Oh, adorable Andrew Sullivan. Silly, naive, good-natured Andrew Sullivan.
The veteran conservative writer has stumbled upon the antonym of a unicorn in the political wilderness. Bill Kristol, the neoconservative opinionist and founder of The Weekly Standard, has switched teams. Not in the sexual manner that Sullivan, the first pro same-sex marriage conservative, might appreciate as a third-act twist, but partisanlly.
Like many right-of-center pundits with sleek corner offices and 202-area landlines, Kristol found Donald Trump’s demeanor brash, off-putting, and definitely not welcome at the Adams Morgan brunch table. Trump’s non-interventionist instinct was also seen as unrefined in a town enamored by the American imperium consensus. So Kristol did the only respectable thing a political operator could do: he embraced Never Trumpism in the peaky-faced form of a longshot grifter. His stance was rewarded with the corporate shuttering of his magazine and cannibalizing of its subscriber base for the more MAGA-friendly Washington Examiner.
The thanks you get for principle, am I right?
Except Kristol didn’t take the trashing of his intellectual organ lightly. So he directed a sequel: Kristol started the webzine The Bulwark, hiring old Standard hands out of the unemployment line, to continue the principled resistance to the Trumpificaiton of the GOP. The revenge campaign soon devolved into mere Democrat shilling, with nonstop smearing of the entire Republican Party as traitors to America.
Apologies for the seemingly digressive backstory, but all that spiteful history brings us to today. With the Supreme Court set to invalidate Roe v. Wade, Kristol now wraps himself in the righteous cape of Abortion Man, defender of uterine choice. He regularly retweets pro-life obloquy, reviling abortion opponents as knuckle-dragging, misogynistic half-wits.
This reverse field beguiles Sullivan, who writes in “How Not To Change Your Mind”: “Now hugely popular among MSNBC Democrats, alert to racism and sexism and homophobia, Kristol has, these last few years, performed a spectacular ideological self-reinvention that makes J.D. Vance look like a man of unflinching consistency.”
Quick aside: it’s hard to judge how “popular” Kristol, a key brain trust member of George W. Bush’s administration, is among MSNBC’s diminutive audience. Unlike the right, progressives don’t lose sight of the ball, even when a flashy Harold Hillian expositor of their views strolls into town.
Sullivan checks off the positions Kristol has flipped on in the past five years: gay marriage, populism (Kristol was an early defender of Sarah Palin), illegal immigration, wokeness, and, yes, abortion, opposition to which Kristol called keystone in conservative politicking. For years, The Weekly Standard published traditional fisks of all the radical left’s cultural cynosures. I’ll spare the reader from ample block-quoting. Just rest assured that Kristol oversaw three decades’ worth of the most buttoned-up erudition on every conservative bugbear ever imagined during CPAC panels. Now he rebukes it all in the name of electing Democrats to extirpate Trumpism.
This beguiles and infuriates Sullivan: “[T]o have been so passionately on the extreme edge of one side of an issue he regarded as one of core morality, and then flip to the other side entirely—with absolutely no account of why—is not a mark of any halfway serious writer.”
Here, here! Changes of heart demand explanation. Except Kristol’s real heart, the passions that really guide his soul, haven’t actually changed.
First off, Kristol has never been a serious writer, even in his heyday. His prose couldn’t stifle the meekest yawn. His TV appearances were humdrum, his rhetoric pap. Kristol was and has always been a mannequin of careful conservatism, with each and every word carefully message-tested before a petit bourgeois audience who maintain steady 401(k) deductions and drive mid-00s Honda Civics.
The Standard published many, many glittering prose-masters over the years, including Matt Labash, Joseph Epstein, Andrew Ferguson, Christopher Caldwell, Charles Krauthammer, Terry Teachout, and funnily enough, Tucker Carlson. Reading Kristol after any one of them was the literary equivalent of following medium-rare Wagyu sirloin with a rain-dampened McRib.
That said, Kristol’s consistency has always been an insipid, if insistent, defense of America’s overstretched military. So it was, so it remains—even after two decades of failed interventionism in a Middle East sand bog. “Under Bush, Obama, Trump, and Biden, Kristol has remained a defender of the wars; and still is today,” Sullivan writes. Kristol’s volte-face Biden defense only extends so far as the lackluster, careless (and ultimately courageous) retreat from Afghanistan. He’ll undoubtedly be happy as a lark the President committed nearly a thousand special-forces troops to Somalia earlier this month.
So how best to judge Kristol’s intellectual swap? Was it sincere? Well-meaning? Did a revelatory light shine on Kristol while on the road to cocktail hour at the Georgetown Four Seasons? Did the deliberate backwardness of cultural conservatism fustigate his prefrontal cortex like a speed bag, knocking liberal sense into him?
Only one answer: a Krabappelian HAH!
Kristol experienced no ripensamento. There was no grand realization, no “evolving” on any given issue.
Before Trump came along and injected a potent strand of isolationism in the Republican Party DNA, the party of Reagan was the party of flexing military muscle. That’s exactly why Kristol expended his energies promoting it. On TV, print, broadcast, whatever available media, Kristol championed the GOP as a vehicle for his own foreign policy: American-led global dominance. For him, the Republican Party was the War Party—so it won his unflagging loyalty.
But as soon as Trump and his legions started chanting “America First!”, Kristol needed a new ride. His brilliant plan has been convincing the Democratic Party to insert its body on his warmonging chassis. And given the left’s hysteric Russophobia, his efforts have been mildly successful to date. The new push to expand NATO
Sullivan still seems surprised that a Sunday Show stable like Kristol can so turn on a cognitive dime without explanation. His comprehensive primary-sourcing of Kristol’s numerous flip-flops should be embarrassing. But as Emerson said, foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. Kristol hasn’t budged an inch on the issue closest to his little black heart: the incorrigible need to champion empire. In war-lusting, he remains strident and undeterred.