obnoxiousness of people like Marjorie Taylor Greene is a distraction. It's actually a helpful illustration of the larger, deeper threat, the anti-democratic forces that are building in the party.
So, I think that's a good question, Ken. And I guess I'll put it this way: I think the performative obnoxiousness can't be dismissed. I don't agree with some of my fellow never-Trumpers who were like, “Can you believe how ludicrous they are? What a self-defeating farce that's going to be?”
I mean, that's a big mistake in my opinion. I mean, not always, but often, that's a mistake because you sort of dismiss it instead of saying, “You know what, some of that performative farce is part of the show, but they are getting more powerful.”
I mean, you measured Kevin McCarthy to start our conversation. Everyone made fun of Kevin McCarthy. He was desperately trying to keep in Trump's good graces while also keeping in the good graces of donors who wanted to get beyond Trump. And then he desperately got through 15 ballots to become speaker.
He's Speaker of the House. And I can have contempt for him, and I can dislike what he stands for and what he's done. And I can hope that he's not speaker for too long and that his power's limited and so forth. But it's foolish to sort of say, well, he's really embarrassed himself. I mean, he's going nowhere, what a humiliation to him. He should have repudiated Trump.
Well, not from his point of view. He's Speaker of the House. And Marjorie Taylor Greene, has she failed or succeeded? Are there two term members of Congress who have been more responsible, who are more powerful than she is?
So, I think we need to be very sober about the fact that a lot of the stuff that we think correctly is stupid, conspiracy mongering, kind of grotesque, performative stuff. Doesn't mean it can't work, doesn't mean it can't work in the current environment.
And of course, Trump benefited hugely from this kind of, “Well, how ridiculous is this?” So, we should both make fun of it. I'm not against that either, of course. We shouldn't be just sour pusses or something, but we shouldn't make light of the danger.
I think you're absolutely right. The adjectives you just used (grotesque and obscene) could be applied to Trump's 2016 campaign which a lot of people laughed off and look where it led.
Yeah, and I thought it would be self-defeating in the primaries and attack on McCain and stuff. I mean, I think I was right to see that this was a glimpse of where we were going if we went down that path. What I was wrong about was thinking that there'd be a huge revulsion against going down that path.
But you got to learn a lesson from that, which is, as you say, just because some of us were revolted by it, doesn't mean that there aren't people out there who unfortunately, are less revolted or more open to it, or willing to excuse it (I think that's a large part of it) and rationalize it. So, no, I remain alarmed.
Well, I'm applauding that lesson tactically, should lead us to wonder if someone like Marjorie Taylor Greene might not be on a short list for vice president. I mean, that's not out of the realm of possibility in a world where Donald Trump became president.
So, I'm with you calling out the obnoxiousness, the grotesqueness of some of these performances is not a distraction.
Look, Kari Lake, who probably really is on the short list for vice president, even more than Trump or than Marjorie Taylor Greene, lost by 17,000 votes in Arizona. We were very involved, Sarah Longwell and I, helped her out at the Defending Democracy Together, which is Republican accountability project, Republican voters against Trump and all that, as you know.
But we put a lot of money in out of those last two weeks and helped, I think, barely defeat her. And there was a lot of backs hopping, which was good, and cheering, we did the right thing. And I think we won some key races against election deniers.
Yeah, but 1%. Are we confident that she couldn't win? Is that a seat in 2024? Does this show that the country's really repudiated that? And she was a flat-out election denier in a state that had a huge amount of emphasis on this, in a state where the Republican governor wasn't an election denier.
Doug Ducey did the right thing in a state where they had that insane audit, remember all that nonsense in 2021, and they were discredited. Even there, at a state Biden carried. I mean, even there, she came with a 1%. So, I think there's plenty to remain worried about.
Now, look, they say idiotic things or do just things that are so distasteful. Personally, it is totally reasonable to use that against the two.
One thing I've learned so much working with Sarah is not every voter's going to be moved by what I move by, or I dare say what you and I are moved by. And therefore, if they're corrupt, let's just point out the corruption. If that drives them away from Trumpism more than the bigotry, that's fine.
In a perfect world, would people see the bigotry and say, “I can't tolerate that?” Yes. But in an imperfect world, if they see the corruption, if they see this foolishness, whatever. So, I'm for advancing, so to speak, on all fronts here and testing them all and seeing what works as it were.
And so, I’m not forgiving them. Just because something isn't fundamentally important, it is no reason not to highlight it as well.
Are you worried about reaching them? Here's my big concern, and we'll go back to the January 6 tapes. I mean, we know the truth about what happened on January 6th, we saw it with our own eyes.
But if you’ve stove-piped information from sources that aren't telling you, for example, that Fox News before January 6th knew that it was pumping out disinformation — f you're not hearing that from Fox News, what chance is it that you're going to hear it from or that these people are going to hear it from you and me?
Are we in a media ecosystem now in which the old approaches to persuasion just don't work?
So, I think it's a big problem, obviously, and Fox News is a very good instance of that, probably the best instance, and is an alien. And so, everything's exposed. Rupert Murdock, Tucker Carlson had dishonestly or were knowingly dishonest.
And nonetheless, Kevin McCarthy is cooperating with Tucker — more than cooperating, he’s sort of doing what Tucker Carlson wants to do, or is strengthening, giving exclusive rights to Tucker Carlson for what should be incidentally publicly shared and available tapes if you're going to make it public in the first place.
And Tucker Carlson is dragging Ron DeSantis into being, if not anti-pro-Putin, at least anti-Putin. So, all the talk about, “Oh, that's really discrediting Fox, that's really discrediting Tucker Carlson,” they're finished which some of our friends, I think indulged a little bit of that a month ago. That's not the case.
Now, do people like us respect Tucker Carlson or Fox News? No. I mean, I think the answer, I've thought of a lot about this whole echo chamber social media bubble problem, and I don't have any magic solution.
I guess my commonsense sort of answer is, look, yeah, it's difficult, but if we get to one in 20 people … not every single person who watches Fox News only watches Fox News … not every single person who watches Fox News never talks to anyone else who doesn't watch Fox News or read things online or read The Bulwark or read stuff on Twitter or read stuff that's influenced by stuff that maybe I would say on Twitter, the call to someone else's attention in a local news show.
So, if one in 20 of the people who watch Fox News talk to another one in five people who don't watch Fox News and it changes, opens them up a little bit, that's important. We're on a very close margin here.
And if you could just get a 5%, 10% of those viewers to say, “Maybe what I'm hearing isn't quite right. My cousin pointed this thing out to me, and it does seem like they really were defrauding people here, these Republican members of Congress, and they're not being disciplined, and maybe there's something kind of wrong with this whole party and this movement.” Even if that's 5% of the Fox viewers, that's something
At this point, knowing what we know about Fox News, putting its stock price and its bottom line over the public interest, over even telling the truth, knowing that it was spewing lies, have you come to a conclusion on whether people like us should be appearing on Fox News?
Should Pete Buttigieg be telling his truths to that audience that almost never get them? He's very good at it. There aren't many like him, but is it worth it?
So, I have mixed views as I think maybe you do, judging from the question. I think there're competing considerations, and in general, this whole, should we work with this person? Should we appear on this forum? Should we go on it? I've faced this choice quite a few times. Should I debate this person at a college?
On the one hand, God knows the student should hear a different point of view. On the other hand, I just don't want to be on a platform with this person and pretend that these arguments are being made in good faith.
I guess, the way I resolve that is, you know what, different people in our world should do different things. I mean, there's no one correct answer. Pete Buttigieg is a government official. I think it is appropriate for a government official to go on a network that has millions of viewers and that some of whose shows are sort of respectable on the margin, let's just say.
But Bret Baier is different from Tucker Carlson, if that's what it is, and if he's going to be given a chance to make his argument and not just interrupted or ridiculed, I think it's worth his going on. I won't go on, I haven't gone on Fox since I left Fox in 2012, and I haven't gone on. I did Fox News Sunday a couple times, as I recall in 2017, and haven't gone on since.
But I'm a private citizen and I just can't stand … other people should do it though. Certainly, I have liberal friends who go on. And if you're a liberal, if you're more of a … for me, it's a little too close in a funny way. I just find it so repulsive what they've done that I just don't have confidence that I could keep calm and stuff.
But this happens again on the college campus sort of situation. I have friends who are more liberal in a way than I am, who debate a lot of these people. And I'm glad they do. Obviously, students should hear a different point of view, the viewers should hear a different point of view.
So, I think it depends a little bit on the issues. If you're a military guy and they're discussing something that's military in a semiserious way, even if it's a bad platform, maybe it's important to go on and show that … or if you can get to veterans and persuade them not to get recruited by the proud voice, that's an extremely important thing to do.
So, I'm not telling people don't ever talk to any of these people or don't go on any of these platforms. I do think people are differently situated in terms of their background, their responsibilities, their just … I think government officials are not and so forth. So, I don't think there's a one-size-fits-all answer.
But I think people should hesitate. I'm not one of those who thinks we've got to go on every platform, and “Thank you for having me. I really am grateful to be here.” I mean, saying that to Tucker Carlson, I couldn't do that.
Yeah. Well, I would draw the line at Tucker Carlson. I like your checklist, it has to be a respectful host, arguments made in good faith.
The line I've gone up to is a weekly appearance on an AM radio show, but with someone I really respect, a former Medal of Honor winner who I know we're going to disagree with on policy matters, but it's going to be respectful, and that audience gets pretty fired up.
I don't usually listen to the comments when they come in, but you're right, if we're persuading one in 20, might be worth it.
No, I think that's really true. And I think there are people in good faith who have been … you and I would say misled or rationalize certain things that they shouldn't have and so forth, believe certain things that aren't true. But that's different from what Fox News has been shown, which we already knew really to be doing.
You are from (and I think, I mean this as a compliment) the intellectual wing of the Republican Party, well, the former intellectual wing of the Republican Party, and I want to get inside that a bit because we've had the consultant gun slingers on here, the Stewart Stevens, et cetera.
And I understand when they explain why their buddies stuck with Trump, they did it for the money. How do you explain your colleagues in that intellectual part of the Republican Party who convinced themselves that this was a tiger worth riding?
I'm talking about the National Review folks, some of your former colleagues at The Weekly Standard. I get being in it for the money, but you're not staying at National Review for the money, are you, or The Federalist for the money?
No, so I think it's a good question. I mean, even the political consultants, some them are just in it for the money. I do think what motivates people is complicated, of course. And there's the fame and the glory and the status, the access to power, and the sense … so that I think a lot of that-
I guess I'm using money as point-
No, I understand. So, intellectuals-
For all those things, but the thought process required to rationalize an alliance with Trump.
So, that's a very good question and really not one which is easy answer. I do think one just debate though, that intellectuals are not subject to the allure of money, fame, power, et cetera. And really, that's important, I think.
In a way, it was easier for me. I think I was older and it's like I just can't stand it and I'm not going to do that. And if I'm not ever invited to any White House again or not part of the Republican Party, I can live with it.
Harder if you're 35, 45, you've sort of vested quite a lot in this particular world. Suddenly, this world goes in a slightly weird direction, and you're not really crazy about it, but it's kind of the world you placed your bet on, if you want to think of it this way. And maybe, I could just tolerate it for a few years and get through it. I think there's a lot of that going on.
I think people start off with that attitude often. It's very true of the National Review people and the Wall Street Journal, and then they gradually kind of … that's a hard attitude to maintain. It's hard psychologically, and I think people have really studied this — to be a kind of very skeptical and open-eyed, adherent to some cause, but still think I want to go along with it.
It’s a rational intellectual position, not one that I agree with in this case, but it's not a crazy position, of course. But once you're part of that movement or cause, hard to keep the skepticism, hard to keep the distance, hard to keep the checks — I wouldn't go that far.
Suddenly, it's like “I was so skeptical about it at all, but there's something to this. And you know what? It's good that he's fighting back because if he didn't fight back, we wouldn't even get the stuff we care about.”
And then it's like three months later, it’s “Yeah, I actually care about this other stuff too, because that's really what drives the liberals crazy. So, it must be important.” And within about a year, in my experience, it's kind of the timeframe that it takes someone to go from an argument that you and I would disagree with, I think.
But there is a reasonable kind of justification for going along with some stuff to falling all the way into a kind of, “Yeah, go for it. I'm on Team Red, and that's that. And I hate Team Blue.” And then people can really go crazy incidentally and go into Michael Flynn land and stuff. So, that's another problem psychologically.
So, I'm sure the psychologists have studied this more than I have, but I think there is a real slippery slope of rationalization to which eventually becomes, usually becomes a kind of all in process. Some people stay on the kind of rationalization side, Wall Street Journal editorial page.
We don't really like some of this stuff, but the left's worse and woke and this and that. And incidentally, I want the DeSantis not Trump. And I will express disappointment with Trump. Well, even with the DeSantis on Ukraine; disappointment, not really condemnation, not really this is a disgrace, not really this is extremely dangerous to have the two leading Republican presidential candidates on the side of basically appeasing Putin.
But I'm disappointed, he's got some bad advice. I hope he rethinks (that's kind of where they are now as we speak here in mid-March, I guess, on DeSantis). And that stuff has done a lot of damage
I mean, one point I've tried to make a bit over the last few years is everyone's focused on Fox for good reason. Everyone's focused on the base, everyone's focused like you and I on the craziness, and the conspiracy theories, and that's very, very dangerous.
But let's call it the more sophisticated enablers of all of that, the people who minimize its damage, who say, “Well, that's kind of crazy, but let's look at the real complaints that they have and the grievances that they have.” And look what's happening at some college campus somewhere with wokeness or whatever.
Those people deserve a huge amount, in my opinion, of the blame and the responsibility as well. If it were just the base and Fox and the kind of rabid Trumpism be a problem for the country, but it would be a problem the way Patrick Cannon was a problem. It would be a 20 or 30% problem, is the way I think of it for the country and manageable.
Joe McCarthy, George Wallace, I mean, they could do a lot of damage, don't get me wrong. But what makes it really a problem is all the people who should know better by which I would include the intellectuals, but also the donors, the very wealthy people, the elected officials who go along — and that's what allowed Trump to take over the whole Republican Party.
And that's what's allowed this to become so pervasive and so dangerous. Every defeated, sensible Republican candidate in 2022, some of whom I talked to a little bit and tried to … I'm not much a Republican anymore, but I tried to help them a little. The moment they lost … but I'm endorsing for the winner of my race here because I'm a Republican, and we've got to keep the Democrats out.
Those people have a lot, in my opinion, to answer for as well. Of course, they try to fight against the worst people. So, I admire them for that, I guess. But then they endorse the worst people, and in a way, because they're more reasonable, they bring a lot more influential people along with them.
So, I'm very hostile, I've got to say, to the sort of better-educated and wealthier, frankly, enablers of this movement that otherwise, would be, as I say, a kind of, I think an unpleasant and damaging populist movement but one that you could sort of limit.
The problem with your math in describing that populist movement as a 20 or 30% problem, is that now the Republican Party, the party itself has entered this Faustian bargain with the. They cannot survive electorally without that extremist fringe. And it's been a long time, a long time since we've had a major party that has relied on an extremist fringe to stay in power.
I think that's extremely important point and you put it very well. I mean, the way I've sort of been saying it, is you could have had a Trump presidency (unfortunate, very unfortunate). He won the Republican nomination sort of in a fluky way with Jeff Bush being the opponent, so he could be against the Bushes, and then the fractured field. He never got to 50% of the vote until quite late in the process and so forth.
And then he wins the electoral college against Hillary Clinton, draws it inside straight, and she's hurt by Comey and all this kind of stuff. You could have imagined after that, and I thought it was possible, I was very worried that it wouldn't happen this way, and I turned not to be right to be worried.
But it was not crazy to think, okay, we're going to have a four-year, sort of wacky, not good for the country Trump presidency, but Republican Party in Congress is not going to go along with him. So, even some of his own officials will spend most of their time constraining him (and that did happen a little bit) and we'll kind of get through it.
And I don't know what the analogy would be in terms of other things, but we can think of this in kind of life. You get some sort of bad CEO o of some corporation but everyone kind of prevents him from doing too much damage to the corporate culture and to the corporation itself and to its products, and he goes that way. And then you get back to normal.
That wasn't a crazy thing to hope for in 2017, but the accommodation was so thorough, and this is where the party capitulating to Trump was the kith in a way historians I think are going to look at it and say, “That was a really key moment,” always more of a key moment than Trump winning the nomination or winning the presidency.
People have always known a demagogue could conceivably, if he got lucky, sort of at a bad moment, win the presidency. But people didn't quite expect it, and I didn't either, was that one of our two major parties would succumb to that.
I think the best example, and the most alarming example of that moral accommodation is Ron DeSantis himself, who not long ago described himself as a Paul Ryan Republican, and has seen this lane open up in Trump's wake.
And his moral accommodation seems complete now. You referred to just one example of it, his describing the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine as a territorial or a regional dispute, I can't remember the exact-
Territorial dispute but on everything from book banning to going after Mickey Mouse. The accommodation of the extremists by a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination is taking us somewhere we haven't been.
I very much agree. And I think the accommodation of that in turn, has its own ripple effect. And people just get so used to a certain kind of rhetoric, demagoguery, intolerance that it just becomes normalized and very hard to sort of unnormalize it once it's normalized.
I mean, I spent the first couple years during the Trump presidency, “Can you believe he's saying this? Can you believe he's accusing the other major party of treason?” At one point, Trump tweeted something, “Those Democrats and Congress are treasonous.” And they just were opposing him on some issue.
And I said this is very bad for our politics, that the president of the United States called the leaders of the other party traitors — that does not normally happen, and it shouldn't happen. And it really is what happens in a much sicker political system and could have terrible consequences.
And at the time it was, “Oh yeah, that's really bad. Well, that's kind of one piece, that's Trump.” Now, it's just routine — not routine, but it's close to routine in the kind of rhetoric that's used in our politics, and from the Republicans and from the right, because it is asymmetric as the political scientists say.
There are some people on the left who are extreme, God knows, and I could do without a lot of some of the woke stuff and some of the identity politics and all that. But it is not a comparable problem. I mean, this is what's really striking to me, and all these Republican donor types, the conservative intellectual types, that's one of their main talking points.
Well, the problem, the left is just as bad as the problem on the right. It's just empirically false. I mean, you cannot say that with a straight face. I mean, it'll be like saying in Germany in ‘33, that the German Communist Party, which was a bad party or even some of the social Democrats who were in some ways a weak party, they weren't a bad party.
That's comparable to the threat from German national socialism and Hitler. I mean, it's just not true. And so, there are times when the left can be horrible and more dangerous, I would say that, about the Soviet Union. And so, I'm not making a universal pronouncement here, but the idea that they're equal — equal strains of illiberalism in the American left and the American right is just nonsense at this point.
You mentioned the Republican donor class, how important is the money? I mean, we saw in the run up to 2016, that was all lining up behind Jeb, and it didn't really matter. It all seems to be … not all of it. A lot of it seems to be lining up behind DeSantis. Do people in our orbit, do the intellectuals, do the talking heads make too much of the billionaire class choosing their favorites?
Yes, and I mean, I think they were-
How much weight does that have in a primary?
There were a fair number of primaries in 2022 where the money was mixed and there's plenty of money behind the more respectable or established candidates who then lost to the Trump candidates who in some cases, spent a lot less money in Pennsylvania. I’d say that was the case or at least spent less money.
Now, the caveat I would say is I think my world, the old-fashioned Republican types still think somehow that we are the establishment, and they have a few of these rabble-rousers. It's very bad that these rabble-rousers have done so well, but we've got to mobilize the establishment against them.
But as my colleague Tim Miller put it, they are the establishment. There is a MAGA establishment and that establishment has a lot of money. So, it's not as if Trump doesn't raise a lot of money. It's not as if J. D. Vance didn't raise a lot of money in Ohio where you are. It's not as if a bunch of Trump candidates didn't both raise money from small dollar, obviously, grassroots stuff, which they're very good at, Marjorie Taylor Greene and all.
But also, there're big donors and there's a biggest … this infrastructure now, media infrastructure, Fox is the most famous part of it. But it's sort of in quasi pseudo intellectual infrastructure, ideas infrastructure, think tanks. I mean, I guess you got to give them credit for actually seeing that they need to go build all these things.
But they've done it in grassroots organizations and fake grassroots organizations and Moms for Liberty and Constitutional Sheriffs and again, on our side, there's a certain amount of, okay, you believe how stupid this one is. But you know what, it's out there and it's doing stuff and it's having an effect. You must see this in Ohio quite a lot, actually.
And so, I think we shouldn't underestimate the amount of money that's even on that side. And some of the donors are pretty famous at this point, Peter Thiel, the Mercers and stuff. And again, there's a certain tendency to say, well, they're like the flaky billionaires. And then there's the kind of real ones who are somehow responsible.
Well, I don't know, is Elon Musk — I mean, he is flaky, but does he have quite a lot of influence on American discourse right now? I mean, yes, I think so. And so, I think it's a mistake to minimize the extent to which MAGA is a real force. And unfortunately, the not a force is going to go away very easily or quickly in American politics.
Yeah, I want to make sure … I think we are aligned on this. When you say MAGA, it's not Trump. I mean, it is a movement that now has its own momentum, that has its own guide stars, and DeSantis can carry that torch every bit as powerfully and grotesquely as Trump did, right?
Very much agree with a slight caveat that I don't know that it would be every bit as powerfully, because I do think the original, the way a friend of mine put it to me who studied history and Italy and Mussolini and all this … the original demagogue has a certain end if he's a good demagogue.
Are you talking about Ruth Ben-Ghiat?
No, but I mean, she's good, it makes this point too. I mean, the original demagogue has a kind of power that it's not clear that the successor can replicate. Maybe he can, he's certainly in Florida's been a very popular, he's won a huge reelection victory. So, there's some evidence that he can.
But we're also seeing in the way in which he's slightly stumbling at his presidential campaign that maybe he can't. And so, in that respect, I think it's not crazy to remain focused on Trump in the sense that he's the one who did it. Maybe someone else could do it, and that would be horrible. And others have done it, God knows at the state level, and that's bad.
I'd say two things; Trump has got it. He could do it again. And also, once Trump did it and was president for four years, and this is sort of your point though, I think — the toothpaste was out the tube and it might not have happened. I mean, it wasn't inevitable that all this would happen. If Trump would’ve lost who knows what the country would look like.
But once you're president and hammering away at this, and legitimizing it and funding it. The president of the United States … is very hard for like me to say; that's crazy. That's just a freakish fluke-ish thing.
The business world looked at that six months in and they realized, well, this guy's president for the next three and a half years, and he is going to use the powers of the government to help his friends and hurt his enemies to some degree. And the Republicans say Congress is going to do that to some degree, and Kevin McCarthy's going to do it now to some degree.
So, I'm disgusted that these businesses are sucking up to Kevin McCarthy. From their point of view, “Hey Bill, he's Speaker of the House. I'm running a massive corporation here. I can't have the Speaker of the House furious at me. Am I going to give money to some of the Republicans running free election? Yes. Am I going to say you can't help this one who's really a lunatic? Maybe I'll try to say that, but that's not really the way the system works.”
So, the degree to which the Trump's presidency, the takeover of the Republican Party, which you've correctly focused on has made it harder for major institutions to just say you're beyond the boundaries. And we've tried that with January 6th, we're not giving money to anyone who was voted to overturn elections.
That was the correct position to take and still is in my opinion. But I'll take an organization I've worked with a lot over the years, AIPAC, a pro-Israel group, which I like and respect, saw an email from them the other day, “Here are the people we're supporting in 2024.” They always support incumbent if they're pro-Israel.
And the list included election deniers and people who are terrible. And a friend of mine wrote back and said, “Look, I'm pro-Israel, but you don't even have to oppose them necessarily. But how can you support these people? American democracy matters a lot too. Not just Israel, whether they vote for aid to Israel.”
But AIPAC, I know the people who run AIPAC and they're friends of mine. And I know that they're in a tough position and they're trying to figure out the right thing to do, and some other people are in a less tough position, to be honest, that are just looking out for their financial interests or whatever.
But I think this is what happens when it gets institutionalized. This is where, again, the Republican Party becoming Trumpist was so important. Otherwise, you might have had a one term kind of fluky thing and people would get at more of a normal politics again.
So, anyway, I do think this is one reason the problem is really difficult to deal with now. I mean, it needs to be fought. God knows that we do need to fight it and even more because it's a persisting and serious problem. It's not a, “Well, that was a whacky four years. Thank God we got through that.” That's the wrong attitude, and I think you and I agree.
You said recently, and it was either in conversation with Charlie Sykes or Fred Wellman that the anti-democratic stuff overlaps with the culture war stuff.
I'm wondering how you see that overlap, because I think about Ron DeSantis’s ammo, and it has been all culture war drafting in Trump's way, hammering home the culture war stuff. How does that implicate anti-democratic tendencies?
Or at least anti-liberal democracy or the illiberal stuff, let's say, is very much a concept of the anti-democratic stuff. I think that's true. If you believe in liberal democracy, you really believe you shouldn't overturn intellectual results.
That's kind of important. A peaceful transition of power is kind of an important part of what makes a liberal democracy work, but so is free speech and so is not using the powers of the government arbitrarily against the private sector and so forth.
And so, no, I think the illiberalism is key and you see it so much in DeSantis’s rhetoric, but also now, unfortunately, in people who are rationalizing what DeSantis is doing, and I'm very struck by this phrase he uses. It’s just a phrase that you shouldn't over interpret it, obviously.
But it was “Florida's where woke goes to die,” and isn't that his idiotic talking point?
Right. The free state.
The free state of Florida where they're busy shutting down the ability to have one woke teacher. I mean, I don't know, I went to school with mostly liberal teachers, but I mean, if one teacher's woke, okay, you know what, that happens. It's a free country.
You're going to have a lot of different teachers in your public school. You're going to have a lot of different professors at your university. And if one of them believes in critical race theory, I'm not very sympathetic to that, but he or she should be able to teach his course.
Now, if he or she is grading down students who don't agree with him politically, if that person is not even acknowledging, allowing for healthy debate in class, that's a legitimate problem that should be called to the attention of the university administration or the department chair or whatever.
But the idea that you're not allowed to have a point of view as a teacher or professor, or a government employee is pretty astonishing. And so, what struck me about “where woke goes to die” is it's sort of vaguely authoritarian or totalitarian in spirit.
I mean, Florida is a state that doesn't promote wokeness or doesn't fund wokeness or keeps a balanced field for free speech. That's a legitimate thing to say. It doesn't sound as cute, but woke shouldn't go to die anywhere. Woke should not be, in my opinion, favored particularly by the government either.
But people are entitled to be woke, and DeSantis’s attitude really is in a way — I want a country in which no one ever can say these things. He wouldn't say it this way, but when you really push down to kind of what he's suggesting, and God knows there are others who are not DeSantis, who just say it the way I just said it.
And someone like you and I were talking before the show began, about guns, gun fetishization, and the extremism that's taken over what might have been once a kind of rational Second Amendment point of view. And if someone said that … and Second Amendment’s been distorted, totally.
Are you not allowed to have that view now? Are not allowed to teach a class in which you provide competing arguments about whether the Heller case, so they could say wasn't the Supreme Court … was correctly decided. You're not allowed to read the dissents in that case as opposed to the majority opinion? I mean, that is the thrust of DeSantis’s illiberalism, I'm afraid.
That Illiberalism and the excesses of his rhetoric, I think is really out of competition with Trump and them trying to outdo each other to win that chunk of the base that they need to win those primaries. I don't know if you watched part or all of Trump's speech at CPAC, but that to me, was really his campaign launch. Not the one at Mar-a-Lago.
Yeah, I think that's a good point.
It was the speech at CPAC where he said — and you just had a great article in your magazine, The Bulwark by Joe Walsh, who we had on a couple weeks ago who said, “Laugh if you must at the CPAC craziness, but take seriously what it portends about American politics.”
And it was the quote by Trump about the final battle (let me see if I can find it) talking about the ‘24 election: “This is the final battle. They know it, I know it. Everybody knows it. This is it. Either they win or we win. And if they win, we no longer have a country.”
That's vintage Trump bud with the power of the ex-presidency behind him. And I mean, we talked about losing our sense of outrage due to numbness, but that is as terrifying as just about anything he said.
I totally, totally agree. And look, that sling the predicate for 10,000 armed people assembling outside the election counting hall in Phoenix or the state capitol building in East Lansing, and saying, “I don’t believe the count. I don’t believe Trump lost the state by half a point at one point, or whatever it might be in 2024. And we need to overturn those results.”
And I mean, the degree to which the … I think we've solved some of the federal problems, the Electoral Count Act of what Congress will do. We're probably more prepared here in Washington D.C. for possible stuff.
But the degree to which there's the possibility of violence and intimidation out around the country has not gone away. We defeated the worst election, that was very important. I don't think the governor of Michigan or the Wisconsin that are of Pennsylvania is going to help overturn the results. So, that's a very good thing in that those governors have considerable power and secretaries of state have considerable power.
But the degree to which that kind of rhetoric legitimizes an awful lot of people out there, and a lot of county officials and so forth, state legislators to be totally reckless and irresponsible in their rhetoric. And then encourages, unfortunately, a lot of citizens to just think, okay, well, if this is the final election, if we've lost the country, we've got to go make sure this doesn't happen.
And again, in states which have open carry and no permitting for weapons and no tests for mental stability, frankly, or not having been a felon, I mean, it's very it's very dangerous. I thought that Joe Walsh piece was very good on that. You can laugh at it and it's a little whack, it's crazy, but it is dangerous.
Terrifying stuff, which I can't in good conscience end on. What gives you hope, Bill.
Well, I think we have beat back. In 2018 in a way, but certainly in 2022, some of the worst excess, the worst parts of Trump himself in 2020, and some of the worst parts of Trumpism, and that's good and encouraging. That's A.
B, I think the Democratic Party, this will sound crazy to say — no one else will say this, so I'll say it as an ex-Republican; it kind of gives me hope. It's a much healthier Democratic Party than I thought it might be 10 years ago.
On foreign policy, which we care a lot about, I think it's like Hubert Humphrey or Scoop Jackson or a kind of healthy liberal anti-communist party. Domestic policy, there are a few things that I wouldn't do in terms of spending and all that, but it's basically committed to markets.
It's a robust safety net and welfare state, which is fine. And then there are complicated issues of regulation in the banks and all that. But recently, we had the failure of Silicon Valley, and I thought that actually was a pretty … the Biden’s administration's been pretty good.
The way yelled and handled that was impressive. And I think they probably say this now, God knows when this is up a week from now, what will be happening with the banking system. I feel like they probably did a pretty good job of stemming a potential systemic real big problem.
And so, I think the system, some of the guardrails held very well in 2020. Others of the guardrails are shaky. Some of them we've fixed a little bit. Others, we haven't fixed well. So, I mean, it's a mixed bag in terms of if you came down from 30,000 feet and said, “Is this society healthy? Are the guardrail strong? Are different institutions strong?”
I think we have mixed verdicts on a lot of them, and there are a lot of problems they're hard to deal with, social media and stuff. But it's not like everything's falling apart and the U.S. remains a very strong country and a lot of good things happening in it.
And finally, I would say, having been in Europe a couple times in the last six weeks, the degree to which belief in liberal democracy, the understanding that the 21st century should be a liberal democratic century, it should be a century — not a century in which Putin gets away with brutal war crimes and invading a neighbor, not a century in which Woburn gets to shut down universities in the press.
Not a century of Gee or of Iran theocrats, but a century of liberal democracy of elections, of free speech, of progress, innovation. I think that's actually stronger than it might have been than I would've thought a few years ago.
And actually, Europe, which people like me tend to think of Europe, they're kind of complacent and not like we are. They see it up close, the threat. And I think younger Europeans incidentally, and often central left, some central right too though, who are reminded how important a liberal democracy is.
Yeah. But kind of like the sleeping giant who would've ever imagined Europe would be characterized the way the U.S. was in the late thirties.
Bill, this has been really enlightening. Thank you so much for joining us. We'll have you back. Hopefully, not as much will happen between this time and the next time we have you.
Hopefully, we're only discussing good news, but Ken, I've really enjoyed it. Thanks.
Thanks again to Bill for joining me. Make sure to check out his podcast, Conversations with Bill Kristol wherever you find your shows.
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Burn The Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Declan Rohrs, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our audio engineer. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.
I'm Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.