How Not To Change Your Mind
The curious case of Bill Kristol's ideological transformation
If you live long enough, and haven’t been lobotomized, you’ll change a lot of your views and opinions. Life does that. The world changes; you change; and for most people, who don’t air their views publicly for a living, the process is murky.
For the rest of us, the hacks/public intellectuals, I think there’s another standard: if you change your mind on an issue, at some point, explain why. What principles or ideas have you now abandoned? Which have you now embraced? What new facts have you learned? It’s a basic form of intellectual hygiene.
Which brings me to Bill Kristol. You may recall him as the former gatekeeper of Republican orthodoxy and much of its intelligentsia; architect of neoconservative foreign policy; adviser to US presidents; pundit; smooth-talker; operator. 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. And he has never even attempted to explain why.
Take for a moment the issue du jour: abortion. Very few people have spent years and years, as Kristol has, campaigning with a singular determination to overturn Roe v Wade. Here he is in 1998:
Republicans talk a lot about being a majority party, about becoming a governing party, about shaping a conservative future. Roe and abortion are the test. For if Republicans are incapable of grappling with this moral and political challenge; if they cannot earn a mandate to overturn Roe and move toward a post-abortion America, then in truth, there will be no conservative future.
A year earlier, Kristol had been even more emphatic:
The truth is that abortion is today the bloody crossroads of American politics. It is where judicial liberation (from the Constitution), sexual liberation (from traditional mores) and women’s liberation (from natural distinctions) come together. It is the focal point for liberalism’s simultaneous assault on self-government, morals and nature. So, challenging the judicially imposed regime of abortion-on-demand is key to a conservative reformation in politics, in morals, and in beliefs.
This is more than a pro-life position. It is the articulation of a thoroughgoing pro-life conservatism designed to end judicial intervention in politics, reverse the sexual revolution, and restore distinctions between men and women rooted in biology and nature. It couldn’t be more GOP 2022! The man was a visionary. And so you might imagine that when Kristol’s vision came to final fruit in 2022, he’d be over the moon.
But no. After Trump became GOP leader and put three pro-life justices on the Supreme Court, Kristol barely mentioned abortion on his Twitter thread — except to take a swipe at “the Republican political class — at once cavalierly uncaring about the women they seek to represent and manifestly insincere about the pro-life beliefs they claim to hold.”
And what of the pro-life beliefs Kristol claimed to hold? How manifestly sincere have they been? Last year, he was retweeting the view that “one thing [pro-choicers] always said is that pro-lifers really just want to control women’s bodies. And part of me thinks that this is probably right.” In 2020, he actually urged Biden to put a defense of Roe at the center of his campaign against Trump, while retweeting some liberal evangelicals’ view that “on balance, Joe Biden’s policies are more consistent with the biblically shaped ethic of life than those of Donald Trump.”
And look: it’s a perfectly legitimate argument that being pro-life means more than being anti-abortion, and requires universal healthcare as well. That was what these evangelicals were saying. And perhaps Kristol now also supports that as well. But that would be the same Kristol who almost single-handedly killed Hillarycare and did all he could to kill Obamacare as well? Why sure. At this point, why not?
Kristol is also now down with the “LGBTQIA+s”. He recently retweeted a critique of the Parental Rights bills across the country: “the pernicious intent of bills such as these: to stigmatize and shame gay and transgender people under the guise of protecting children from inappropriate conversations about sex.” Another Kristol retweet objected to the “grooming” meme: “Grooming is not acknowledging the existence of gay & transgender people to children.” Another retweet lamented that a Republican lost in Virginia because he favored marriage equality: “His sin was treating gays as humans worthy of equal respect and dignity… He wasn’t willing to be cruel to the Americans that Republican voters hate.”
Admirable in many ways. But again, is this the same Bill Kristol whose magazine, The Weekly Standard, was among the most fervent opponents of gay equality in America? In 1996, he published a piece arguing for a “reaffirmation by states of a sodomy law” if gay marriage advocates didn’t cut it out. The magazine sent out a letter on behalf of an anti-gay advertiser that raised the specter of “Radical Homosexuals infiltrating the United States Congress” with a plan to “indoctrinate a whole generation of American children with pro-homosexual propaganda.”
Kristol himself once said that “some [anti-gay] discrimination is perfectly reasonable,” and spoke of “the tragedy, really, of the gay rights movement in America — the tragedy of AIDS, the tragedy of the really irresponsible behavior, unfortunately, of so many people in that community.” He went out of his way to corral a conference for the ex-gay movement at Georgetown, which was designed, as its own literature explained, to expose homosexuality as “the disease that it is.’’ Kristol actually gave the concluding address. He later said on ABC News, “There are people who say ‘I was gay once. I didn’t like it. I sought counseling and I now am happily heterosexual.’”
As I’ve said, it’s no sin, and even a virtue, to change your mind. But to 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. To go from believing that gays need to be cured to Kristol’s current posture as defender of homos from Republican “hate” is amoral, unserious bullshit — both then and now.
Maybe Trump’s capture of the GOP caused Kristol to re-evaluate everything he ever believed about anything. But if Trump’s victory was about the victory of populism over elitism, then Kristol himself was an architect of it. It was Kristol who gave know-nothing populists their first major coup in national politics with Sarah Palin. And it was deliberate: “It was a way of co-opting, and obviously I was wrong to some degree — a kind of populism that I could see coming, so I’ll take a little credit for that.” So Kristol wants to denounce populism in the GOP, but still “take a little credit” for it. His case for Palin at the time? Pure populism: “A Wasilla Wal-Mart Mom a heartbeat away? I suspect most voters will say, No problem. And some perhaps a decisive number will say, It’s about time.”
The near-instant revelation that Palin was completely bonkers, delusional and pathologically dishonest didn’t affect Kristol’s support for her during the 2008 election — and beyond. He aired the idea of her running for Senate … in 2013, saying she had “a great political touch.” Even now, he thinks she was basically honest: “She wasn’t well-educated, but I don’t think there was the kind of systematic attempt to deny truth and truthfulness and make up things and just lie the way Trump does.” Let me belatedly introduce Kristol to the Daily Dish series, “The Odd Lies of Sarah Palin,” containing 32 whoppers.
Immigration? He postures now as a moderate. But when immigration reform might actually have happened under Obama, Kristol co-authored an impassioned editorial titled “Kill the Bill.” Money quote: “House Republicans can do the country a service by putting a stake through its heart.”
Bipartisanship? Kristol’s pathological hostility to the most centrist Democratic president, Bill Clinton, led him to support scorched-earth opposition to anything Clinton tried to get passed. His visceral loathing of Obama — another moderate Democrat — led to the same implacably obstructionist stance.
Sexual morality? In the 1990s, he linked the decadence of the Clinton White House to the depraved counter-culture of the 1960s. He egged on Kenneth Starr incessantly. By 2017, with Trump in office? “The sex scandals are bringing out my inner feminist.”
Identity politics? “Woke Bill Kristol,” as many online lefties have nicknamed him, is real. “I’ve been looking at some polling crosstabs and I’ve got to say to my fellow white men over 55: You’re a great disappointment to me,” vented Kristol. Always alert to racism, he tweeted: “Maybe I’m just too woke these days, but I find myself pretty much totally pro-Simone Biles, and pretty appalled by the mean-spirited clowns taking shots at her.” Any actual criticism of the neo-Marxist concepts being fed to schoolchildren? Nah. No enemies to the left is now Kristol’s mantra:
Some Democrats have embraced Critical Race Theory (CRT). The entire Republican Party has embraced Legitimate Political Discourse (LPD). And LPD is a lot more dangerous than CRT.
Israel? Kristol’s views came to extraordinary fruition under Trump: the effective end of any two-state solution, and of the Iran deal, the annexation of the Golan Heights, moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, and the further marginalization of the Palestinians. Like the reversal of Roe, this was the fulfillment of Kristol’s wildest dreams on a subject he never used to stop talking about. And yet from 2016 to 2020, Kristol is astonishingly quiet.
Race? Here too Kristol’s record — a conventional conservative opposition to affirmative action, and a defense of classical liberalism as opposed to critical race theory — has been flipped entirely. Now, the GOP is racist until proven otherwise. When critics criticized Ketanji Brown Jackson’s mild support for critical race theory, for example, Kristol pounced:
No more dog whistles. Just unabashed bigotry. Perhaps some Republican elected official — perhaps one of the Republican senators on the Judiciary Committee — would like to denounce this from the official account of the Republican Party?
If it is “unabashed bigotry” to criticize Democrats for being too fond of neo-Marxist theories on race, then Bill Kristol has been an unabashed bigot for decades — until he finally lost favor among Republicans.
There is one issue, of course, on which Kristol has never truly wavered on: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Under Bush, Obama, Trump, and Biden, Kristol has remained a defender of the wars; and still is today. He just hedges it a little now: “I’m inclined not to think [Iraq] was [a mistake].” He was relentless in criticizing Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan last year. He even claims vindication with the Petraeus surge.
A quote just before the war in 2003 captures Kristol perfectly:
On this issue of the Shia in Iraq, I think there’s been a certain amount of, frankly, a kind of pop sociology in America that, you know, somehow the Shia can’t get along with the Sunni and the Shia in Iraq just want to establish some kind of Islamic fundamentalist regime. There’s almost no evidence of that at all. Iraq’s always been very secular.
The fake surety; the glibness; the ignorance; the opportunism. On this, he remains the same. The one policy that he singularly championed, that led to over a hundred thousand civilian deaths, that saw the US endorse torture, that greatly empowered Iran, and that cost trillions, is the one he’ll never apologize for. The one catastrophe that, more than any other, killed neoconservatism’s and his own influence in the GOP and legitimized and galvanized the Trumpist revolt, is the one he will never disown.
I guess there’s a kind of beauty to that. Once you get past the sickening, amoral, irresponsible unseriousness of it all.
(Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a subscriber, click here to read the full version. This week’s issue also includes: more than 30 dissents and other comments from readers over my column on the SCOTUS leak and abortion more generally; a fun conversation with Tina Brown about the British royals and the state of journalism; a new transcript of my chat with Michael Moynihan; six notable quotes for the week, mostly on Roe; eight pieces we recommend by other Substackers; an Yglesias Award over Biden and inflation; one of countless animal vids from the funny and informative Ze Frank; a fantastic window view from London; and, as always, the results of the View From Your Window contest — with a new challenge. Subscribe for the full Dish experience!)
A Dishhead writes:
It’s 6:30 in the morning in Paris and I’m preparing to make a comment on your piece on the SCOTUS leak and how it’s putting the abortion issue back up for democratic discussion. I’m not sure this is the best way to start my day ...
Although I’m passionately left-wing, I enjoy reading the Dish because it helps me see how part of the other half thinks — an eloquent, thoughtful member of the other half. Like most people, I have surrounded myself with like-minded friends, so I don’t really get much interaction with “conservatives,” except when I’m vacationing in Michigan and all my sister’s neighbors are church-going, bible-thumping, rifle-slinging Republicans. (How did she end up there?!) But we get along. We walk and talk and bake each other cookies, but we avoid politics — mostly.
Our subscriber will probably enjoy our post of more than 30 reader dissents over my SCOTUS piece, including my responses. Have a look.
New On The Dishcast: Tina Brown
She needs no introduction — but in magazine history, Tina Brown is rightly deemed a legend, reviving Tatler, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, before turning to the web and The Daily Beast (where I worked for her). Her new book is The Palace Papers. We talked journalism, life and royals.
For two clips of our convo — on Meghan Markle’s epic narcissism, and why women make the best monarchs — head over to our YouTube page. Listen to the whole episode here. That link also takes you to a smattering of comments on Douglas Murray’s appearance on the pod.
Talking to Tina this week was the perfect excuse to transcribe our popular episode with Michael Moynihan, who used to work for her at The Daily Beast — which also hosted the Dish for a few years. So we’re all old friends. From the Moynihan chat:
Andrew: I was talking to Tina Brown about this not that long ago, with the great days of the big magazines in the '80s and '90s. Really, when you look back on that time, it was an incredible festival of decadence and clearly over the top before the fall.
Michael: I love Tina. I did a thing — you can look this up — an interview with her, when her “Vanity Fair Diaries” came out, for The Fifth Column. Just Tina and I sat down and talked for an hour and a half, and it was one of the best things I think we’ve recorded, and got one of the best responses. Because people miss those stories.
Perhaps Bill Kristol should check out the clip with Moynihan on how to change your mind on stuff you get wrong:
Browse the entire Dishcast archive for an episode you might enjoy.
Dissents Of The Week: How Dare I
My piece on the SCOTUS leak caused a wave of reader emails to flood the in-tray, so we created a separate post with dozens of the best dissents and other points of discussion on abortion. The following dissent touches on several of the themes discussed at length:
Your answer seems to be just let the voters decide, which is exactly what the Bill of Rights was intended to prevent regarding fundamental freedoms. Majority rule, state by state, can be tyranny, and given the capacity to gerrymander can actually be tyranny of the minority. And only the naive would take comfort in Alito’s assurances that other Supreme Court opinions based on the right to privacy are somehow different, sacrosanct, and thus precedents that will be respected by the current members of the Court in future decisions.
It seems absurd to ascribe minority rights to women who form at least half the population, many of whom actually support abortion restrictions. As for the gerrymandering point, that would surely invalidate our entire political system on every issue.
Check out the rest of the robust Dish debate here, which includes many of my replies to dissenters. Also, two corrections on last week’s Dish: Francesca Hong is a member of the Wisconsin State Assembly, not Congress; and six white men and Thurgood Marshall decided Roe, not seven white men. Apologies. As always, keep the corrections and dissents coming: email@example.com.
In The ‘Stacks
This is a feature in the paid version of the Dish spotlighting about a dozen of our favorite pieces from other Substackers every week. This week’s selection covers subjects such as violent pro-choicers, George Carlin, and stealth-editing. One example:
British comedian James Harris wants to see more viewpoint diversity: “it would surely be more iconoclastic in the arts to be openly conservative.”
You can also browse all the Substack writers we follow and read on a regular basis here — a combination of our favorite writers and new ones we’re checking out. It’s a blogroll of sorts. If you have any recommendations for “In the ‘Stacks,” especially ones from emerging writers, please let us know: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The View From Your Window Contest
Where do you think it’s located? Email your guess to email@example.com. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject line. Proximity counts if no one gets the exact spot. Bonus points for fun facts and stories. The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two annual Dish subscriptions. If you are not a subscriber, please indicate that status in your entry and we will give you a free month subscription if we select your entry for the contest results. Happy sleuthing!
The results for last week’s window are coming in a separate email to paid subscribers later today.
See you next Friday.