The Fight for the Republic
In 2021, the United States failed for the first time in its history to achieve a peaceful transfer of presidential power. The events of January 6, observes conservative commentator William “Bill” Kristol ’73, Ph.D. ’79—and the enabling political rhetoric and lies that preceded that day, and that continue now—have left him concerned for the future of American liberal constitutional democracy. “One of our two major political parties (or at least a good chunk of the party),” says Kristol, who is a Fellow this spring at Harvard Kennedy School’s (HKS) Institute of Politics (IOP), “is not really committed to democracy, to elections, to not perpetrating a big lie [about President Donald Trump’s electoral defeat], and to certain basic standards of civility and decency.”
Kristol, who served on the HKS faculty from 1983 to 1985, is a lifelong Republican credited with helping develop the strategy that led to his party’s 1994 congressional victories—securing unified control of Congress for the first time in decades and making Newt Gingrich Speaker of the House. Prior to that, he served in the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations before co-founding and editing the conservative political magazine, The Weekly Standard, from 1995 to 2018. But now, the role of Republican elites in enabling Trump has led him to question the party’s commitment to the republic itself. The storming of Congress by a pro-Trump mob was nothing less than “a failed coup attempt,” he wrote recently in The Bulwark, a project of the nonprofit Defending Democracy Together Institute, an educational and advocacy organization dedicated to defending America’s liberal democratic norms, principles, and institutions, of which Kristol is a founding director.
“For the country as a whole, the character of a party that 74 million people voted for this past November, and that has 50 senators, and 211 House members, and half the [state] governors, matters,” he said in a February Zoom meeting of the IOP’s Forum. “And if 65 percent of its members in the House vote to overturn electors, in a case where there’s zero evidence that this should be considered, and you can only can get 10 members to vote for impeachment of a president who, I would argue, pretty clearly deserves it, you have a really unusual and challenging situation.”
The problem is bigger than Donald Trump, Kristol elaborated in an interview. When Trump officially won the presidential election in 2017 by vote of the Electoral College, Kristol was among those who believed that the strength of American democratic institutions would limit the damage he could do. And to an extent, that was true—but barely. “We proved more susceptible than we thought to demagoguery, and weaker as a society at resisting the inflaming of anxieties and stirring of bigotries, and the know-nothing-ism and lies.”
Demagogues, bigotry, and lies have been around a long time, Kristol notes, and social media have made those more dangerous. “But to me, the big story is that a demagogue became president….It’s one thing to have a demagogue who’s a senator or governor or talk-radio host,” he says, citing Senator Joseph McCarthy and Governor George Wallace, but when that person is the president of the United States for four years, “then it becomes not just talk, but also what he does…and the way people in his administration behave. And that has a much deeper impact.”
“And here is where the Republican Party” figures “in a very big way,” Kristol continues. The president’s party “amplified and supported what Trump was doing, and became his instrument. He has reshaped one of our two major political parties and accustomed its voters and its elected members to a certain kind of rhetoric, certain kinds of policies, and ways of discussing subjects and behaving that weren’t acceptable before.” The party remains Trump’s, Kristol believes, and that is why “it’s a mistake to think we dodged a bullet” when Joe Biden was elected.
Cowardice and opportunism explain why many Republican politicians did not stand up to Trump, says Kristol. But what has sustained his brand of demagoguery is more deep-rooted. “Voters can say things” they couldn’t before, “and politicians can ride on the coattails of the demagogue,” he continues. “And suddenly, they are successful, and famous, and Fox News is doing great, and its backers are making a ton of money. I underestimated how much of a successful business enterprise Trump and Trumpism turned out to be for the people involved in it, not just for family members and businesses abroad, but also politicians and even some writers. For Dinesh D’Souza, Tucker Carlson, and Marjorie Taylor Greene, being part of a successful demagogic movement has opened up a ton of career opportunities.” Once established, he adds, “with its networks, outlets, and celebrities, it can take a while to contain and roll back.”
Even so, many institutions, when put to the test at the time of the 2020 election, “have done pretty well, all things considered,” Kristol says: “The courts, the bureaucracy, the military (mostly), state and local governments, have stood up for themselves—and for the voters and citizens,” as, for example, in Michigan and Georgia during post-election legal challenges. “It is a reminder that we’re very lucky to have this rich complex of institutions. It’s good that the executive branch of the federal government doesn’t run everything in America, which is actually a conservative lesson.” But in Trump’s cases, “party loyalty” outweighed the expected congressional checks.
Kristol hopes the Republican Party can be saved from Trumpism, and is involved in efforts to facilitate that through the Republican Accountability Project, but he emphasizes that concerns about the future of American conservatism should be secondary to saving American democracy. For now, he believes, Republican voters should support centrist candidates and centrist Democratic policies—like the majority of those advocated by the Biden administration—until their own party recommits to the principles on which the nation was founded. (Kristol supported and voted for Biden in the November election.)
For this conservative, and others like him, the outcome of the 2020 elections was ultimately a win. “A disaffected minority party that whips up dissent over what is happening at the border with Mexico, or that tries to suppress voting rights is bad,” he says, but also “very different from actually having them come back into power.” A lot of Americans, Kristol believes, want centrist policies, and believe in free markets and American leadership in the world. “A lot don’t buy the full left-wing critique of America, but on the other hand don’t want Trump’s authoritarianism and do want some liberal policies where appropriate, and want to be sensitive on issues of race, ethnicity, and so forth.”
Fixing the Republican party is likely to be a long-term project, Kristol suspects. In the meantime, he says, Biden’s policies are “consistent with the broad sweep of policies we have had for several decades.”