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How Bill Kristol Closed the Conservative Mind

When The American Conservative launched in 2002, co-founder Pat Buchanan explained why it was needed: “there is no doubt the neocons have come to define the conservative movement, which bothers me. They do not represent traditional conservatism.” 

CommentaryNational Review and The Weekly Standard are nearly interchangeable in terms of foreign policy and empire,” said Buchanan. “It’s all degenerating into outright imperialism.”

“This is not conservatism,” he insisted.

Buchanan was right, of course. What was considered “conservative” back then was almost exclusively neoconservatism in all its pro-war, big government glory. Support for the invasion of Iraq and George W. Bush were strict litmus tests. White House speechwriter David Frum even attempted to cast out the small minority of conservatives and libertarians who questioned the neocon status quo.

For anyone who opposed the war—and especially dissenters on the Right—there would be no mercy. Bill Kristol never had any intention of showing any.

When it was announced that The Weekly Standard would shut down last week, many journalists and politicos lamented its end, and understandably so. The neoconservative flagship that Kristol founded and led for most of its existence was hailed as a “jewel of American conservatism” and a home for “solid reporting and strong writing.”Its demise represented a “closing of the conservative mind.”

I do not intend to dispute or debate those sentiments. To build something that reached such prominence only to see it shuttered so rapidly after 23 years must be heartbreaking. I feel sorry for former staffers who now find themselves jobless. I’ve been in their shoes. But for all the considerable good that his magazine did, it was Kristol who wanted to close the conservative mind, especially to antiwar thought.

Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, who worked for The Weekly Standard from 1995 to 2001, explains this in detail in his new book, Ship of Fools: How a Selfish Ruling Class is Bringing America to the Brink of Revolution.

“What I didn’t understand at the time was that Kristol had an unstated agenda that informed much of what the Weekly Standard did,” Carlson writes. “The writers in the office thought we were engaged in conservative journalism.”

“Kristol was trying to remake the Republican Party,” Carlson says.

A significant part of Kristol’s GOP makeover project was portraying antiwar conservatives as heretics.

Carlson recounts, “Years later, writer Philip Weiss described a conversation he had with Kristol in which this [remaking the GOP] became explicit. There are Republicans, Kristol told Weiss, ‘of whom I disapprove so much that I won’t appear with them. That I’ve encouraged that they be expelled or not welcomed into the Republican Party.’”

“’I’d be happy if Ron Paul left and ran as a third party candidate. I was very happy when Pat Buchanan was allowed to go off and run as a third party candidate,’” Carlson recalls Weiss saying of his conversation with Kristol.

This is no secret. The most high-profile conservative proponents of a more restrained foreign policy over the last two decades—Pat Buchanan, Ron Paul, and Rand Paul—were constant targets of Kristol long before the rise of Donald Trump.

“A lot of people when they criticize Ron Paul have to preface their criticism by saying, ‘you know, he’s good guy, he brings a lot to the debate,’” Bill Kristol said on C-Span in 2012. “I actually don’t buy that. I do not think he’s a particularly good guy…. I think it would be better for the Republican Party, if he left the Republican Party.”

“Ron Paul is a little different from Pat Buchanan—but he’s no better, in my view,” Kristol added. “We at the Weekly Standard are pulling up the drawbridge against the peasants,” KristoltoldThe Washington Post after Buchanan won the New Hampshire GOP primary in 1996. “I may need to get myself pitchfork insurance.”

After Donald Trump criticized the Iraq war in a Republican primary debate, Carlson said Kristol was “as angry as he had ever been in public about anything. Kristol denounced not just Trump, but anyone who didn’t join him in denouncing Trump.”

“Once upon a time we had leaders who would have expressed their outrage at such a slander,” Kristol wrote in The Weekly Standard. “They would have explained to the American people how extraordinarily irresponsible his slander was, and would have done their best to discredit a man who could behave so irresponsibly. They would have pronounced him unfit to be president of the United States, and they would have mobilized their friends, supporters and admirers to ensure so appalling an eventuality didn’t come to pass.”

For Kristol, foreign policy is always the flashpoint. Before Trump, arguably no other Republican exercised hawks more than Rand Paul.

The neocons tried in vain to repel Paul from the get-go. David Frum fretted in 2010 after Paul won his Senate primary: “How is it that the GOP has lost its antibodies against a candidate like Rand Paul?” Dick Cheney intervened in that primary race to basically say Paul wasn’t a real conservative. Paul rattled the neocon universe to such a degree that a former Cheney aide and future Marco Rubio chief of staff sounded the alarm in a private email: “On foreign policy, [global war on terror], Gitmo, Afghanistan, Rand Paul is NOT one of us.”

Kristol has insisted that Paul isn’t a real Republican for the senator’s entire political career. He’s accused Paul of being a “liberal Democrat” for holding foreign policy views similar to Trump’s. He’s compared Paul to Code Pink. He’s called Paul a “McGovernite.” He’s labeled Paul an “isolationist.”

Kristol has even deliriously claimed that neoconservatives somehow “beat back Ron Paul and Rand Paul,” a prediction that looks less prescient now, especially as stories emerge about the younger Paul having the president’s ear, particularly on foreign policy.

This is not what Kristol envisioned.

“Unbeknownst to his staff, Bill Kristol had no intention of being merely a magazine publisher, or a disseminator of conservative ideas,” Tucker Carlson writes. “He saw himself as the ideological gatekeeper of the Republican Party.”

Carlson says he wished he’d understood that when he was working for Kristol. “Kristol was always encouraging me to write hit pieces on Pat Buchanan, and on a couple of occasions I did,” Carlson wrote. “At the time I had no idea this was part of a larger strategy, though it did strike me as a little odd.”

It’s a strategy that looks much less certain to succeed than it once did.

Jack Hunter is the former political editor of Rare.us and co-authored the 2011 book The Tea Party Goes to Washington with Senator Rand Paul.

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