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With the midterm elections hurtling into their final stretch, a group of Never Trumpers is pumping millions of dollars into ads aimed at defeating Republican candidates aligned with Donald Trump and his lies about the 2020 election. Sign up for a weekly roundup of thought-provoking ideas and debates ArrowRight At the core of this effort is a big question: Can Trump’s continued domination of the news cycle, and the intensifying revelations about his lawlessness, alienate a small but meaningful enough fraction of GOP-leaning voters to affect the outcome?
The Republican Accountability Project, which is chaired by Never Trumper and conservative movement veteran Bill Kristol, is betting that it’s possible. A PAC linked to the group is spending money to try to defeat more than a dozen of the Trumpiest GOP candidates, those who support the “big lie” such as Doug Mastriano and Kari Lake, who are running for governor in Pennsylvania and Arizona.
The group’s ads highlight ongoing revelations about Trump’s effort to overthrow our constitutional order, culminating in the violence of Jan. 6, 2021. And the stunning disclosures about Trump’s hoarding of state secrets have made his lawlessness even more central.
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I reached out to Kristol — who has been a fixture in the elite conservative and neoconservative establishments for decades — to discuss his group’s efforts, the future of the GOP, and the true nature of Never Trumpism. An edited and condensed version of our exchanges follows.
Greg Sargent: The fundamental premise of your efforts is that a percentage of Republican and GOP-leaning independent voters can in fact be peeled away from supporting GOP candidates, yes? How big is that percentage? Can they be induced to vote for Democratic candidates?
Bill Kristol: We’ve always thought the percentage is 3 percent, 5 percent, something like that. Peeling away 5 percent of Republican voters to stay home, or better, vote against a Trumpy election denier — that seems doable. It seems consistent with the polling and the 2020 results.
Sargent: What do you say to these voters about candidates like Doug Mastriano or Kari Lake?
Kristol: A lot of what we do is simply publicize what they say. Convey the extremism of MAGA Republicans — and therefore the extremism of the Republican Party.
Sargent: The underlying principle here seems to be that Republican voters alienated by the MAGA takeover of the GOP should be willing to ally with Democrats, even if only temporarily.
Sargent: So let’s talk about the future of Never Trumpism. Let’s say Florida Governor Ron DeSantis becomes the Republican presidential nominee in 2024. Are you guys going to urge the GOP voters you’re targeting to vote instead for, say, Joe Biden?
Kristol: I certainly would. I don’t want to speak for the whole organization. But yes. Trump himself departing the scene by no means guarantees the de-Trumpification of the Republican Party.
If that happens more quickly than you and I think, and it’s Glenn Youngkin, not Ron DeSantis, and if Glenn Youngkin turns out not to be the Glenn Youngkin who pandered to all these people in 2021, and is a semi-responsible Republican, that’s a different story.
I personally have enough problems with the Republican Party having gone along with Trump — and I suppose I’ve done enough rethinking of some conservative dogmas — that I myself am unlikely to be returning to the Republican fold anytime soon.
The fact is, I have not voted for a Republican since Trump became president.
Sargent: Joshua Tait, a historian of conservatism, has argued that the seeds of today’s GOP abandonment of democracy are embedded in conservatism itself. Going back decades, conservative theorists insisted rule by national majorities should be viewed with suspicion, or even adopted a version of slavery booster John Calhoun’s case for minority rule.
Does this play some role in leading to Trumpism’s wholesale declaration that when majorities oppose his movement, the outcome is inherently illegitimate? Do you see conservatism as in some sense as containing the seeds of this?
Kristol: In some sense, with the big caveat that all political movements have their seamy undersides.
It is fair to say that conservatism had aspects that were distasteful — and even somewhat dangerous. It is probably fair to say that some of us didn’t do enough to fight those aspects. But it’s also fair to say that at the end of the day, it was a very different party when it was nominating George W. Bush or John McCain or Mitt Romney than it is today.
Sargent: That brings me to another question. You could argue that neoconservatism, especially as manifested in the Iraq War and war on terror, helped paved the road to Trumpism. It unleashed a virulent form of Islamophobia while feeding an anti-elite backlash.
Kristol: There’s no question that the failure of Iraq — whatever the causes — laid a little bit of groundwork for Trump’s assault in 2015 and 2016.
But the devastating financial crisis did much more damage. Whatever people’s judgments on Iraq, it’s the financial crisis that really damaged faith in elites.
But if you step back and say more broadly, are there aspects of American conservatism that need to be rethought in light of Trumpism, the answer is clearly yes. It would be foolish to watch Trump take over the Republican Party — to watch so many conservative elites rationalize and acquiesce and enable Trump — and then say, “Conservatism is totally healthy.”
You can’t say that with a straight face.
Sargent: People often come back to Sarah Palin — obviously you had some role in her rise. It’s fair to ask whether Palin put on the table a bunch of pathologies that lead right down to Trumpism.
Kristol: I regret whatever minor role I had in promoting Palin. I don’t know how much influence she had. It’s hard to believe she had as much effect as the tea party.
Having said that, it was a mistake. I think John McCain thought it was a mistake later in his life.
I don’t want to defend myself too much, but I would say this: I sensed a populism out there dissatisfied with the establishment — including the Republican establishment. I thought someone like Palin could be a way of incorporating a certain amount of populism, frankly in a kind of harmless way.
She was not anti-immigration. She was not anti-trade. She was not anti-globalism. I thought if you could attach a kind of populism to McCain Republicanism, that would be a success. But it turned out not to work.
Sargent: It’s interesting that you bring up the dissatisfaction with Republican elites. One could connect that to what you said earlier about the financial crisis’ role in making the ground fertile for Trumpism. The Republican Party really did embrace a pro-plutocracy politics for a very long time that laid the groundwork for a lot of this.
Kristol: The party was more oligarchic than I realized. One always knew the Republican Party was the party of business and therefore of the wealthy.
Having said that, the degree of plutocracy, oligarchy — whatever the right word is — the degree of that was greater than I realized at the time. I think I underestimated that.
There was also the intellectual exhaustion. I thought that was a problem. People like me were alarmed by this. That was the whole point of the reformicons.
But that turned out to be even truer than I realized at the time — the degree to which people had just not rethought anything since the 1980s or the 1990s.
Sargent: We’re now stuck with a double whammy from the Republican Party. They’re still oligarchic, despite the populist feints of a few senators. And they’re sliding into full authoritarianism. Taking those two things together, it really seems like the Republican Party can’t be redeemed by the standards that you have set for it.
Kristol: I think that’s right. One can imagine an alternate history in which the conservative movement realized it was kind of exhausted; it had a good run. You can imagine a healthy if somewhat turbulent rethinking.
I thought that might happen. Instead, the Republican Party went the other way.
We’ve seen it in history before: Economic elites deciding to pursue their self interest, very narrowly understood, combined with the populist exploitation and intensification of grievances and anxieties, and frankly bigotries and prejudices.
You can’t overestimate how much damage the capitulation of conservative and Republican elites has done. Trump by himself succeeding was bad. The Republican Party going along with Trump — and the conservative establishment legitimating and rationalizing and enabling Trump — created the very dangerous situation we’re now in.
Sargent: It sounds like you don’t think the Republican Party can be saved.
Kristol: At least not in the short term. And if we don’t have two reasonably healthy parties, the unhealthy party has to be defeated.
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