The Corrosion of Conservatism by Max Boot…

Max Boot, like 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 is 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 is a product of the corrosion of 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 the 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 the fact that Meyer’s “fusionism” represented a radical liberalising tendency in American conservatism. When he writes that it is “optimistic and inclusive”, then, it makes you wonder if he really has read Kirk, never mind Weaver, or Voegelin, or even the famous editor of a certain conservative magazine which was launched with the aim of standing astride history and yelling “stop”.

One feels that the young Boot was attracted to conservatism for aesthetic more 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 is 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 the 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 insufferably dull. At the Journal he advocated tax cuts, free trade, immigration and a strong national defence. “We didn’t talk much about social issues,” he reflects. Of course not. Boot, like many other “conservatives” since Meyer, was nothing more than a liberal hawk. The post-’60s 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 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 of 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 the deranged 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 “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 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 defence 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%.

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 corruption and decadence of his master’s home.

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About bsixsmith

I am a writer of stories and poems - published by Every Day Fiction, The London Journal of Fiction, 365 Tomorrows and Det Poetiske Bureau - and a columnist for Quillette, Areo and Bombs & Dollars.
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8 Responses to The Corrosion of Conservatism by Max Boot…

  1. jddunsany says:

    Excellent review. Whenever I’ve encountered Boot, he’s come across as a bit of an unreflective whiner. It’s nice to have those impressions confirmed.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Tim Newman says:

    That’s a fantastic piece. I wish I could write like that.

    Like

  3. Tom L says:

    Excellent read. “Boot and other neoconservative and liberal conservative intellectuals… unmoored from tradition and untethered to reality” gets to the heart of the problem so succinctly. The issue is people who put intellectualising ahead of the concerns and needs of people in the real world and it’s not a left/right thing; Frank Field in the UK, for example, is significantly more with it than, say, a Daniel Hannan when it comes to putting people ahead of perverse ideology in policymaking.

    You also see it in the immigration debate, when people talk about ‘net’ movement of jobs to paper over that there are real distortions and disruptions to the jobs market by open borders; these are the kind of disruptions that one would expect a conservative to sympathise with but ‘burn everything, GDP is king’ spreadsheet sociopaths on the Right are in the mainstream now. The Max Boots, as it were.

    I’m cautiously optimistic for the future of the American Right post-Trump, and their potential to lose his crassness but keep his concern for the left behind into a coherent political force that could affect positive change for the country. The biggest disappointment of the Trump era I feel is that the major attempts at legislation have been tax cuts and a failure of healthcare repeal, instead of work on infrastructure or an attempt at a more affordable healthcare option. What the Establishment Right wants isn’t actually particularly appealing to many people and the fragile coalition of the Establishment and the Trumpists has done more to show the weaknesses of both sects than their strengths (the embarrassing gaffes of the President and the tone deafness of the ‘moderate’ congressmen). Instead they should be using their own strengths (popular policies from the Trumpists and ruthless efficiency of the Establishment) to try to help slow the post Bush-Clinton-Bush-Obama malaise.

    The NeverTrumpers are an increasingly irrelevant force that literally only the media care about so we’ll see how long it takes for the Left to start eating them up and spitting them out. Max Boot’s days on the media circuit are numbered.

    Like

  4. Alden Pyle says:

    Nice review. By your telling, Boot seems to have been mostly motivated throughout his career by anti-populism, shifting from the anti-populist right toward the anti-populist left as the former became less tenable (and rewarding). In this sense, he seems more emblematic than personally interesting.

    Boot’s most distinct role in the anti-populist right always seemed his willingness to dismiss concerns about the impact of “Small Wars” on ordinary people, either the ordinary American soldiers tasked as occupiers or the ordinary residents of the occupied regions. This history must make a transition to the left particularly difficult. I wonder how explicit his rethinking of this part of his resume. If sufficiently thoughtful, this might make reading his book worthwhile. Otherwise, probably not.

    Like

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