The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right
by Max Boot.
Hardcover, 288 pages, $25.
Reviewed by Ben Sixsmith
Max Boot, like newspaper columnist Jennifer Rubin, once claimed to be a conservative critic of President Donald Trump, but has become critical of conservatism itself. His new book, The Corrosion of Conservatism, explores his dissatisfaction with the conservative movement and explains, as the subtitle puts it, why he left the right.
To some extent one cannot disagree with Boot about Trump and his followers. The President may be a cheat, and a liar, and a narcissist, and has dangerously unreflective opinions on matters such as climate change. Still, there is a deep irony to this book. Trump may be a product of the corrosion of establishment conservatism, but who was responsible for that corrosion? Look no further than the ideological tendencies of which Max Boot has been a dedicated representative.
This rather personal book takes us back to election night, when, to console himself on witnessing Trump’s triumph, Boot “swilled a scotch and took some sleeping pills”: “I know you’re not supposed to combine sedatives with alcohol, but you’re also not supposed to elect a bigoted bully as president of the United States. This was a day for disregarding the rules.” One hopes this was an isolated incident of weakly rationalizing dangerous lifestyle decisions.
Boot took Trump’s success personally. “My America had become Trump’s America,” he writes, “My conservative movement had become Trump’s movement.” In what sense, though, had it been his? He writes, after this prologue, of his political education. Born to Russian Jewish parents, he emigrated with his mother and father to the United States. Once he had acclimatized to American life he became interested in conservatism after being given a subscription to National Review. “[Its] brand of conservatism was known as fusionism,” he writes, “a term coined by the philosopher Frank Meyer for an inclusive approach combining free-market economics with traditional social views and a hawkish, anti-Communist foreign policy.”
This is significant. On the next page, Boot writes of reading Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind and Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, and sneers at Donald Trump for his ignorance of this “conservative canon.” Yet Boot offers no sign of understanding of the fact that Meyer’s “fusionism” represented a radical liberalising tendency in American conservatism. When he writes that conservatism is “optimistic and inclusive,” then, it makes you wonder if he really has read Russell Kirk, never mind Richard Weaver or Eric Voegelin or even the famous editor of a certain conservative magazine that was launched with the aim of standing astride history and yelling “stop.” Indeed, since the publication of his book, Boot has been saying in social media how much of conservatism he claims not to have known about.
One feels that the young Boot was attracted to conservatism more for aesthetic than intellectual reasons. He writes of his youthful admiration for Buckley, whose “sophistication and joie de vivre” were matched by a “jet-set lifestyle” complete with yachts, skiing trips, and dinners with celebrities. “This was who I wanted to be.” Italics his.
Boot wrote for his student newspaper at Berkeley, interned at The Los Angeles Times, and began to write for the Christian Science Monitor. In one of the many annoying asides in his book, he informs that reader that most of his colleagues at the Monitor belonged to the eccentric Christian Science faith, and reflects that this
“deepened my appreciation for the diversity of America and made me realize I could like people very different from myself even if there were far more of “them” than there were of people like me. I wish more Trump supporters, anxious about the changing demographics of America, would have a similar epiphany.”
Yes, America, if Max Boot can temporarily work with Christian Scientists you can learn to love endless mass immigration.
Boot secured a job writing op-eds for The Wall Street Journal and entered a circuit of exclusive and incestuous conservative social events which he seems to have enjoyed but which sound implausibly dull. At the Journal he advocated tax cuts, free trade, immigration, and a strong national defense. “We didn’t talk much about social issues,” he reflects. Of course not. Boot, like many other “conservatives” since Meyer, was little more than a liberal hawk. The post-sixties prevalence of crime, divorce, fatherlessness, abortion, and drug use had passed him by. The fixation on free trade and tax cuts, meanwhile, obscured the economic as well as the cultural degeneration of working-class America, which, later, would contribute to the rise of Trump.
A book on America’s small wars earned Boot a position at the Council on Foreign Relations. In the aftermath of 9/11, he became one of numerous advocates of war with Iraq. He takes some responsibility for this. It was, he writes, “all a big mistake,” a “chastening lesson in the limits of American power,” and an event that “helped, thirteen years later, to elect a president who stands in opposition to nearly everything I believe in.”
Still, this welcome soul-searching is accompanied by some curious evasions. Boot hardly discusses the rise of neoconservatism and attempts to acquit his ideological comrades of blame for the war. Almost three quarters of Americans supported the invasion in 2003, Boot observes. Yes, perhaps, but far fewer of them had campaigned for the removal of Saddam Hussein since the 1990s. Listening to John Bolton saber-rattle over North Korea, meanwhile, Boot senses “an echo of my callow, earlier self.” Callow? Boot was thirty-three when the invasion of Iraq began and had been writing op-eds for the best part of a decade. When did his mature phase actually begin?
Much of the rest of Boot’s book is by-the-numbers anti-Trumpism. Some punches land. Others don’t. Some, bizarrely, are too soft. He has space for details of pro-Trump Twitter trolls but none for the President’s anti-environmentalism.
Boot likes history, and searches through the archives to locate the “roots of Trumpism.” Reading left-wing critics of conservatism, he decides that “in many ways, [Trump] is merely the culmination of the right’s ruin rather than the cause.” Boot has discovered—and I hope you are sitting down for this—that some conservatives of the past did not like black people much and were a bit paranoid about communism. Oh, the sweet summer child. Next he will discover that some progressives had a soft spot for the Soviet Union.
Jaded by the present, and shocked by the past, Boot wonders if he is in fact a conservative and asks his readers to judge for themselves. Sorry, Max, you are not. Granted, one’s definition of the term should be flexible and receptive to context, but there is no standard by which Boot could be called one. He is “socially liberal” and believes that immigrants are “the source of American greatness.” Not just a source, mind you. The source. He bemoans, with some justice, law enforcement misdeeds but does not mention the crime rates than enable them. He speculates that feminists might have a fair point about the “patriarchal society” without considering where the scale of fatherlessness and abortion comes in. He is, again, a liberal, which he has the perfect right to be—but which rather precludes him from being a conservative.
Trying to end his book on an optimistic note, Boot issues a rallying cry in defense of “the vital center.” “The example of Emmanuel Macron could point the way,” he says, “We could use an American Macron—someone who can make centrism sexy.” Emmanuel Macron currently has an approval rating of 29 percent.
Boot is not wrong to lament the crassness, thoughtlessness, and dishonesty of the President and much of the conservative media. Yet who was there to guide the conservative movement? Boot and other neoconservative and liberal-conservative intellectuals, who, unmoored from tradition and untethered to reality—attracted to the elegance and opulence of elite conservatism in the 1980s—at best ignored grave social problems and at worse created them. This encouraged the conditions from which Trumpism emerged.
At the end of his book, Boot imagines himself as a kind of ideological “ronin.” One suspects that his wanderings will not be so impoverished as to rule out regular visits to the CNN studios and a comfortable bed at The Washington Post, but one also hopes that Boot will use this time to reflect on the corruption and decadence of his master’s home.
Ben Sixsmith is an English writer living in Poland who has written for Quillette, American Affairs, The American Conservative, and the Spectator USA. His new book is Kings & Comedians: a brief history of British-Polish relations.