When I found Bill Kristol this week at the Weekly Standard, the conservative magazine he created and edited for 20 years, he was still thinking about his friend Jeff Bell, who died a few weeks ago.
A fixture in Republican Washington for decades, Bell launched one of the first successful insurgencies of what would become the Reagan Revolution, knocking off New Jersey’s moderate Republican senator, Clifford Case, in a 1978 primary. (He lost the general election to a guy named Bill Bradley, despite drawing diagrams of the Laffer Curve all over the state.)
In his last years, Kristol told me, Bell became an ardent internationalist and a vocal defender of immigration.
“That was one of the impressive things about the American conservative movement,” Kristol mused as we sat in his office, surrounded by a near-avalanche of political tracts from the last few decades.
“It had a lot of odd, interesting characters with combinations of views that from the outside you might not always think would go together. But it was a genuinely vibrant movement and pretty good — pretty good — at policing its borders.”
By this, Kristol — whose father, Irving, helped found the neoconservative movement that stood for expansionist military policy abroad and a rejection of cultural liberalism at home — didn’t mean borders in the sense that
“We fought against Buchanan in the ’90s,” Kristol said. “We fought against Ron Paul. We were pro-Jack Kemp on race issues. We tried to prevent that virus from being too dominant, or dominant at all.
“Look, American history has always had elements of what we now think of as Trumpism,” Kristol went on. “Joe McCarthy, George Wallace, Father Coughlin. It’s not as if these things haven’t always existed, and they were powerful. The big difference is Trump is president.
“Think of Joe McCarthy being the nominee in 1952 and winning,” he said. “That is where we are.”
Kristol and I were talking a few days after the venerable activist conference known as CPAC left town. This year’s gathering seemed to have severed the last narrow isthmus connecting Reagan’s upbeat conservative movement to the new mainland of irate Republicans.
Among the speakers at CPAC (in addition to Trump and Vice President Mike Pence) were Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the youngest in a family of extreme French nationalists, and the top two officials from the NRA, who savaged the media in the wake of yet another school shooting.
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