Max Boot’s Corrosion of Conservatism shrewdly mines the history of the conservative movement to learn how it went so badly.
When Max Boot was a young conservative apparatchik on the make, the key moment in his career occurred when he got a meeting with Robert Bartley, editor of The Wall Street Journal editorial page, one of the movement’s most prestigious and influential organs. To Boot’s surprise, Bartley offered him a job as economics editorialist. The prospect “horrified” him, he writes in his new memoir and critique, The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right, because he “had never taken a class in the subject and had no interest in it.” Boot later learned that Bartley sought out conservatives unfamiliar with economics for such jobs. “He did not want to hire an economist because most professional economists disdained supply-side economics,” which is to say, an inability to see through the pseudo-economic nonsense was a cherished attribute.
When reading this story, I am reminded of a scene in Goodfellas, when Henry Hill pistol-whips a man who tried to rape his girlfriend, Karen, and then tells her to conceal the weapon. Karen narrates the scene. “I know there are women, like my best friends, who would have gotten out of there the minute their boyfriend gave them a gun to hide,” she tells the audience. “But I didn’t. I gotta admit the truth: it turned me on.”
Likewise, the minute he discovered that the economics line for the conservative movement was being set by an institution so hostile to rigorous thinking that it treated a lack of qualifications as a qualification, Boot probably should have rethought his career choices. Instead, he accepted a different job (op-ed editor) from Bartley. And he was on his way, moving through columnist spots and jobs as speechwriter or policy adviser to Republican presidential candidates like John McCain and Marco Rubio.
It came to a halt with the rise of Donald Trump. Boot, like most conservative intellectuals, reacted with incredulous disdain when a demagogic reality-television performer registered at the top of opinion polls in 2015. Most of those conservatives eventually reconciled themselves to Trump, either after Trump had sewn up the nomination, following his election, or after one of his many partisan skirmishes, at which point they could declare that the liberals had “forced” them to Trump’s side by criticizing Trump too harshly, opposing Brett Kavanaugh, or some other offense. Boot did not. Instead, he has written one of the most impressive and unflinching diagnoses of the pathologies in Republican politics that led to Trump’s rise.
Boot is hardly a surprising candidate for ideological defection. Having immigrated to the United States as a child from the Soviet Union, he gravitated toward the more stridently hawkish Republican Party, as many refugees from communist countries did. He never surrendered either his sense of outsiderness (having had to learn English and assimilate to strange American culture) or his intense pro-American idealism.
Of all the intellectual tribes of the right, neoconservatives (like Boot) mounted the deepest and longest resistance to Trump. The core neocon worldview is a moralistic vision in America as a beacon of democracy and staunch foe of dictatorships (sometimes, as the Bush administration illustrated, to the point of delusion.) Trump mollified most conservative activists during the 2016 campaign or after. He renounced his pro-choice and anti-gun views, and stopped promising to raise taxes on the rich, more strictly regulate Wall Street, or give everybody health insurance (and in fact did the opposite once in office). But he never stopped expressing an utterly transactional foreign-policy worldview and regularly praising dictators (not despite but frequently because of their authoritarianism) and treating their lies with deference.
But what makes Boot’s argument admirable is that he doesn’t simply follow his ideology in a mechanical fashion. Instead he treats the rise of Trump with the seriousness an event of such magnitude demands. If you discovered your best friend was working on a plan to kill hundreds of people in a terrorist attack, you wouldn’t simply condemn his plan while continuing to appreciate his non-terrorist qualities. You would question your entire relationship and what it is about this person you missed in the first place. Likewise, when your political party has elected an ignorant, viciously bigoted, compulsively lying authoritarian crook as president, you need to raise fundamental assumptions about that party’s makeup, rather than treat it as an unfortunate turn of events one must muddle through.
Boot accordingly retraces the steps both of his own career and the history of the movement he joined to try to discover where it all went wrong, what parts can be salvaged and which cannot. He describes his rise within the movement as “a process of indoctrination — largely self-indoctrination, I should add — that took decades and that I am only now escaping.” Boot recounts the social pressures to toe the party line, and the rewards (career advancement, lavish parties) that came with faithful adherence. At one point he commissioned an op-ed criticizing supply-side economics by Paul Krugman, who was not yet a New York Times columnist but was a famous economist with a punchy prose style. Bartley not only killed the op-ed but also came close to firing Boot for his apostasy.
Boot recounts briefing Sarah Palin, in his capacity as a McCain 2008 campaign adviser. (Unsurprisingly, he “found her to be nonresponsive and uninterested in foreign policy issues.”) After he began criticizing Trump, Boot describes the president of a conservative think tank expressing private agreement, but admitting he could not say so publicly for fear of offending his board of directors. When a friend got an appointment in the administration, she crossed Boot off the guest list for a party lest she be associated with a turncoat. Reexamining his career and the movement that brought him up professionally with a more skeptical eye, Trump’s rise becomes more explicable.
Boot also acknowledges that racism and sexism continue to exert a harmful and potent influence over American life, and while he still disagrees with the corrosiveness of woke leftist discourse, he does not see those responses as more harmful than racism itself. This is a decisive break with conservatism, which — with a handful of mostly recent exceptions — treats racism and sexism as historical vestiges, cynically exploited by the left to tar innocent modern conservatives.
But the truly radical act in The Corrosion of Conservatism is its clear-eyed excavation of the movement’s history. The right has spent decades regurgitating a potted version of their own history that is so selective and sanitized that it amounts to an upside-down version of reality. The conservative creation myth, which any right-wing pundit, intern, or congressional staffer could recite from memory, runs as follows: In the mid-1950s, conservatism lacked any form or intellectual coherence. Then William F. Buckley emerged to build conservatism as a serious movement of ideas. He purged the Birchers, instilled intellectual rigor in the movement, and while their first foray into elective politics, the Barry Goldwater campaign, failed, it set the stage for the triumphs of Ronald Reagan and his successors.
Even many anti-Trump conservatives cling tightly to this mythical history. It is the foundation of a much weaker book of the same form by Charlie Sykes. A conservative talk-show host, Sykes turned against Trump, and spends his book grappling inconclusively about how the great movement of Buckley and Goldwater took a sharp and inexplicable turn into Trumpism.
Boot acknowledges that he, too, subscribed to this myth. But revisiting that past, he discovers something very familiar. Conservatism trafficked all along in anti-intellectualism, bigotry, ideological radicalism, and loopy conspiracy theories. The conservative movement was a revolt against the moderation of mainstream Republicans like Dwight Eisenhower while fiercely defending the vicious lies of Joe McCarthy. Buckley renounced the president of the John Birch Society while continuing to endorse the organization itself, which was a large and powerful constituency. While most mainstream Republicans at the time supported civil rights, conservatives opposed those mainstream leaders for that very reason. Conservatives understood very clearly at the time that their project of turning the Republican Party into a vehicle for conservatism required prying millions of white segregationists from the Democratic Party.
Boot is not so reductive as to depict Trump as the inevitable historical consequence of conservatism’s historical arc. He is able to acknowledge that Trump is both a freakish outlier and an authentic outgrowth of conservatism. The movement had cultivated an atmosphere congenial to his bigoted demagoguery, and a freakishly dangerous figure walked through the door conservatism had opened for him.
Among Boot’s former comrades, the rise of the conservative movement is the unquestioned shining past to which every faction lays claim. Boot is making an astonishing break in his suggestion that the Republicanism of Eisenhower was actually good, and that the conservative alternative of McCarthy, Buckley, and Goldwater was misguided. His analysis is as heretical as an orthodox Communist arguing in the 1950s that the problem with the Soviet Union began with the October Revolution. Ross Douthat wrote a New York Times column politely inviting Boot not to return to the GOP. Some of his former cadres think he has gone insane. “Calling Barry Goldwater an ‘extremist,’” complains conservative columnist Jay Caruso, “is not ‘reasoned criticism.’” (Goldwater, of course, famously declared, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” which was a forthright defense of his belief that liberty required such radical steps as risking nuclear war to liberate territory from Soviet control and tearing down vast swaths of the government.)
But it is hard to see any choice between Boot’s radical surgery, which will require ripping the party’s conservative dogma out by the roots, and disaster for the brand of center-right values he espouses. The disaster may take the form of Trump and his party continuing their lurch into authoritarianism, which increasingly offers the only avenue for imposing unpopular policies on taxes, spending, and regulation demanded by its plutocratic base. Or it may involve the Republican Party discrediting itself irrevocably, as polarization allows Democrats to move farther and farther left without losing the loyalty of a base that will never forgive the party of Trump. A disaffected foot soldier from the conservative movement can now clearly see that the party’s salvation lies in prying it free of conservative control.