The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right, by Max Boot (Liveright, 288 pp., $24.95)
Those who have been left unsated by the multipart series that the Washington Post is currently running on Max Boot’s evolving voting preferences will be overjoyed to learn that Boot has spun his thoughts into a full-length book, The Corrosion of Conservatism, in which he switches away from his usual topic, foreign policy, and reflects at length on the question of whether he can still use the same words to describe himself as he once did. If that sort of thing appeals to you, the book will too. If you can think of nothing less interesting than the endless auto-examination that is the hallmark of journalists in our age, it will not. I am unabashedly in the latter camp.
Unlike, say, his colleague Jennifer Rubin, Max Boot has not actually changed his mind about the core political questions of our era. Rather, he has decided that most of the people with whom he has historically teamed up are appalling, that they are defective in some way, and that this reflects so badly upon their party that it must be destroyed. Alas, this renders the book rather dull — more a treatise on personality than an exploration of ideas. Throughout, Boot insists that he is on an “ideological journey” that has led him to sort out “what makes sense and what doesn’t in the conservative Weltanschauung.” And yet, in the final chapter, he reveals that he still believes almost everything that he believed before. What’s changed is that he doesn’t like the GOP anymore.
A more accurate title for the book would be “I Don’t Like the Republican Party at the Moment,” but I suspect that nobody would have published that. And so, in an attempt to ram yet another “I hate Trump” book into the ideas category, we are treated to a tale of “conversion” that is almost entirely semantic. There is only so much that even gifted and intelligent writers can spin out of a story that begins and ends with “I changed my party registration last year . . . ”
As political analysts, we are drawn to people who argue “against interest” — or, more prosaically put, who “swing” in their partisan preferences. Boot, who likes to button his declarations with the reminder that he Used to Be a Republican!, clearly wants us to see him in this light, and wants us to take his admonitions seriously as a result. But the tactic falls flat in the execution, for, by the end of his book, it has become painfully clear that Boot has sacrificed very little by walking away from the GOP. As he was before his great awakening, Boot remains a non-religious, pro-choice, pro-gay-marriage, socially liberal, pro–New Deal “Eisenhower Republican” who considers that climate change requires harsh government action; hopes for strict gun control, including a ban on “assault weapons”; remains warm toward markets and trade; and favors an aggressive and interventionist foreign policy. Which . . . well, makes him precisely the sort of the person who would have been able to weather a Hillary Clinton presidency without too much fear — or, given her more hawkish instincts and views on abortion, guns, religious liberty, and welfare spending, would have arguably preferred it.
That matters. Since Donald Trump won the 2016 election, a clear cleavage has opened between his critics. On one side of that cleavage there are those who care deeply about religious liberty, the protection of the unborn, the maintenance of the Second Amendment, the as-written constitutional order, and so forth, and who see the Democratic party and its preferred judicial nominees as a serious threat on these issues. On the other side of that cleavage are those who never cared much about any of those things and who therefore have little to worry about beyond temporary inconvenience on a few policy questions should the “other side” gain power. People on both sides of this divide can be — and are — scathingly critical of President Trump. But only one side has a lot to lose by handing the keys to its opponents. And that side is not Boot’s.
It is possible — probable, even — that this unlovely dynamic causes Trump’s more conservative critics to be too soft on him. “I’ll stay quiet,” they might think, “lest I lose the chance to remake the judiciary.” But it is also possible — probable, even — that it gives Trump’s less-to-lose opponents the chance to burn their bridges without serious risk or regret. Boot could quite easily have said, “The Republican party has been ruined by Donald Trump; conservatism has been hijacked by Trump, but also by people more extreme than I am; in consequence, I shall continue to believe what I believe, but I cannot be a part of either political party.” For some reason, however, he elects not to take this path and instead to attempt to retcon the whole conservative enterprise. By the last chapter, Boot has decided that all of conservatism is terrible — and that, in its non-Eisenhower form, it always has been. Conservatism, we learn, has not been hijacked by Donald Trump; it is Donald Trump, and so is everyone who helped found it. William F. Buckley Jr. was Donald Trump. Barry Goldwater was Donald Trump. Newt Gingrich was Donald Trump. Even George H. W. Bush was Donald Trump when campaigning. The good conservatives were the ones who ran away from conservatism when in office. Reading the book, one gets whiplash. Is the GOP bad because Trump has disgraced it? Or is it unappealing to Boot anyway? He’s not quite sure. (This vacillation has played itself out recently in the pages of the Washington Post: Having called over and over again for voters to oppose every single Republican candidate in the 2018 midterms — even when they agreed with those Republicans on the issues or considered them to be of high character — Boot complained after the election that some of the Republicans he admired had lost!)
I have long wondered why so many writers are simply unable to exist outside of our ideological and partisan duopoly. Throughout his book, Boot insists that one cannot evaluate President Trump or his party on a case-by-case basis. There are two choices, he supposes: fealty, or resistance. But this is abject nonsense. When one is inside the voting booth and the question is “Trump or someone else?” there are indeed only two electorally viable choices available. But that is not the situation in which we find ourselves most of the time. On the contrary: One can happily evaluate the governor of Iowa independently of the president, just as one can praise Trump’s actions in a specific policy area without having his face tattooed onto one’s back. America is a big and complicated country, and its political system is designed to permit a considerable degree of variation. Here, all-or-nothing approaches are for suckers.
Which, I’m afraid, brings me to a conclusion I suspect would not please Boot, which is that Donald Trump has acquired a remarkable purchase over almost everybody in America, including his most fervent critics. Whatever he might believe about himself, that Boot abhors Trump has not prevented him from succumbing reactively to Trump’s cult of personality, or from making Trump the origin of every graph onto which he plots himself. Two years into Trump’s presidency, our civilization had already had its fill of ideas-deficient “where I am on Trump” declarations. “I’m leaving the GOP”; “I’m joining the GOP”; “I’m 83.5 percent likely to vote for Trump in 2020”; “My dad is 85 and had always voted this way, but then he voted that way” — nobody outside of a tiny, self-involved clique cares a single whit. And a whole book?