Donald Trump may be a know-nothing demagogue and would-be authoritarian who thinks and acts more like a mob boss than a statesman, but he has at least one indisputable talent: puncturing the pieties that prevail among members of the country’s political and journalistic establishments.
One memorable example took place in early May 2016, shortly after Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee. Asked how he could serve as the party’s standard-bearer when so many of its leaders since the election of Ronald Reagan viewed him with contempt, Trump responded with characteristic bluntness: “Don’t forget, this is called the Republican Party. It’s not called the Conservative Party.”
That line came to mind while reading Max Boot’s lively memoir and acidic anti-Trump polemic, “The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right.” A prominent center-right pundit, Boot expressed early and vitriolic opposition to Trump — a stance that led him first to endorse Hillary Clinton for president and then, on the day after her unexpected defeat, to renounce the Republican Party altogether. (He’s currently registered as an independent.)
Like many of the best memoirs of ideas, Boot’s story is one of conversion and de-conversion — of faith gained and then lost. As a 6-year-old Jewish only child, Boot immigrated with his mother and grandmother to the United States from the Soviet Union in 1976. He was attracted to the conservative movement and the Republican Party as a teenager during the Reagan administration, drawn above all to their unapologetic championing of the ideals that led his adoptive homeland to offer his family refuge in their flight from tyranny.
Many bright young conservatives of Boot’s generation grew up reading National Review and honing their polemical skills lambasting liberals in their college newspapers (in Boot’s case, at Berkeley). But Boot distinguished himself quickly. Only seven years after graduating, he had risen to become op-ed editor of The Wall Street Journal, at the time easily the most influential forum for conservative ideas in the country. Over the next 20 years, Boot would publish several well-regarded books of military history, be named a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, write regularly for leading conservative journals and serve as a foreign policy adviser to the presidential campaigns of John McCain, Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio.
Through it all, Boot maintained his faith — in America, in the conservative movement, in the wisdom of Republican voters. Until the presidential campaign of Donald Trump, that is. In November 2015, Boot labeled him a fascist. Shortly after Trump won the South Carolina primary, Boot described him as “a liar, an ignoramus and a moral abomination.” Yet Trump kept winning. And as he did, the party that Boot had loved and trusted came (with a handful of exceptions) to embrace him. And that made Boot’s choice obvious. Clinton may have been a “deeply flawed and seriously uncharismatic candidate,” but unlike Trump, she was “extremely knowledgeable, resolutely centrist and amply qualified” to be president.
So Boot bolted. It was a decision both understandable and admirable. And he does a very good job of telling the story of what led him to it.
Things get rockier when he attempts to come to terms with the meaning of Trump’s triumph and to reflect on what might lie ahead for him and the handful of like-minded commentators who have ended up politically homeless. (In one of the book’s best lines, Boot notes that these exiles from the Trumpified Republicans — including William Kristol and George F. Will, Peter Wehner and Michael Gerson, Jennifer Rubin and David Brooks — are “enough for a dinner party,” but “not for a political party.”)
In Boot’s initial telling of his story, conservatism is inspiring, principled, responsible, morally demanding, wise. It collapses only when Donald Trump assaults the citadel from the outside, like a rampaging army or deadly contagion. The heroes of this narrative are Boot and his allies, who take a noble if futile stand against this evil invader in the name of their conservative ideals.
But the story Boot recounts in the concluding chapters is different. Now, in light of the present, Boot sees rot on the right that has been there from the start — in William F. Buckley’s pro-segregationist editorials in National Review, in Phyllis Schlafly’s best-selling screed “A Choice Not an Echo,” in Newt Gingrich’s take-no-prisoners tenure as speaker of the House, in rabble-rousing talk radio shock jocks and above all in the polarizing and poisonous influence of Fox News. All of this leads Boot to conclude that “extremism is embedded in the DNA of the modern conservative movement,” as if Trump is where the movement had been headed, or fated to end up, from the start.
This implies that it’s mostly Boot, and not conservatism or the Republican Party, that has changed. Scales have fallen from his eyes. Once he was blind, but now he sees. He even adopts the quasi-religious language of the social justice left in describing an intellectual awakening about the persistence of racism and sexism in American society.
But then what are we to make of Boot’s epilogue, where he lists the policies he now supports and ends up saying pretty much the same thing he always has? He’s fiscally conservative and socially liberal, favors free markets, free trade and high rates of immigration, and internationalism in foreign policy backed up by the threat (and generous use) of military force around the globe. These were exactly Boot’s views in 1985, 1995, 2005 and 2015.
The one thing that clearly has changed is that Boot now regards the Iraq war, which he giddily championed in explicitly imperialistic terms, as a mistake — one that has taught him the “limits of American power.” That’s refreshing, though it would have been nice to see more evidence that this lesson is being translated into greater restraint about America’s conduct in the world generally. Instead, we get reflexively hawkish comments about America’s Obama-era and present-day dealings with Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, North Korea, China and Russia. Many of these statements follow from the same misguided assumptions that convinced Boot and so many others that a war of choice to oust Saddam Hussein was a splendid idea.
One wonders how the book would have turned out had Boot taken a few more steps back from the fray, to place his lifelong ideological commitments in a wider frame. In that case, he might have seen that the principles and assumptions that first drew him to the Republican Party were not especially “conservative” at all. They were, instead, the expression of a particularly bellicose strand of Cold War liberalism that migrated from the center-left to the center-right in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, when a shellshocked Democratic Party temporarily abandoned it. By the election of Bill Clinton in 1992, this brand of muscular, centrist liberalism was back, dominating (with minor differences in emphasis) both parties.
Similar stories of centrist liberalism coming to dominate mainstream politics in the aftermath of the Cold War can be told throughout the countries of the West — just as most of these countries have now begun to experience populist insurgencies aimed at dethroning that consensus. (In the United States, the challenge to the liberal center is coming from both the right and the left.) The insurgencies are inspired by widely felt exhaustion with, and anger at, the unacknowledged failures of the ideas and policies that have defined the ideological center for more than a generation. That exhaustion and anger can’t be willed, wished or insulted away, no matter how unsavory the insurgents may be.
Boot’s book aims to tell the story of a journey, but it’s far more a portrait of stasis. If Boot and his ideological compatriots hope to exercise a meaningful influence in the years to come, they will need to subject their articles of faith to increased scrutiny and demonstrate a greater capacity to adapt to a world very much in the process of pivoting to something new.