Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

A Muted Case for Optimism

Is it possible JVL is wrong?
February 10, 2021
A Muted Case for Optimism
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 09: A campaign sign for U.S. President Donald Trump lies beneath water in the Capitol Reflecting Pool, on Capitol Hill on January 9, 2021 in Washington, DC. A pro-Trump mob stormed and desecrated the U.S. Capitol on January 6 as Congress held a joint session to ratify President-elect Joe Biden's 306-232 Electoral College win over President Donald Trump. (Al Drago / Getty)

When Jonathan V. Last posted his piece yesterday explaining why he is “fundamentally short on America,” he texted me, suggesting that I might want to write an optimistic rejoinder.

I suppose my silence for the next 24 hours might speak volumes.

On the other hand, back in my youth when I played the stock market (thankfully with very limited resources), I always lost money when I went short.

So, maybe JVL is wrong.

Why is JVL short on America? Because he’s short on the Republican party. And because if one of our two major parties is fundamentally corrupt, authoritarian, and undemocratic, that’s bad for America.

No argument there.

So, what could make someone more optimistic about the Republican party?

I wouldn’t go overboard, but I’d say there would be three developments not out of the realm of possibility that would justify hope.

First, Trumpist authoritarianism has had a huge run-up over the past six years. But could it now have entered its bubble stage? Its conspiracy theories have gotten so crazy, its votaries are now so loony and self-destructive, that one figures at some point reality hits and its valuation will return to earth. January 6th could turn out to be, in retrospect, the high-water mark of Trumpism, the equivalent of its blowoff final rally.

Could we now be at the point of lots of unproductive and frenetic churning that marks a market top, and that presages a bear market for Trumpism?

Second: Right now it may look as if Trumpists will be strong in primaries in 2022. But expectations are awfully high. The P-E ratios for Trumpists are out of control.

So, what if Reps. Liz Cheney and John Katko and Jaime Herrera Beutler survive the Trumpist challenges against them? What if Trumpists lose in the 2022 Senate primaries in Ohio and Pennsylvania and North Carolina? After all, Trump is no longer  president and won’t be on Twitter; will his endorsement matter as much as it has in the past? And couldn’t the forces of establishment Republicanism be better prepared for the fights this time? And might not the country be in a less crazed mood with the pandemic over?

Which brings us to the third possible ground for optimism: Joe Biden. Joe Biden might be getting ready to be a reasonably successful president. That would matter. A lot.

Because if he isn’t, if the Biden administration is or seems to be in shambles, if the country isn’t coming back strongly from the virus and its economic devastation, if the world is really falling apart, then it’s hard to believe the forces of radicalism and extremism will recede. If, on the other hand, Biden is generally successful, and if part of that success is that the Democratic party itself doesn’t seem to be in the course of succumbing to its radical and illiberal tendencies—then one can imagine a more sane GOP as well.

If all three of these conditions are necessary for a return to Republican sanity, what are the action items for Never Again Trumpers? Pretty simple: Take every opportunity to highlight the craziness of late-stage Trumpism. Defeat Trumpists in primaries. Help the Biden administration be successful, through support where policies deserve support and constructive criticism where appropriate.

(On this last point: It’s important I think for responsible conservatives to resist the temptation of being just as strident and picky as Trumpists are in criticizing Biden and the Democrats. Responsible support and criticism across the aisle is the path to a responsible party on one’s own side.)

So—it’s not so obvious you should go short on America, or even short on the Republican party. You may have to cover your short sale at a significant loss, as I did decades ago—even though the short seemed perfectly reasonable at the time. 

Even if it’s against the odds, stay long, be hopeful. . .

And pray.

William Kristol

William Kristol is editor-at-large of The Bulwark.