Opinion: What does a moderate conservative say about today's politics? A Q&A with Bill Kristol

Bill Kristol, whose political credits are long and stellar - he is a moderate conservative in an extreme-views world - has what he terms a reasonably optimistic outlook on American politics.

At least that's what he said last week when he spoke virtually with the editor of this page and separately to a group convened locally just after the first hearings of the House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

"Maybe we're hitting bottom. It does feel like everyone's so pessimistic now, and understandably after the last several years," he said. "But maybe we're a little bit coming out of it."

But before getting to his reasons for optimism, Kristol, a founder of The Weekly Standard, editor-at-large of The Bulwark, a former chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle and founding director of Republican Voters Against Trump, answered wide-ranging questions from our page and from Tennessee Democracy Forum's David Eichenthal in a presentation for Conversations on Democracy on June 13. Kristol was a guest speaker in the Conversations series, virtual and in-person discussions scheduled through October at UTC. The series is presented by the Tennessee Democracy Forum and the UTC department of political science and public service.

Here we offer a report in a Q&A format from both interviews, edited for brevity.

Eichenthal: How did we get here - to this sort of level of division? And how do we begin to get people to always have their own opinion, but get to a common set of facts we could all agree upon?"

Kristol: It's hard to disentangle the causes. Some of them are technological, like social media [and] the decline of network news and local newspapers. Trump has a lot to do this, of course. The partisanship became polarization and real. It's more about who you distrust, who you hate, who you really don't want to see have any power or at all, who you think's out to get you. You can't agree on facts if you don't get together to talk about the facts. It's done a lot of damage.

Eichenthal: Did anything from the [Jan. 6] hearings surprise you?

Kristol: No. Watching people talk about telling [Trump], "No, you really didn't win," and he didn't care. I don't really agree with Bill Barr, who said, you know, Trump is "detached from reality." He just didn't want to hear reality because he wanted to overturn the election. He was just looking for plausible, semi-plausible arguments he could throw out there, but it wasn't like a good faith effort to really find out what happened.

Now hopefully we won't elect too many presidents and won't have too many nominees of major parties who really think they just are entitled to try to overturn free and fair elections. Whatever else you can say about America, that has not been our tradition.

But if you look at where people who do try to stage coups or quasi-coups - let's just call it usurp power to overturn elections - what agency would you want to control?

People don't necessarily know what is the relationship with the attorney general to the president and why couldn't the president ask him to go look at this or want to call up someone about that.

For me, it was the stuff that was happening in the Justice Department and in the defense department. That's what spooked me. It wasn't just Trump sitting in the Oval Office screaming and yelling pointlessly for two months. The fact that he really tried to change leadership at Justice, get Justice to leave, to report things falsely [to] state legislators, and the changes he made at the defense department. I mean, that really is more like reading in some book about what happens in Argentina where there's going to be coup.

Eichenthal: What about [the role of] members of Congress [whose role it is not just to represent citizens but also to provide a check on the executive branch - the president]?

Kristol: The fact that the Republican Party allowed itself to be so intimidated and ended up signing on almost fully to Trump - because they thought it was electorally a winning thing, I think mostly, and they were scared of him in primaries - that has done huge damage. The Trump phenomenon is not nearly as dangerous [without that GOP lean-in]. You don't get to anything like January 6 without the Republican Party spending four years - especially those last two or three years - basically first acquiescing to Trump and then going all in.

There were some checks in the executive branch early on, but they gradually went away. There were some checks in Congress early on. They certainly went away.

Sohn: What will it take to jolt Republicans, especially those who only watch Fox, out of their safe space of ignoring the truth?

Kristol: It looks like people are going to stay in their safe space for a long time. I think half of Republicans were still with Nixon even after the [Watergate] tape came out. There's no magic. Again - if people want to pay attention, they will pay attention.

Sohn: What do you think is the best and worst possible results of these hearings?

Kristol: I think the best result would be a lot of people taking it seriously and beginning to rethink their views. They are not going to flip overnight. They're not going to say I think I was wrong to vote for the guy twice or I was wrong to believe this person or that person who said this. But I think over time people might just make a different decision going forward - like you can't really have people who are involved in this involved next time. We probably should ask Congress to pass legislation to strengthen some of the safeguards and we should be a little more careful about the rhetoric we use, and our politicians use, about life and about democracy.

Sohn: What should people here want their state and local and county elected officials to be doing with all this?

Kristol: To make sure you have free and fair and professionally run elections. At the federal level, of [Tennessee Sen.] Marsha Blackburn, I never expected much, [but] I was actually astounded when I saw that [Tennessee Sen. Bill] Hagerty [initially said he would vote] to overturn the electors. I mean, I just think he should not be allowed to just never be asked about that. Does he still think that was right? Does he think there was fraud? I think and I feel like that he should be really held accountable for that.

Sohn: What do you wish the media - especially the smaller media, not the FOX, MSNBC and CNN's of the world - would report about in these hearings?

Kristol: Get the facts out. Hold people accountable. "OK, Sen. Hagerty, there have been hearings now. Do you still think the election was stolen? Do you still think Trump was telling the truth?"

Eichenthal and Sohn: You sound optimistic. Why?

Kristol: I am. The gun deal - some will say it's minor, not enough - still, the very fact of having such a deal is itself a positive, right? Given our culture? And it's a very good signal to send to state and local politicians and to the country as a whole.

And there might be a deal on the Electoral Count Act, which is what would fix to some degree, not perfectly, the guardrails Trump was trying to maneuver around between November 3 and January 6. Obviously, we all saw a [congressional certification] system that was designed with the assumption of good faith at its heart, and it turns out there were a lot of rickety parts of that which could be strengthened.

It will be bipartisan because obviously there will be Democratic vice president presiding in January of 2025. [Would we want] that Vice President overturning returns and so forth? So I think there could be a deal on the Electoral Account Acts, similarly.

And the hearings themselves [are reason for optimism]. Most of the Republicans, after [Nancy] Pelosi rejected a couple of ridiculous picks by [Kevin] McCarthy, they all just said, "Oh, it's not a real bipartisan effort." But it is. There are two Republicans. And Liz Cheney is certainly a quite conservative Republican.

[The hearings] are also laying out the facts with an awful lot of Trump appointees and loyalists and staff saying certain things. I think if you've been really in a bubble and you haven't wanted to believe any of that, seeing it at a deposition or seeing contemporaneous documents makes you think, "Geez, maybe it isn't quite the way I thought it was."

Incidentally, I think for those on the left, seeing that there were Republicans who behaved honorably [is good]. There's Cheney leading the pack and others as well - [Brad] Raffensperger in Georgia, and so forth, and others who upheld the elections. Maybe this could be a bit of a moment where we we get a bit of a comeback.