Washington, D.C. is home to plenty of intellectually flexible Republican partisans (so many, in fact, that some liberal writers have identified a distinct “hack gap”), but few can match Bill Kristol’s ability to recite GOP talking points and be received by mainstream audiences as if he were dispensing thoughtful expert commentary. Kristol even enjoyed a short, undistinguished run as a Times columnist, reliably turning in copy that, as George Packer memorably put it, gave the reader “the sense [he] wrote his column during the commercial breaks of his gig on Fox News Sunday and gave it about the same amount of thought.” The spectacle of Kristol’s growing estrangement from the GOP he helped create was a grim source of comic relief during the 2016 election. But now, as he has become a prominent conservative critic of Trump, Robert Wright has a warning for the left: Don’t make common cause with neocons.
Wright (responding to a piece by Democracy editor Michael Tomasky) argues that attacking Trumpism “at its roots” requires “figuring out what array of forces” led to its rise—and that “there are few people who have more influentially abetted those forces than Bill Kristol.” A shared opposition to Trump, then, is not reason enough to include both Wright and Kristol in what Benjamin Wittes calls “the Coalition Of All Democratic Forces of the United States of America.” Wittes’s call for a nonpartisan anti-Trump alliance envisions Americans stepping back from “traditional left-right divisions,” putting aside arguments over social issues, foreign policy, taxes, entitlements, and the courts, and declaring “a temporary truce on all such questions” while Americans “band together to face a national emergency.” In response to ideas like this, Wright not only gags at “the disturbing prospect of making nice to people like Kristol”; he worries that Kristol is using this moment “to win favor from fervent liberal anti-Trumpers,” favor which he can later deploy in support of the militaristic foreign policy that is his true priority.
These are fair enough worries, but I have a more basic question: How, exactly, are these alliances supposed to work? It’s not just that hitting pause on nearly every partisan disagreement is unrealistic; it would actually be detrimental to the emergency response Wittes is calling for. So far, Trump’s attacks on the rule of law and on basic constitutional structure have been enabled by a Republican Congress that needs his signature for its policy agenda. Over the past year, Republicans have repeatedly shown that they will forgive and forget Trump’s worst behavior, and there is no reason to assume this dynamic will change—even if Trump does something that many of them now claim would be a bridge too far, such as firing Robert Mueller. The only way to ensure Trump is held accountable—to ensure that the full investigation is carried out, and that there is a proper response to whatever revelations emerge from it—is to break this dynamic and deprive Trump of this Congressional protection. As Jacob Weisberg writes: “many Republican politicians privately feel (and express) contempt for Trump,” but “the party’s greater loyalty is to a conservative agenda that includes tax cuts, deregulation, and the repeal of Obamacare.” In other words, accountability is only secure if Democrats retake Congress. That includes impeachment, as Julia Azari has written: “There is no nonpartisan, apolitical mechanism to evaluate abuses of power and remove a president from office. Our Constitution places this responsibility with the people’s elected representatives (and senators, to be precise).”
Instead of wishing for salvation in the form of an alliance that transcends politics, then, Trump’s non-liberal detractors need to embrace partisanship—specifically, they should work to get Democrats elected. Otherwise, all this activism amounts to vague symbolism and a fervent hope for decency rendered ineffectual by a lack of any clear strategy. (As I write, polls from Alabama are all over the map, and Alabama native Condoleezza Rice is making a last-minute call for the state’s voters to “reject bigotry, sexism, and intolerance,” without going so far as to specify how exactly they might do that.) By donating to Democratic candidates, publicly advocating for their election, and encouraging people to reject their Trump-supporting opponents, these detractors will find themselves effectively in violation of Wittes’s call for a political truce. But they’ll also be embracing the only realistic mechanism for their crucially important goal.