Conscience of an Ex-Conservative: Max Boot’s Journey
It is painful in the extreme to witness a person going through so public a mid-life crisis, tormented to the depths of his soul and seeking a new path forward. Such is the saga of Max Boot, author and foreign policy expert, who now writes an opinion column for the Washington Post. Boot’s latest book, The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right, is a wrenching account of his recent political evolution, post Donald Trump, from his place as a solid conservative to somewhere in the political center. In the course of this change, Boot has forsaken many of his friends and connections on the Right while failing to win many sincere supporters on the Left. Whatever Boot’s considerable intellectual talents, he must surely know that he is prized today from the liberal side for being that most useful of all commodities: a former right-winger who stands resolutely opposed to the 45th President of the United States.
Boot’s story is as surprising as it is disheartening. Since Trump’s advent, he became and has steadfastly remained a convinced Never Trumper. Among the right-of-center intellectuals who have gone this way, no one has been so unsparing in opposition to the President unless it be his fellow Post columnist, the Bush II speechwriter Michael Gerson. As for Boot, he devotes column after column and tweet after tweet to warning of Trump’s failures and the dangers he poses to American democracy. He has exhausted the English language in condemning his adversary for “demagoguery,” “narcissism,” “bigotry,” “xenophobia,” “racism,” “sexism,” and “authoritarianism.” The President is a “charlatan,” an “ignoramus,” and a “fascist.”
Boot compares Trump to Josef Stalin, to Benito Mussolini, and, for the instruction of his classically inclined readers, to the Roman emperors Caligula and Nero. And Hitler? Him too, by the technique of denial: “It does a disservice to the victims of Nazism to suggest that Trump is the second coming of the Führer, even if there are some disturbing parallels.”
Thankfully, the President is also chaotic, so that the few things he does well may be attributed to volatility.
Trump does not, however, get us to the bottom of Max Boot’s existential crisis. Boot is ashamed not just of what conservatism has become under Trump, but of what he now realizes it has always been. Yes, Trump’s emergence on the political stage was the precipitating event that awakened Boot to his “naïve faith in the conservative movement and the American political system”; but the deeper truth is that the corrosion of conservativism has always been there. Max Boot, in reassessing his whole political outlook, is seeing his “consciousness raised.” He has just discovered that “modern conservatism is permeated with racism, extremism, conspiracy-mongering, ignorance, isolationism, and know-nothingism.” Like Irving Kristol, who once defined a neoconservative as “a liberal who has been mugged by reality,” Boot is experiencing his own reawakening, albeit in the opposite direction: “My ideology has come into conflict with reality—and reality is winning.”
A Rapid, and Apparently Unthinking, Ascent
To help explain his evolution, Boot provides a full autobiographical account of his life. Coming to America from the Soviet Union in 1976 at the age of six, he and his mother settled in Southern California. (Today he favors something close to unlimited immigration to the United States.) As a youngster Boot began to be attracted to the conservative movement, and he was a precocious reader of National Review. William F. Buckley, Jr. was his intellectual role model, Ronald Reagan his political hero. By the 1990s, he was off to Berkeley, where he became a rare conservative opinion columnist for the university newspaper.
Switching coasts after graduation, he earned a master’s degree in history at Yale. About to enter the doctoral program at Harvard, he once again felt the pull of journalism. Still in his twenties, Boot wrote for the Christian Science Monitor and then the Wall Street Journal, rising impressively in the ranks of the latter’s editorial staff. He spent six years at the Journal before taking a position at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he authored a noteworthy book on military history and went on to serve as a foreign policy adviser to the presidential campaigns of John McCain in 2008 and Marco Rubio in 2016.
Max Boot was a bright light of conservatism, with contacts throughout the entire movement. Perhaps owing to the rapidity of his ascent, he never thought through his political position to its roots. A year short of 50, he is now going through a thorough reeducation, full of remorse. He here recants his support for the Iraq War, which he now counts as “a chastening lesson in the limits of American power.”
His more telling shifts, however, are in domestic politics. Influenced by the writings of E.J. Dionne and others, Boot now believes that his conservative political heroes from the past were guilty of campaigning by “dog whistling” to racism, even if they did not fully govern that way. Boot now appreciates the deep injustices and defects of the conservative movement on questions of race, gender, and police brutality: “I am perceiving ugly truths about America and about conservatism that other people had long seen.” Previous to this realization, Boot lived in a fantasy world: “I saw America as a land of opportunity, not a bastion of racism or sexism.” But no more. To make amends for his intellectual blindness, he issues a general kind of apology: “I have benefitted from my skin color and gender—and those of a different gender or sexuality or skin color have suffered because of it.”
Difficult as it may be to fathom how a person of his stature could have been so heedless of these ills—neglectful of the full depth of President Clinton’s abuse and possible rape of other women (dismissed by Mrs. Clinton), of the racial problems that were evident from the O.J. Simpson trial, and of the controversies over law enforcement brought home by Rodney King—Max Boot’s sincerity should not be doubted. As he excuses himself, “It’s amazing how little you can see when your eyes are closed!”
Going forward, the author has set his sights on achieving two goals: contributing to a new bipartisan movement that will bring greater civility to American political life, and “registering my dissent in the strongest terms I know.” His need to demonstrate moral probity seems to be the reason for his loss of so many friends, a sad sub-theme that runs through much of the book. Virtually all of Boot’s intellectual colleagues opposed the Republicans’ nomination of Trump but went on, with varying degrees of reluctance, to support his White House bid. Boot would not—he could not—do this.
“I plead guilty to being angry,” he writes, and “I am angry with all those people who are not angry.”
He believes he learned a fundamental lesson from Election 2016: that being a conservative does not change human nature. From once thinking that movement conservatives stand by their principles, he came to see that many of them backed Trump out of moral weakness and a wish to promote what was best for themselves. Disgusted by this betrayal, Boot turns on them all and devotes a whole chapter to decrying what he calls “Trump Toadies.” Included in this group are his former candidate, Senator Rubio, and other Republicans, like former House Speaker Paul Ryan, who do not at every moment proclaim their opposition to Trump.
Still Making Some Dubious Assumptions
There is a different way, however, to view the world. Politics is a constantly moving activity in which difficult decisions need to be made at each point along the way. Though Trump was unacceptable to conservative thinkers for the nomination, does it follow that he had to be an impossible choice for the presidency? Considering the options available, many intellectuals chose to support Trump, and they continue to assess and reassess their decision as time goes on.
True, this is not the morality of Molière’s Alceste, nor of Max Boot; but it surely does not a “toady” make.
As for many Trump voters, whom Boot often characterizes as “unsophisticated,” it is not so clear that they were as duped in their decision as Boot contends. Disparaging them for pinning their hopes on achieving “miniscule policy victories,” like adding a few more judges, Boot never sees, for example, that more judges could be the key—and the last chance—to alter the legal status of life over “choice.” Ensconced in his Manhattan enclave, he still does not seem to understand the political movement that he has now abandoned.
Beyond the circle of insiders, pundits, and political junkies, not all that many readers will ever have heard of Max Boot, and fewer still will have much interest in his life story, which takes up nearly a third of this work. Yet for all that, The Corrosion of Conservativism is a book well worth considering. One can only hope that the author, like Dante, will find his way through the dark forest in which he is now lost and emerge once more to see the stars.