The Corrosion of Conservatism:
Why I Left the Right
by max boot
liveright, 288 pages, $24.95
Not too long ago, the columnist and die-hard Never Trumper Max Boot posted a video to his Twitter account, in which he alternately read from positive reviews of his book (mainly from liberal outlets) and harangued his ex-friends for failing to engage with his important critique of conservatism. Why is the right ignoring Boot? Is it because we are afraid to face the hard truths he tells in The Corrosion of Conservatism?
It is odd to watch Boot bemoan his ostracism from the right when the upsides have been a Washington Post column and contributor gigs on cable news. And it took a certain mania to solicit reviews from people who, I suspect, have steered clear of The Corrosion of Conservatism for old times’ sake. When a former friend publicly burnishes his own rectitude by casting doubt on yours, the most gracious thing to do is keep silent.
I’m not as gracious as others, so permit me to accept Boot’s invitation. Perhaps the encounter between two conservative writers, who vigorously objected to Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign but took different paths after his election, will clarify the American right’s internal tensions. The divergence has proved poisonous to friendships. It has derailed some careers while catapulting others (on both sides of the divide). So be it.
Behind the shifting lines of friendship and enmity among America’s conservative pundit class lie big questions: Should the right make peace with today’s autonomy-maximizing, technocratic arrangement? Or does our moment require a more combative posture toward that arrangement? Is conservatism merely an adjunct to liberalism—liberalism, but a little less? Or is it something else? Does the conservative vocation involve aggressively defending and expanding the empire of liberal norms and proceduralism? Or, is it about offering a substantive vision of the common good, one in which autonomy and liberal norms and procedures take their rightful place but are neither fetishized nor treated as ends in themselves?
Max Boot is among those who see conservatism as an adjunct to liberalism. He takes it as self-evident that his style of conservatism is the only kind with moral legitimacy; everything else is Continental “chauvinism,” “blood-and-soil” thuggery, or odious Trumpism.
The best bits of The Corrosion of Conservatism come early, when Boot describes his childhood under Soviet tyranny and his years as a precocious, politically hyper-conscious teenager in Reagan-era California. The most sympathetic character we encounter is his mother—the fiercely loving émigré, who “enrolled me in swim classes, piano lessons, and Hebrew school to give me the athletic, musical, and religious education that she had lacked.” All this, though money was tight and his father largely absent.
Yet Boot never took to sports, nor the piano, nor Hebrew study, and he didn’t retain his native Russian. His real passion was America. Boot was six years old when pressure exerted by Sen. Henry Jackson forced the communist regime to allow families like his to emigrate. In a passage that had me underlining and writing “Amen!” in the margins, he explains: “I have never visited Russia since leaving. I feel entirely American.” That describes my own immigrant sensibility, though I came from Iran just before I turned fourteen.
But it soon becomes clear that Boot views his adopted homeland through a set of abstract, free-floating propositions about rights and norms—his patriotism is attached to liberal proceduralism. The religious and spiritual warp and weft of the land elude him entirely. That is, when he isn’t disgusted by them.
Boot read H. L. Mencken at a young age, and the cantankerous satirist was a formative influence on his decision to become a writer. Boot also imbibed Mencken’s juvenile antipathy for religion and for the unwashed rabble who seek solace in biblical faith. He approvingly quotes Mencken’s claim that “religion is a conceited effort to deny the most obvious realities.” Boot has in mind religious conservatives who supported Trump because they feared a generation of liberal ascendancy at the Supreme Court. If there is some limit to Boot’s disdain for faith, it isn’t evident in the memoir.
Boot describes his progression from the margins of American society to the heart of the conservative opinion establishment in the 1990s and 2000s, and finally to his current position as the country’s leading Never Trumper and ex-conservative. But notwithstanding his subtitle, Why I Left the Right, there is no evident disillusionment. This is striking in a book that ostensibly belongs to the disillusioned-believer genre.
At each step, Boot gains life lessons, which he thinks other conservatives have failed to master. He has learned to “think for [him]self,” he confesses of his recent turn of mind, “and that is not an easy thing to do.” His readers of years past should demand a refund, since they presumably turned to him for independent thought and judgment. He has the temerity to add: “I only wish more conservatives were willing to engage in similar self-examination.” He learns the value of reporting trips and the value of reading books and “long briefing papers.” He learns to “like people very different from myself, even if there were far more of ‘them’ than there were of people like me.” Fair enough, but then he adds: “I wish more Trump supporters, anxious about the changing demographics of America, would have a similar epiphany.” His lesson in empathy apparently doesn’t extend to Trump voters.
He was, and remains, a social and economic liberal (in the classical sense). He was, and remains, militarily hawkish. He regrets supporting the Iraq War, mainly on prudential grounds, but he still supports nation building. He has reconsidered Second Amendment absolutism. He is a bit more concerned about climate change. Most notably, he is now a full-on progressive on matters racial and sexual.
“Whether I realize it or not,” he says, “I have benefited from my skin color and my gender—and those of a different gender or sexuality or skin color have suffered because of it.” (The worst thing about Boot’s recent roaming beyond his writerly comfort zone—military history and counterinsurgency—is this dripping earnestness. Has any major American columnist had so little room in his soul for anything besides moralistic fulmination and wonkery?)
The positions he has now abandoned—which weren’t all that different from the ones he holds now—Boot attributes to “brainwashing” at the hands of his former editors at the Wall Street Journal (where I also worked for several years, though we didn’t overlap) and the wider conservative intellectual milieu. Boot always depicts himself as the golly-gee naif—“I had not realized how tribal politics was and how divorced it could be from principles or conviction”—and his ex-friends and ex-colleagues as craven crypto-bigots. Thus, he neatly shirks all intellectual responsibility for a lifetime spent peddling ideas.
So, what did conservatism ever mean to Max Boot?
He writes early on that “for me, conservatism means prudent and incremental policymaking based on empirical study.” He enumerates various other propositions about limited government and individual freedom, with avoidance of harm and giving of consent as the only limiting principles. Yet he elides questions about the origins and purposes of political order and the origins and purposes of human life. These are the questions raised by Trump’s election and populism across the Atlantic. They have forced conservative thinkers to consider once more the nature and purpose of our common life, after long decades during which the first things were taken for granted.
A secular-liberal-technocratic consensus has come to dominate the West since World War II. The boomer uprising of 1968 only accelerated its advance. The consensus is characterized by a desire to maximize freedom and usher in a new global culture in which individuals are emancipated from tradition, culture, and community. Max Boot has spent a lifetime defending it and advocating for the expansion of this system into nearly every corner of the planet. Not long after 9/11, he even suggested that vast swaths of the Islamic world be subjected to the “sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets”—the end goal of such benign administration being to prepare the Muslims for . . . the liberal consensus.
“Conservatism” for Boot, then, was the preservation of this consensus all along. He has abandoned America’s party of the right, taken to calling himself a “classical liberal,” and more or less embraced the Democratic party because he senses, correctly, that right-of-center voters are fed up with the consensus and wish to renegotiate it, in part or whole.
Let’s give credit where it’s due: The liberal, technocratic consensus has lent America a dynamic economy, world-winning entertainment, famously irreverent mores, and sundry technological marvels. People around the world have admired and shared in the material rewards it has brought. But the downsides are increasingly hard to ignore.
Without a shared vision of the common good, society devolves into consumerist cliques and warring tribal factions. With the eclipse of the metaphysical ideals that underlie their conception of reason, America and the West can barely address other civilizations, much less win them over. And it turns out that the consent principle, without more, can authorize all manner of degradation, most shockingly evident in such phenomena as the sale of children and wombs in surrogacy, the unrestricted circulation of hard-core, misogynistic pornography under the banner of “free speech,” and the legalization of death-by-doctor throughout the developed world.
The liberal consensus, then, has emerged as a profoundly illiberal, repressive force—precisely because it grants the autonomous individual such wide berth to define what is good and true. If maximizing individual autonomy is the highest good and, indeed, the very purpose of political community, then for Chelsea Manning to exercise “her” autonomy requires the state to compel the rest of us to say that “she” wasn’t born male. And even absent state compulsion, as already exists in Canada and elsewhere, the institutions charged with upholding the consensus—corporations, big tech, universities, and elite media—can exact a high price for dissent.
The free world doesn’t feel free.
I wish the mainstream parties and politicians of center right and center left, in the U.S. as much as in Europe, had been more alert to these and other discontents associated with technocratic liberalism. But the “responsible” center wasn’t up to the task, not least because journalists and intellectuals like Boot jealously guarded every element of the consensus and treated any deviation from it as heretical.
In Europe and, to a lesser extent, in the U.S., raising a peep about unrestricted mass migration was treated as phobic. Likewise, the guardians of the consensus drummed out of the public square those who questioned the wisdom of replicating the West’s political forms in societies shaped by history, and countless other factors, to favor order, community, and authority over individual autonomy. On the home front, economic growth, interconnectedness, and openness were treated as the only ideals worthy of the name.
In the years preceding Trump’s election, I often found myself in the same camp as Boot. But I watched with horror the outcome of the so-called Arab Spring and later reported from the front lines of the 2015 European refugee crisis. I came to view the migrant influx—with the terrorism and breakdown of solidarity it helped cause—as the single most decisive factor behind Brexit, Trump’s election, and the ascent of conservative-nationalist parties across the Old World.
These events, and many others of the kind, should have mugged, or re-mugged, the conservative movement, in the same way that the disorders of 1968 awakened an earlier generation of thinkers to the limits of abstract idealism. Instead, Boot doubled down. His writing since, the memoir included, evinces little reflection on the unaddressed malaises and internal contradictions that made Trump, as distasteful as he often was (and is), a plausible choice for 63 million of his compatriots.
Instead, Boot and a small coterie of die-hard Never Trumpers cast the election as an evil anomaly, a plot concocted by the Kremlin and a replay of the 1930s and ’40s. The Corrosion of Conservatism is especially saturated with Boot’s signature hotheaded rhetoric about Trumpian “fascism” and “despotism.” In one of the book’s more spittle-flecked passages, he compares the other GOP nominees’ failure to attack Trump directly during the primaries with the miscalculations of von Hindenburg and von Papen, “who welcomed Adolf Hitler’s ascension as German chancellor in 1933.”
If Trump’s election really is a Hitlerian-scale catastrophe for the West, then civic friendship between Trump America and non-Trump America is impossible. And indeed, that is a premise shared by the #Resistance and the most hysterical of the Never Trumpers, Boot chief among them. They speak of “defending democracy,” as Boot does throughout his memoir, but what they really mean is defending the technocratic liberal consensus, even if that means undoing the popular will as it was expressed at the ballot box.
We should decline to go along. One needn’t make himself comfortable with Trump to appreciate the space he has opened up to ask basic questions once more. Let Max Boot attend to his smashed totems.
Sohrab Ahmari is the op-ed editor of the New York Post and author of From Fire, by Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith.