Bill Kristol had the greatest job in Washington. He could say literally anything, and no matter how ridiculous it might be, he maintained his status as a wise political leader. (This in the party that hectors poor single mothers about personal responsibility and taking responsibility for their actions).
Kristol even earned an entire Washington Post profile focused solely on how often and how badly he is wrong, and it did nothing to dent his stature. (His final prediction in that February 2016 article? “If I had to bet, I’d still bet against [Trump] getting the nomination.”)
Now, though, Donald Trump has the greatest job in Washington. He has all but won the nomination of one of the major political parties without ever resembling someone who has thought carefully about policy. He makes Dan Quayle look like Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Not only did he steal Kristol’s great job–popping off without knowing what he’s talking about–but he’s achieved the status Kristol could only dream of. His merely asserting something makes it true–or true enough–for large numbers of Americans.
After cataloging a number of things Trump has blithely lied about, New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait concluded that
Trump’s version of truth is multiple truths, the only consistent element of which is Trump himself is always, by definition, correct.
That is, Trump can simply insist that the facts are wrong and he is right. Kristol’s m.o. has been to blow past the wrongness, wave his hand, and get away with it. Trump doesn’t even have to do that. By his mere assertion that sugar was in fact salt, people would stop sprinkling it on their grapefruit and start shaking it onto their french fries.
So it was inevitable that these two would tussle, and as the Colosseum was to the Romans, so Twitter is to 21st century America. Kristol idly threatened Trump with a third party challenge, Trump called him a “dummy,” Kristol floated the name of a fourth-string conservative pundit as the challenge to Trump, the pundit said he wasn’t running, and that was that.
But the broader context in which these two are slap-fighting is worth taking in a bit. We have reached a point in our politics where substantive argument over facts and theories is almost entirely absent. There was never a glory day in which presidential debates were Socratic dialogues, but now we have a cable news panel covering whom Trump called a loser, how it does or doesn’t jibe with his previous statements about the person, but with most of the discussion turning on the political consequences.
This is not an entirely new phenomenon. Much of the discussion about Iraq, especially from 2004-2006 had a who’re-you-going-to-believe-me-or-your-lying-eyes air about it. Hillary Clinton publicly imagined herself dodging 8mm rounds in Bosnia.
There isn’t much we can do about it, either. The TV news channels are going to do what they always do: chase ratings, and people enjoy hearing presidential candidates call people dummies and liars, apparently. No cable news channel is going to make gobs of money with an eat-your-spinach pitch to focus on the ambiguities of policy. So perhaps the best thing we can do is push back from the table and remind ourselves what sort of person would want the presidency in the first place, and worry that one of them is likely to wind up with it.