What the Hell Happened to Bill Kristol?

Greetings from Budapest, where I’ll be hanging out a lot at Cafe Roger Scruton at 10 Zoltan Street over the next several days, and giving a lecture for the Danube Institute next Monday evening on the topic, “What Is Going on in America?” If there are any Power Line readers in Budapest, you may still be able to grab a limited seat for the event here. Otherwise you may run into me at the Cafe.

Lo and behold, when I arrived over here I caught up with the monster hit piece on our friends at the Claremont Institute in The Bulwark: “What the Hell Happened to the Claremont Institute?“, by Laura Field, who hangs her shingle at the Niskanen Institute, which is one clue right there. It is a long, lugubrious piece: settle in with a pot of coffee if you want to try it. Basically the piece is one long attempted syllogism: Claremont people liked and defended Trump; Trump is evil, ergo. . .

Claremont can defend themselves just fine, and I look forward to their counter-salvo. But I think the reverse question can and should be asked, though I take no pleasure in doing so: What the hell happened to Bill Kristol? (He is the founder and impresario of The Bulwark, where the Field essay appears.) As it happens, I gave a long explanation of why the “Claremonsters” were sympathetic to Trump just before the election in 2016, in a feature article that appeared in . . . Bill Kristol’s magazine (!), the late lamented Weekly Standard. Editors told me that Bill didn’t agree with much of the piece, but he did print it as written. The main point of that piece, in one sentence, is that Trump, for all his evident flaws, represented the most significant challenge to the administrative state and the establishment culture that protects it since Nixon and Reagan. (The Fields piece, despite its length, doesn’t address this central point.) And on many particulars, Trump delivered. Even Kristol grudgingly acknowledged this early in Trump’s term.

The view that Trump’s character trumped whatever good deeds he did in office is coherent and plausible (and by the way, I know of at least one leading Claremonster who never wavered in this opinion—the circle was far from unanimous about the question), and hence it was reasonable to credit honorable opposition to him.

But Trump is gone now, and his opponents can claim a large measure of vindication in the ignominious end of his term. Yet the Never Trumpers seem by degrees to have become Never Republicans. Bill and several of his colleagues at The Bulwark seem to have decided that throwing Trump over the side, and Trump-friendly Republicans with him, isn’t enough: they now seem to be throwing aside conservatism itself, suddenly attacking conservative views on climate change, health care, and many other issues. Is it now Never Conservative?

Bill has long liked to troll people in sophisticated ways, especially with wry tweets that you have to process for a moment or two. And beyond that, he’s been lately telling people he now associates himself with Hayek’s famous essay, “Why I Am Not a Conservative,” and I wonder if this is a clever troll, too, because he seems to be making the same mistake simple-minded libertarians do who cite this title (and Bill is not simple-minded). If you read the actual essay, Hayek essentially says “If I was an American, I’d be a conservative, because American conservatism—as opposed to European conservatism that was the real target of the essay—seeks to conserve a tradition of liberty.”

So here is a mystery. Is Bill still a conservative? Republicans may be pathetic in many ways, but does he really think today’s Democratic Party is a better guardian of the American tradition of liberty? It boggles the mind to suppose so.

I’d gladly settle for Bill to offer serious new version of where Hayek settled, namely, a Whig account of our political order, though that seems unpromising. Meanwhile, I doubt he’s gaining many new friends on the left while losing so many old friends on the right.

Chaser—once upon a time:

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