The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right By Max Boot • Liveright • 2018 • 288 pages • $24.95
For liberals, the emergence of Never Trumpers within Republican ranks has been one of the few reassuring facets of the present political era. The dozens of prominent thinkers, commentators, and former officials closely associated with the Bush and Reagan administrations who have called out President Donald Trump’s assaults on American society and democratic legitimacy have helped feed hope that America may yet regain its bearings. They’ve also helped show that the American people are capable of discerning the line between political right and wrong; between the country established by the Framers and a dystopia—no longer too far off on the horizon—that those early visionaries would surely not recognize. Liberals and Never Trumpers have been thrust into a lifeboat together, paddling madly toward a still blurry horizon and, in the process, finding out that they have more in common than they might have realized had the ship they were once on not hit an iceberg.
Among the most voluble and reasoned of such voices is Max Boot, an author of military history, former Wall Street Journal op-ed editor, and longtime senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. A lifelong Republican, he was also an ardent opponent of Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign and has only grown more alarmed as the Administration has worn on. Boot’s new book, The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right, traces his journey from youthful acolyte of conservative luminaries, like William F. Buckley, to celebrated hero of neoconservative opinion-making, to his current self-imposed exile as a man without a party, alienated from his former colleagues, political idols, and even close friends. The story is engaging and important; only by understanding how the various cleavages that brought about the Trump era cracked open and widened can we begin to figure out how to solder together these schisms. That said, for Boot, the betrayal by his party and his newfound sense of political drift are still too raw to fully make sense of. Boot’s candid account of his political reawakening offers tantalizing clues as to how things went wrong on the right. He also offers insights on what it might take to reestablish a wider societal consensus around principles of fairness and equality, and about how to establish checks on power and reignite America’s role as a force for freedom in the world.
The most compelling and readable section of the book is its first, where Boot tells the story of how he became an ardent conservative in the first place. Boot’s story begins in Moscow, where he was born to a dissident father who was among the generation of Russian Jews denied real freedom to practice their religion, branded, on their identity documents, as members of the minority group being persecuted, and denied exit visas when they sought freedom abroad. Boot credits American neoconservative foreign policy for granting freedom to Soviet Jews, and its supporters in Congress for applying the pressure and sanctions that eventually led Premier Leonid Brezhnev to permit a seven-year-old Boot and his family to begin a new life in the United States in 1976, three years after his father, who arrived in 1973. By then, his parents had divorced. His father began working as a translator for the space program in Houston, while Boot and his mother, an English-turned-Russian teacher, settled in Los Angeles to live close to relatives. They were beneficiaries of what the Trump Administration now derides as “chain migration,” whereby familial ties are counted in the equation that determines who is let into this country and who can stay.
Growing up in late 1970s and ’80s Los Angeles, as a first-generation only child of a Russian-speaking immigrant family devoted to classical music, ballet, and opera, Boot forged his early identity as an outlier. He describes himself as “desperate to fit in,” but also recounts having blotted most of his transition from his memory because it was “such a traumatic experience.”
Boot’s contrarian political tendencies were nurtured from afar by his father, a distant, charismatic, and staunchly anti-communist figure whose sole type of child support seems to have come in the form of a subscription to National Review, which became a kind of bible to the young, self-described nerd. As he grew up, Boot became further alienated from his father, who eventually moved to London. Yet he was ever more bound to the legacy bequeathed to him in the pages of the Review. The young Boot was mesmerized by a UCLA appearance by Buckley, whose wit and erudition were accompanied by a glamorous, transcontinental lifestyle that Boot fantasized could one day be his own. His first broadside against the liberal establishment came in the form of an alternative newspaper in high school that administrators tried to shut down for its lacerating critique of the math department.
In the late 1980s, while attending UC Berkeley for college, Boot solidified his identity as a determined counterweight to one of the last bastions of the counterculture. As a columnist for the university paper, Boot was an unapologetic cheerleader for the Reagan-era policies that had hastened an end to the Cold War, decrying tie-dye and love beads as out of step with a world that was being remade by the force of American ideals. Boot admitted to loving the “attention and notoriety” that his views earned him, waving off occasional intimidation, including a bullet sent to him in the mail.
The gratification Boot found in antagonizing liberals was complemented by the warm welcome he received in conservative circles. Unlike the legions of overwhelmingly liberal, journalistically inclined graduates of Berkeley and other elite schools who fanned into a diffuse array jobs as cub reporters in mainstream journalism and assistantship positions at policy institutes, the iconoclastic Boot was funneled into a more focused, better organized conservative infrastructure that spotted his talent early and propelled him to the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal at the tender age of 24.
Groomed for greatness as a figure of movement conservatism, Boot acknowledges he was not just drinking the Kool-Aid but “bathing in it.” In conservative circles, apparently, apprenticeship is an all-encompassing, immersive experience designed to entrance and dull the senses. Dazzled by the chance to hobnob with luminaries long known to him by their bylines, Boot was initiated into a world of cruises, elegant dinners in townhomes, and galas with wealthy donors, ensconced in the elite circles that had enraptured him as a boy. Yes, he took note when his boss at the Journal proudly assembled six bound volumes of the paper’s fulminations over the Whitewater scandal, despite the probe’s failure to gather any firm evidence of wrongdoing. He also admits to feeling red-faced at having to pull a commissioned op-ed by a young Paul Krugman because it defied the paper’s ideological orthodoxy. Yet the seduction was so complete that those episodes didn’t seem to dissuade him all that much. Ever invigorated by his outsider status, Boot ultimately escaped the stifling warmth of the conservative hothouse, transitioning to a cushy perch writing books, offering commentary, and advising Republican campaigns as an ideological “affirmative action” conservative at the mostly liberal Council on Foreign Relations think tank.
After tracing his own professional ascent, Boot then turns to examine how the movement that made his career revealed an essence so dark that he has found himself in the position of pledging to work toward its defeat. He recounts the slow-motion horror of the 2016 presidential campaign, when a phalanx of candidates and elected officials once determined to stop Trump were gradually bulldozed by his sneering bravado, and have now wound up cravenly endorsing him, displaying a stomach-churning brew of self-preservation laced with moral bankruptcy.
Boot’s sense of stunned indignation at the fecklessness of his comrades in conservative arms is the overarching trope of the book. A principled conservative driven by his belief in freedom, incrementalism, and limited government, Boot was too enmeshed in the comforts of his ideological lair to pay much mind as the den once occupied by intellectuals from the mastheads of National Review and Commentary was overtaken by ideologues who resorted to propagandistic sensationalism, bigotry, and character assassination. He describes how the movement’s most prominent personalities morphed from a gentle generation of intellectuals riposting around crystal-laden dining tables and in policy journals, to a smash-mouthed gang of cable news provocateurs focused on goading liberals into firefights in order to rile up a base with ever less in common with the movement’s monied coastal elites. Boot laments how the trail of bare-knuckled tactics that began with Willie Horton and gained steam through swiftboating, birtherism, and Wikileaks and gradually gutted the moral core of the Republican Party to the point where even the release of the “Access Hollywood” tapes showing Donald Trump as a brazen misogynist scarcely dented his support. When Trump’s nihilistic flank of the Republican Party effected its final putsch, the pillars of conservative resistance Boot had imagined would stand in the way had already rotted from within.
Boot is forthright in acknowledging both the misjudgments and blind spots that made him oblivious to the groundwork that paved the way for Trump’s triumph. He owns up to the mistake he made in supporting the Iraq war. “I regret advocating the invasion and feel guilty about all the lives lost,” he writes. “It was a chastening lesson in the limits of American power.” He also acknowledges that the drawn-out conflict fed alienation within the mainstream conservatism of George W. Bush and indifference to the notion of American obligations beyond its borders. But the savvy Boot also claims to have been somehow bamboozled by Bush’s top lieutenants. He writes that the invasion’s supporters were “like hapless passengers who got into a vehicle with a drunk driver and could not escape as the car careened across the central divider.” But Boot and others knew exactly who was behind the wheel when they hopped in and, with their cheering presence, provided the horsepower necessary to overcome widespread domestic and international reluctance for war.
Boot deserves credit for facing up to the conspiracy-mongering, the contempt of the masses, the nativism, anti-intellectualism, and isolationism that he could no longer deny was staring him in the face as he reexamined an ideological home that had now grown uninhabitable to him. Yet he has wrongly concluded from this that the doctrinaire supposed policing of opinion—conditioning “social standing and support” with adherence to dogma and “punish[ing]” dissent with “ostracism”—is a common feature of “all social, ideological or religious movements.” Liberal or intersectional movements, including those fighting for feminism, racial justice, criminal justice reform, and gun control, are far more diffuse, encompassing, and heterodox than the conservative circles that groomed Boot. Internal disagreements, divergent priorities, and indiscipline may hamper progress, but they are also vital safeguards against the very form of ideological capture and perversion that caught Boot so off-guard. It is perhaps too much to ask of Boot that he acknowledge that the very facets of the conservative machine that led to his own anointment and elevation—its discipline, mentoring mechanisms, and pathways of ascent for talented youth who fit the mold—are not shared by other movements, and are inextricably linked with what he now finds so corrupted.
Yet some of his most earnest consequential revelations relate to race. He has gradually been forced to reckon with the truth that some of his most revered conservative idols, including H.L. Mencken and Buckley, were also racist, or could show racist tendencies. He confesses that “[I]t’s obvious that the history of modern conservativism is permeated with racism” and that “[C]oded racial appeals . . . had at least as much, if not more, to do with the electoral success of the modern Republican Party than all of the domestic and foreign policy proposals crafted by well-intentioned analysts like me.” The revelation that he had personally benefited from being a white male—while others suffered for their race and gender—came as midlife shocker to Boot. He cites the 1960s civil rights revolution as “long overdue” yet stops short of directly crediting the left-leaning visionaries, organizers, and foot-soldiers who sacrificed their safety and devoted their lives to confronting the discrimination that Boot’s brethren promulgated and fed off. His suggestion that, with the raft of recent video recordings exposing police brutality, “The iPhone may well have done more to expose racism in modern-day America than the NAACP” hints that, while Boot knows where credit isn’t due, he is not entirely comfortable granting it where it is.
While Boot devotes a chunk of the book’s midsection to spelling out his personal understanding of Trump’s appeal, and lists the facets of the President’s leadership that he sees as most damaging, he struggles to push past an inventory of the last two and a half years to offer a broader analysis of precisely how things veered so far off course. While dismissive of the “countless toadies” in the Republican apparatus, he is not forthcoming in his account of those closer associates, those he may come across at friendly backyard barbeques, for example, who have also taken sudden leave of their principles. He doesn’t recount any heart-to-heart conversations with these former comrades, nor does he make it clear whether it was he who turned against these once-friends or if it was they who turned against him.
Though admirable in his willingness to reexamine his own beliefs, Boot never really comes to grips with how, as a purportedly principled conservative, he for so long denied what he now finds so glaringly obvious. Perhaps the trauma of this new dislocation, possibly an echo of his transplanted childhood, is still too new and searing to submit to in-depth interpretation. The reader is, therefore, obliged to read between the lines, into the ways that ideological reinforcement, prestige, and professional rewards disincentivize questioning and deter even an inquiring mind like Boot’s from interrogating the fundamentals that underpinned his career and that of his cohort. Boot’s self-critical examination, coupled with the sense of genuine grief he feels at the abandonment of once-treasured principles by those he considered allies, mark him as part of a rare (yet growing) breed. He is introspective, willing to admit to error, deeply compassionate toward minorities and the disadvantaged, and ultimately driven more by ethics than opportunism. But while these unique attributes are what make Boot’s story interesting, they may also, sadly, render it inconsequential. The Republican Party that betrayed Boot never had much in common with him in the first place.