SALT LAKE CITY — Conservative commentator Bill Kristol, founder and editor-at-large of the Weekly Standard, and Boyd Matheson, president of the conservative think tank Sutherland Institute, sat down with the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards Friday to talk politics, conservatism, Donald Trump and the future of the Republican Party.
Kristol was a staunch critic of candidate Trump prior to the election and continues to be critical of a president he has said is not qualified for the office he holds. What emerged Friday was an optimism in the country and its institutions, and a call for more action by conservatives. He also offered his thoughts about the differences between Mormons and Evangelicals as it relates to the election of Donald Trump, and the future role Mitt Romney could play in Washington.
The questions and responses have been lightly edited for clarity.
Deseret News: You’ve been a staunch critic of Donald Trump. How do you think he’s doing and what’s the state of the country today?
Bill Kristol: I think the state of the country is pretty decent. I don’t give Donald Trump much credit for that. Maybe that’s because I am such a critic of his, but in a way you could say that the economy is trudging along and we’ve averted foreign policy disasters. There are strains which we’ve put on the international system which we could pay a price for later but we’ve very, very lucky; lucky as well as the country being strong. (For example) H.R. McMaster replacing, way back in the beginning of the Trump administration, so long ago all of us have forgotten it even happened, the replacement of Mike Flynn by H. R. McMaster just one month in (as National Security Advisor). This really was a huge deal. And I think the National Security Council has been responsible, McMaster has worked closely with (Secretary of Defense James) Mattis, etc. which means that, whatever Trump’s personal foibles … you have a serious national security team.
Deseret News: And on the economy?
Bill Kristol: The economy chugs along – (Trump) hasn’t done anything much with it honestly, a little deregulation. But it’s a big country, a strong country. The economy was probably going to pick up steam anyway. And to be fair, he’s not gotten in the way. The deregulatory stuff has been pretty effective. If you step back more broadly my general take is…not a fan of Trump but I’d say the institutions are strong.
Having a president like Donald Trump who doesn’t have much respect for the morals, judicial constraints, the appropriate kind of rhetoric a president should use, etc. ... in a less well developed democracy someone like Trump could really do damage. That’s not happened here. The military has a very deep structure of law abiding-ness and civility and control. ... In America the president having an opinion doesn’t translate to arbitrary action. The same thing is very much true I think of the Justice Department, the courts, and the media.
And it’s lucky we have federalism. It means that the federal government’s role is limited so that things can go on here. So I actually think it’s been a good reminder for people of the case for limited government, the case for limiting presidential power, and that you want to have a society that has deep institutions that are in place that can overcome erratic leadership, if you want to put it that way.
Deseret News: As a conservative critical of President Trump, what would you say is the right way to fight or engage him? The Republican Party has a lot of strictures more reminisent of this boardroom, whereas some say Donald Trump is more WWE - World Wrestling Entertainment. Does the establishment wing of the GOP stand to gain anything by going at the president the way he goes after others?
Bill Kristol: I don’t think they should fight using the same tactics, but if one side declares civil war it’s a little foolish for the other side to sort of hope it goes away or hope that it kind of fades out. Be nice to them, they won’t really prosecute this, I think that they’re pretty serious.
Deseret News: What would be the strategy?
Bill Kristol: Recruit candidates and back them effectively and make the case for policies more along the Bush/McCain/Romney track. I know there’s a case to be made for free trade, there’s a good case to be made for modern immigration policy, there’s a good case to be made for a strong foreign policy.
What makes it a little complicated is that Trump has backed off a lot of his campaign positions in these areas, so it’s not as if his administration’s a mixed bag. And these elected officials have to work with Trump, obviously…..they’ve got things they want to get done. And look, I’ve supported Trump in a bunch of legislative areas and since we agree – you can’t be so anti-Trump that you oppose things you agree with. That would be foolish.
But I guess my big disappointment with the Republicans is I think you can work with Trump, you can be part of the administration, you can support whatever legislative – judges and deregulation and this and that that you agree with. But you can also call him out when he says and does things that are damaging. They’re too reluctant to call him out. And their rationale is why pick a fight unnecessarily, he’ll be annoyed. But tough.
Deseret News: Do you have to call him out with the kind of rhetoric he uses? And what are your thoughts about putting aside personal values to support legislative agendas?
Bill Kristol: Yes, I think a lot of Republicans would prefer not to have civil wars and so there’s a certain tendency to say well you’re picking this fight unnecessarily and it’s a little hard to explain to people sometimes the damage that’s done by tweets that attack the FBI and the Justice Department and say that Hillary Clinton should be put in jail. You seem a little fastidious, when really the president should not be targeting individual Americans for criminal investigations.
I think it is tricky for elected officials. It’s one thing if you’re a former candidate or a senator who’s retiring. I do think the ones who are in office or are running for office are in a somewhat more complicated position. But having said that I think they should do more. And I think that’s what would have traction.
Deseret News: And Boyd, what would you say?
Boyd Matheson, Sutherland Institute: I think one thing that most of the politicians have miscalculated is that President Trump is 100 percent transactional. He is not relational about anything. Everything is a transaction. So he can cut a deal with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday and then he can blow them up on Facebook on Wednesday. And I think you have a lot of those leaders, in the Senate in particular, that are kind of functioning on this 1970s version of well, he’s in our party so we have a relationship. And Trump doesn't have a relationship with anyone.
I think one of the real critical leadership components in the 21st century, not just in politics but in business, is this whole idea of allies and alliances. That you are going to find people that you have common ground on particular policy — you may not like anything else, but being able to maximize that and move that forward for a policy agenda is a real critical piece. And I think what you’ll find — in this I agree with Bill — that it’s sad that a lot of those that are suddenly speaking truth to power are doing it on their way off the stage. There’s a certain element of that that just doesn’t ring true with the American people.
What the American people do appreciate is when someone will do that. I think more than Republicans need a civil war they need a civil debate. Reagan said it best: the Republican party is always at it’s best when it’s the party of big ideas and open, even roiling, debates.
Bill Kristol: I think the … partisanship is one problem, but I’m less confident that the public right now are going to reward someone who tells the truth about Trump. So we had an editorial just a week ago – "Surrender" was the title, I think – chastising Republicans on the hill, saying there’s a civil war going on, but I don’t see much of a war, we just see a surrender.
And they were all offended and various congressmen called and said, "You know I'm fighting the fight here behind the scenes and I’ve made progress on this policy issue that you guys care about by working with (U.S. National Security Advisor) H.R. McMaster or with someone else in the Trump administration." And I totally understand that and I’m for that. Again, I’ve also editorialized defending people like McMaster for going into the Trump administration when some of my friends, his friends, really, have said you should just keep away from it, you’re going to hurt yourself by being part of this. And I don’t think that’s the right thing either.
Deseret News: Could Mitt Romney potentially play the role of being the countervailing force in Washington?
Yeah I think he’d be — I mean, him running and winning is up to him, it’s up to Orrin Hatch, I’m not going to get into all that — but yes it would be a big deal. ... But Romney would be special, obviously. I think at the end of the day you want the younger generation stepping up. And I think seeing elder statesmen – maybe I should say middle aged statesmen – like Mitt be there to provide guidance and almost cover, in a way.
Deseret News: In talking about the future you’ve quoted Abraham Lincoln — "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present" — and said we need to think "anew." What does that mean going forward?
That’s a good question….I’d say personally for me I mean, is the Republican Party the vehicle for the ideals and principles I believe in? I’d say that’s a question mark for me now. I think the answer is probably yes, but I’m open also to the notion that we’re going to get a crack up within the parties. You can easily imagine a Bannonite/Trumpite party and a more traditional (party). Maybe they get together with traditional Democrats, maybe not.
You could have a breakup on the Democratic side. Conservatism itself, I think the priciples remain sound but obviously you’d need to adjust them to a new moment. And in some respects there I think we have been coasting a little bit on some of our views. Like this tax bill for example – this isn’t really Trump’s fault, I think. ... It might be marginally better for the economy than the current tax code but it’s still not a real rethinking of (policy). It’s mostly kind of traditional ideas that have been bouncing around for a while and they’re sort of more or less assembled and a more or less coherent package.
So I think on some policy areas and certainly politically and I’d say organizationally I think it could be a very new moment.
Deseret News: During the election there were evident differences of support among conservatives of different religions. What's your view of the differences at play with Mormons and Evangelicals as it related to the election and current support of Donald Trump as president of the United States?
Bill Kristol: It’s really easy for us to stand on our principles. Here (in Utah) you are one of the most conservative voting groups probably in the country. You’d think they might be inclined to the kind of conservative message of Trump and they certainly did not have a lot of interest in Hillary Clinton, I assume, out here. But to their credit (some Utahns and some Mormons) resisted pretty strongly in the primaries and even in the general election obviously. And so I admire that, I think it shows that – here’s how I’ll put it: what I think people out here understand maybe a little better than people in Washington, policy isn’t a substitute for character and for principle.
And it’s fine to say hey we’re making progress in this policy and that, and I agree with him on this policy and that, and on all these other policies he’ll probably adjust and so…more traditional Republican policies which we probably have…so that’s fine.
And a lot of people have rationalized being OK with Trump for that reason – policy comes first. I do think people out here understand a little better that culture and institutions and character matter more over the long term – not even the long term but the immediate term. And that you pay a pretty big price if you just kind of look away when the president or presidential candidate is attacking certain groups showing total disregard, really, for the truth and trashing American institutions and just behaving like I’m a third world demagogue.
What's the price for that? The economic growth won’t slow down next month and there won’t be a war next year – the price is a little more indirect and a little harder to put your finger on perhaps, but it’s bad for the country. And I think people out here have that sense maybe a little more deeply.
I think the evangelicals — I have good friends who are evangelicals — they really, they’re so frustrated after years of what they regard as defeat and ineffectual leadership and being taken for granted, they, or at least their leaders, really decided they would go for Trump despite everything and they’ve stuck with him, I’ve gotta say. And they’ve gotten some things that they care about – religious liberty, some judicial appointments. ...I have good friends who are evangelicals. It's one thing to say you know what is the lesser of two evils, the world’s a complicated place, we’ve got to make accommodations in politics, politics isn’t the same as the ministry and so forth. Just face away from everything and kind of rationalize and say in fact he’s doing great and I’m thrilled to be at the White House with him and everything’s fine and there’s no issue at all with the way he talks about other people and the way he treats other people.
I think the people out here have been a bit more sensitive to that – maybe because of the history of intolerance and oppression – as a Jew I sort of feel that a little more too maybe — the price you pay for sort of going down that road and I think people out here just because of their own history have got maybe a little more feel for that.