Max Boot, The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right, Liveright Publishing Co., 260 pp., $24.95
Max Boot is angry. Actually, he is furious at the turn American conservatism and the GOP have taken since they embraced Donald Trump and the politics of Trumpism. In his new political memoir and page-turner, he gives us a straightforward account of why he finally broke with the right. Boot’s story is certainly different from those of past political apostates who wrote about their difficult journeys from the left to the right beginning with Max Eastman in 1925, Whittaker Chambers in his 1952 classic, Witness, David Horowitz’s 1997 conversion tale, Radical Son: A Generational Odyssey, and my own 2001 memoir, Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left, and the Leftover Left.
Boot’s background helps to explain some, but not all, of his journey from “movement conservative” to what Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. famously called “the vital center.” He was born in the Soviet Union in 1969 to young, educated Jewish parents. His father, a refusenik, managed to get out of the country with the KGB hot on his heels; Max, his mother and grandmother followed him in 1976. In his early teens, Max saw how liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans were able to work together in the effort to free Soviet Jews from oppression and anti-Semitism by demanding they be free to emigrate. As Boot reminds us, such an alliance today would be “unthinkable.”
When Boot was 13 his father gave him a subscription to National Review which profoundly influenced him; George Will and William F. Buckley Jr. became his intellectual heroes and Ronald Reagan his political one. He writes, “It wasn’t just [Reagan’s] hard line against the Soviet Union and his championing of human rights that drew me to him. It was also his perceived goodness, his sincerity, his gentleness, his sheer niceness.” Reagan “made conservatism optimistic and inclusive.” Boot believed in the Gipper and his message that “it was morning in America.” Now he is “incredulous that anyone could possibly compare Reagan to Trump.”
Today, Max Boot is well known as a military historian, an editorial columnist for The Washington Post, and now a CNN commentator, but his path to mainstream preeminence wasn’t a straight one. In 1994 he obtained his dream job as an editorial writer and columnist for The Wall Street Journal, immediately becoming a member of “a small but intense circle of right-wingers who tended to stick together in this liberal city” of New York. Four years later he was appointed editorial director of the op-ed page. Later he became a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a blogger for Commentary. He was also considered one of the most thoughtful and influential conservative writers of his generation.
In his memoir, Boot looks back at his political development over decades and documents changes in the conservative movement as it evolved from Reagan to Trump. The process forced him to reevaluate some of his most strongly held assumptions. For years, he writes, he simply followed the conservative party line, even if he felt uncomfortable and wasn’t certain that the accepted conservative consensus was right. He thought climate change was a reality, while most of his movement believed it was a hoax. “I was not just drinking the Kool-Aid,” he writes, “I was bathing in it.” He candidly calls what he was doing “self-indoctrination.” It took decades to wear off.
Boot surveys his early beliefs as a proud Reaganite—favoring free trade, a strong national defense , and an internationalist foreign policy, an openness to immigration and a rejection of nativism—and finds that the current GOP no longer identifies with such policies. Searching for an answer as to how these changes occurred he concluded that these undercurrents were present before Trump. After Reagan, Boot argues, the GOP became “the party of Midwestern isolationists and Southern segregationists”; not a big tent party, but “an ideological conservative organization,” each new generation on the right becoming “more extreme than the one that came before it.” Now, he writes, it has become a party animated by “indiscriminate, unthinking, all-consuming anger.” While Republicans control (at least for the time being) both houses of Congress, they still look at themselves as a threatened minority besieged by dangerous liberals and have taken as their leader a man who “has developed an authoritarian-style cult of personality” with the shameful connivance of those around him.
As a result, Boot left the Republican Party to become an independent conservative. He might as well have said about the GOP what Reagan famously stated about why he left the Democratic Party: “I didn’t leave the conservative movement. It left me.” Conservatives’ reaction to Boot’s decision has not been kind, but then anyone who breaks ideological ranks is likely to be condemned as a traitor. I know this from experience.
Decades ago when I co-authored The Rosenberg File, friends on the political left who considered me part of their movement, condemned me as, not only a traitor, but a right-wing McCarthyite and servant of the Reagan administration’s Cold War foreign policy. Boot understands how the process works. Agreement, he writes, “will be rewarded with greater social standing and support, and disagreement punished with ostracism. The pressure is so amorphous and pervasive that, like oxygen, you are only aware of it when it is gone.” Some of it has not been so amorphous. David Horowitz’s website Frontpagemag claims that Boot has gone “full leftist” for arguing that America still has a problem with racism and sexism and recently published an article by Daniel Greenfield calling Boot “a quisling of the left” who has joined the “media lapdog ilk.”
There is no need to summarize the events of the Trump administration’s first year and a half that Boot runs through; we are familiar enough with it. He covers what he calls the conservative case for Trump and finds it wanting and unconvincing. He offers examples of Trump’s break with America’s democratic traditions by dividing up the Trump years and chronicling his support of racism, nativism, collusion with Russia and Putin, and continued violations of a basic American staple of democracy, commitment to the rule of law. He mentions Trump’s utilization of Stalin’s campaign against “fake news” to intimidate the press, his promotion of fiscal irresponsibility that Republicans used to oppose, and his efforts to undermine the Pax Americana.
Boot realized that perhaps all of what he learned about America’s history and politics from conservative standard-bearers might be wrong; thus, he began to read books by liberal and left-leaning scholars rather than only those by conservative biographers of his old movement. They convinced him not that all he believed was wrong, but that “there has always been a dark underside to conservatism.” Most people do not pause to read the books of those who disagree with their basic presuppositions; that alone makes Boot stand out as a man not afraid to find out what he might not have been right about.
Having broken with a GOP he sees as little more than a vehicle for Trumpism, Boot concludes that the rot goes deeper than party politics as modern conservatism has abandoned the thoughtful and optimistic outlook of Reagan and his followers for the brand of Fox News demagogues like Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, and radio talk-show hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin. Indeed, regular Trump “conservatives” now appear on Alex Jones’ program, as if the man who believes that the massacre of school kids in the Sandy Hook shooting was a fake story that used “child actors” is just another commentator with views that should be considered.
But that does not mean that Boot is now a Democrat or a leftist. He tells us that he might have become a Democrat if the party remained centrist; instead, he sees its drift to Bernie Sanders-style left-wing extremism. As he writes, “This doesn’t mean I agree with America’s harshest critics-successors to the New Left of the 1960s who saw this country as an irredeemably fascist state that they called ‘Amerikkka.’”
Boot is a man without a party. He believes the best solution to our current predicament would be the establishment of a center-right party that would share some of the views of the center-left, such as immigration and the environment. Rather than give his loyalty to any party he stands with all Americans who oppose the “populist-nationalist onslaught.” It is an honorable if lonely place for a once movement-conservative to end up, and he admits at times he feels like a pariah. Max Boot reveals himself as a thoughtful and serious individual who is wary of dogmatism from either political side. We who are readers of his books and regular columns should be thankful for his insight into the conservative movement, and for his intellectual growth and honesty.
Ronald Radosh is an historian and author of Divided They Fell: The Demise of the Democratic Party, 1964-1996 and other books. He is a contributing opinion columnist for The Daily Beast.