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'The Corrosion Of Conservatism': Max Boot On Why He Left The GOP

President Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2018. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
President Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2018. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

With Meghna Chakrabarti

Conservative luminary Max Boot explains why he left the Republican Party and is urging people to vote against the modern GOP.


Max Boot, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Columnist for the Washington Post. Analyst for CNN. Author of “ The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right.” ( @MaxBoot)

Interview Highlights

On the moment he decided to leave the Republican Party

“That moment occurred the day after the last presidential election. I was somebody who was viscerally and instantly opposed to Donald Trump from the moment that he came down that escalator at Trump Tower attacking Mexicans as rapists and murderers. I couldn’t believe that you had a mainstream candidate who was talking like that, and I never imagined that he would win the Republican nomination, much less the presidency. So I was very dismayed to see Trump’s progress first in the Republican primaries and then in the general election. It was the shock of my life — and I think many people’s lives — to see Donald Trump actually win the presidency. And the next day I knew what I had to do which was after a lifetime as a Republican, as a movement conservative, I re-registered as an independent because I knew — I just knew at that point — I could not be part of this Trump-ified Republican Party.

“I was part of what was know as the conservative movement a fairly early age. I was a conservative columnist at the University of California, Berkeley, I was an op-ed editor at the Wall Street Journal editorial page, I was a regular writer for Commentary and The Weekly Standard, I was a foreign policy adviser to three presidential candidates, so I was fairly deep within the conservative bubble working for what I thought was the good of America, and I was shocked — and perhaps I shouldn’t have been shocked, I should have seen this all along — but I was just so dismayed to see the kind of message that Donald Trump won on, which was completely antithetical to the brand of conservatism that I championed which I associate more with people like Ronald Reagan or George Will. Kind of a much more optimistic, open and inclusive brand of conservatism that doesn’t stigmatize minorities, that focuses on American global leadership, on free trade, on limited government at home. That’s the kind of conservatism that I signed up for, but that’s not the kind of conservatism that Donald Trump espouses. I mean he is someone who uses bigotry and prejudice, caters to racism and sexism and xenophobia, divides America and spreads conspiracy theories. It was truly a soul-crushing event for me to see somebody like that take over the Republican Party, and in fact, the conservative movement. And that’s why I exited the Republican Party and I’m not even sure I want to call myself a conservative anymore, because I don’t know what Conservative means anymore other than ‘Trump toady.’ ”

On his experience in a “conservative bubble”

“I would just quote to you the line form George Orwell where he said, ‘The hardest things see is what’s directly in front of your nose.’ And that’s certainly something that was true for me. And I do ask myself now, ‘How could I have been blind to all this?’ And I think the explanation is essentially that I was deep in this conservative bubble. I was very much prey to this tribalistic instinct which I think dominates American politics and that causes one to overlook the faults of your fellow partisans. I don’t think it’s just conservatives and Republicans who are guilty of that. Look at the way that a lot of Democrats, for example, excised Bill Clinton’s misbehavior, but I think it’s definitely a larger problem on the right. I had this moment of clarity when Donald Trump took office — for years, for example, I had denied that Republicans were racist. I thought this was a horrible libel. I said, you know, ‘I’m not racist, my friends aren’t racist, why do you say this?’ And then, Donald Trump made it so obvious that I couldn’t deny it anymore because he went from dog whistles of the kind that Republicans had employed before, to a wolf whistle. And it made me realize, ‘Wait a second, the Republican coalition is not what I thought it was, there are not people who are necessarily thrilling to the ideas that are formulated by policy analysts like me.’ A lot of them were simply looking for a party that would bash minorities, that would bash immigrants. That’s not what I want to be a part of, and of course that was very obvious to a lot of people, including I’m sure you and a lot of your listeners all along, and I was willfully blind to it. There’s no excusing my blindness over all these years. All I can say is that at least I’m waking up to the reality now, and most Republicans, most conservatives I know, they’re still in denial.”

On President Trump “toadies”

“All of the people who basically flatter his ego, including people like Lindsey Graham who once called him a crook and now talks about how Donald Trump is a superb golfer. I mean, I have chapter and verse in my book of the sycophants of Donald Trump who literally refer to him as if he were the second-coming, who think that he is the savior of humanity. It’s unbelievable, this is a president who only has the support of about 40 percent of Americans — and that’s too high in my book — but most people recognize that he is not an admirable figure. But what’s really shocking to me is the extent to which the Republican Party has transformed itself into a Donald Trump cult. So many people have drunk the KoolAid, including people that I once had respect for. It’s really been a gut-wrenching and soul-crushing experience for me to see this going on.”

On why a counter-balancing third party is not an option in American politics

“I would love it if that could happen. The problem is that our entire political system is designed to entrench this two-party duopoly. In my book, I do lay out some faint hope — I would love to see somebody like Emmanuel Macron, the centrist who became president of France by running against the major parties, it would be awesome if somebody could do that here, and I think there is the possibility of somebody doing that. I don’t know who that person is. But if you look at party affiliation, there are more independents than there are Republicans or Democrats, so clearly there is a giant mass of centrist voters who are not being represented, especially as you see the Republican Party going to the right and the Democratic going to the left. A lot of people like me are feeling politically homeless in the middle. So it would be awesome if there could be a third wave that would arise to represent a more centrist band of politics, but we just have to recognize it’s very, very difficult because there has not been a third party that has succeeded in America since the 1850s when the Republican Party was born.”

From The Reading List

Excerpt from “The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right” by Max Boot


NOVEMBER 8, 2016

November 8, 2016, was one of the most demoralizing days of my life. It was also, in ways that have become impossible to ignore, devastating not just for America in general but for American conservatism in particular.

I had never imagined that Donald Trump could be elected president. If you had suggested to me before 2016 that such a thing was possible I would have replied that it was too far- fetched to contemplate— it sounded like the plot of a dystopian science- fiction movie. Arnold Schwarzenegger would have been a more plausible president— and he wasn’t even born in America. I didn’t think Trump would win a single Republican primary. Sure, he had been polling strongly in 2015, but I figured that when the actual balloting began my fellow Republicans would sober up and realize that the reality TV star and real- estate mogul was not remotely qualified for the nation’s highest office.

Trump had offended my sensibilities from the very first day of the campaign, June 16, 2015, when he had come down the garish escalator at Trump Tower to castigate Mexican immigrants in crudely xenophobic terms. “They’re bringing drugs,” he said. “They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”1 A month later, he launched an odious attack on Senator John McCain, a man whose presidential campaign I had been proud to advise in 2008. This is what Trump, who had gotten five draft deferments, had to say about a war hero who had endured nearly six years of hellish captivity in North Vietnam: “He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”2 A few months after that, in November 2015, Trump hit another low, mocking a disabled reporter who had the temerity to question his bogus claims to have seen thousands of Muslims in Jersey City, New Jersey, cheering as the World Trade Center came down. Trump then lied about what he had done— even though his cruel japery was recorded on videotape.3

There was no possibility, I figured, that the party of Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Reagan would endorse Trump for president. Was there?

When the primaries began and Trump began winning state after state, I thought I had entered The Twilight Zone. The torment worsened when he locked up the nomination and Republican after Republican dutifully lined up to endorse his candidacy after having lambasted him in the harshest terms possible. Former governor Rick Perry had called Trump a “cancer on conservatism” before endorsing said cancer— and being rewarded with a cabinet post. Former governor Bobby Jindal had called Trump a “madman who must be stopped” before endorsing said madman. Senator Rand Paul had called him a “delusional narcissist” before endorsing said narcissist. Most painful of all for me, Senator Marco Rubio, whose presidential campaign I had served as a foreign policy adviser, went from denouncing Trump as a “con artist” to endorsing said con artist. House Speaker Paul Ryan got my hopes up by hesitating to endorse Trump, but in the end, he too bent the knee. This was not the Republican Party I knew. Or thought I knew. How could so many Republicans for whom I had such respect have betrayed everything that they— and I— believed in? What was going on? How could all of these conservatives turn into Trump toadies? I was angry and bewildered. My faith in the Republican Party was shaken and has never recovered.

But at least I comforted myself that in the general election there was no way the American people could possibly elect someone like Trump. I had come to America as a six- year- old from the Soviet Union in 1976 and had grown to revere the country that had offered asylum to my family. I was convinced that America was the greatest and most selfless country in the world. Now I had faith that the voters would in their wisdom choose Hillary Clinton, who was a deeply flawed and seriously uncharismatic candidate, to be sure, but also extremely knowledgeable, resolutely centrist, and amply qualified. I had never voted for a Democrat in my life, but for me it was an easy call. Here I was, a conservative Republican, voting for Clinton; I figured that there would be plenty of others who would do the same. If Trump couldn’t even count on the undivided support of the GOP, there was no way he could win.

Like countless other commentators, I was sure Trump was finished on October 7, 2016, when a videotape emerged in which he could be heard bragging that because he was a “star” he could do anything he wanted to women— even “grab them by the pussy.” Numerous Republicans withdrew their endorsements and urged Trump to drop out. Yet when he refused to withdraw, many of the same Republicans came crawling back to re- endorse him. The race tightened as Election Day approached. Yet I was still certain— foolishly, naïvely, pathetically certain— that Trump could not win. My Pollyannaish faith in America had blinded me to what was to come, and that faith has not survived the debacle to come.

I agreed to spend election night at the Comedy Cellar nightclub in downtown New York, offering commentary on the results along with other pundits and comedians at a forum organized by Foreign Policy magazine. I was nervous in the afternoon but was reassured by rumors that the exit polls showed a Clinton victory. I was on stage, chatting with the other panelists, when around 8 p.m. I saw my partner, Sue, growing increasingly agitated across the room. She kept looking at her phone and getting more upset. I sneaked out my own phone and saw what was disturbing her— the New York Times had just moved Florida into Trump’s column. It now looked as if he had a path to victory. As the night wore on, swing state after swing state went for Trump. Clinton went from the odds- on favorite to an increasing long shot.

By the time Sue and I got home to our apartment on the Upper West Side at 10 p.m. or so, it was obvious that the unthinkable was about to become the inevitable: Donald Trump was going to be elected the 45th president of the United States. A friend came over from the Clinton election- night party at the Javits Center; she was crying and in shock. I swilled a Scotch and took some sleeping pills— something I don’t normally do— and tried to sleep. And, yes, 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. Even with chemical inducements, however, my sleep was fretful and disturbed because I knew that I would awaken to a nightmare. My America had become Trump’s America. My Republican Party had become Trump’s party. My conservative movement had become Trump’s movement.

The first thing I did the next morning— the dawn of what I felt was a new annus horribilis— was to go online and change my voter registration. I had been a Republican since turning eighteen just before the 1988 presidential election. Now, at the age of forty- seven, I became an independent. Politics is a team sport. Suddenly I was without a team. I was politically homeless. In an instant I felt alienated from some of my oldest friends and fellow travelers— conservatives with whom I had been in one fight after another over the past quarter- century. How was it possible that 90 percent of Republicans had supported a charlatan who had only recently been a Democrat and who had few fixed convictions outside of narcissism and nativism, racism and sexism? My sense of alienation has only deepened as I have watched the Trump presidency in action. No other president has been more hostile to the values of conservatism as I conceived it.

Conservatism, American- style, means different things to different people. There is, after all, an inherent tension in advocating a conservative vision in a liberal society in which social, economic, and technological change is constant. American conservatism is very different from the kind of “blood and soil” conservatism that has long been characteristic of Europe. Continental conservatism is chauvinistic and pessimistic; American conservatism is optimistic and inclusive. For me, conservatism means prudent and incremental policymaking based on empirical study; support for American global leadership and American allies; a strong defense and a willingness to oppose the enemies of freedom; respect for character, community, personal virtue, and family; limited government and fiscal prudence; freedom of opportunity rather than equality of outcome; a social safety net big enough to help the neediest but small enough to avoid stifling individual initiative, enterprise, and social mobility; individual liberty to the greatest extent possible consistent with public safety; freedom of speech and of the press; immigration and assimilation; and colorblindness and racial integration. Looming above them all are two documents that I revere, as should every American. The Declaration of Independence defines the United States as a nation bound together not by shared heritage or blood but rather by a shared belief in the “self- evident” truths “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The “pursuit of Happiness” is a critical concept, putting personal freedom at the center of our political enterprise. While the Declaration lays out the goals of self- government, the Constitution defines how we can achieve them. It protects our liberties, limits the government’s power, and ensures that the rule of law prevails. We honor, defend, and respect the Constitution, and the offices, laws, and norms that derive from it. All Americans, of all political persuasions, are expected to defer to the Constitution, but it should be of particular concern to conservatives who proclaim their desire to conserve what makes America great.

That, to me, is American conservatism. That is what I believe. Those are the ideas I have tried to advance as a writer and commentator. To judge by his words and actions, Trump does not understand or believe in a single one of these principles. Yet he remains wildly popular among Republicans and conservatives. When 2016 began I could hardly find a Republican who had anything positive to say about Trump. By the beginning of 2018 it was hard to find a Republican who had anything negative to say about him— at least in public.

How can this be? Did I not understand all along what American conservatism was all about? Did I miss essential features that Trump had discerned and used to his benefit? Or had conservatism morphed under the magnetic pull of Trump’s outsized personality to become something very different from the movement I had grown up in?

The modern conservative movement was inspired by Barry Goldwater’s canonical text from 1960, The Conscience of a Conservative.4 I believed in that movement, and served it my whole life, but under the pressure of Trumpism, conservatism as I understood it has been corroding— and so has my faith in the movement. Hence this book’s title. I am perceiving ugly truths about America and about conservatism that other people had long seen but I had turned a blind eye to. I no longer like to call myself a conservative, a label that has become virtually synonymous with Trump toady. I now prefer to think of myself as a classical liberal.

I would like to be able to quote Ronald Reagan’s quip when he became a Republican— “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left me”— but in truth my beliefs are shifting because of the rise of Trumpism and other contemporary developments such as the failure of the Iraq invasion, the Great Recession of 2008– 2009, the #MeToo movement, and the spread of police videotapes revealing violent racism. My ideology has come into conflict with reality— and reality is winning. I have undertaken a painful and difficult intellectual journey, leaving behind many of the simple verities that I clung to for decades as a “movement” conservative. I am now forced to think for myself, and that is not an easy thing to do. But given the epochal events that have shaken America, this self- reflection is necessary, indeed overdue. I only wish more conservatives were willing to engage in similar self- examination instead of resorting to glib insults of “libtards” and “snowflakes” or reflexive defenses of the man who has usurped their party.

I am no longer a Republican, but I am not a Democrat either. I am a man without a party. This is a record of my ideological journey so far— and of my attempts to come to grips, honestly and unflinchingly, with the phenomenon known as Trumpism. The question that haunts me is: Did I somehow contribute to the rise of this dark force in American life with my advocacy for conservatism?

Whatever the case, I am now convinced that the Republican Party must suffer repeated and devastating defeats. It must pay a heavy price for its embrace of white nationalism and know- nothingism. Only if the GOP as currently constituted is burned to the ground will there be any chance to build a reasonable center- right political party out of the ashes.

How did we get to the point where I— a lifelong Republican— now wish ill fortune upon my erstwhile party? To find the answer, I invite you to turn the page with me, literally as well as figuratively.

What follows is not a full- blown memoir or autobiography. But to make you understand why I— and other #NeverTrump conservatives, all too few in number— feel such a strong sense of betrayal at the hands of Trump and his Republican Party, it is important for you to understand how I became a conservative in the first place and what it felt like to be a conservative in the heyday of the movement. My history, I feel, can help the reader to make sense of late- twentieth- century conservatism— now, in the early twenty- first century, practically unrecognizable. I take the story up to the present day, explaining why I left the Republican Party because of my profound opposition to Trump, how Trump continues to traduce conservative principles, and what the future holds for me and other conservatives who cannot imagine being members of a Trumpista party. Put another way, this is a tale of first love, marriage, growing disenchantment, and, eventually, a heartbreaking divorce. Today we are locked in a bitter custody battle over the future of the Republican Party: Will it return to its previous principles or will it remain forever a populist, white- nationalist movement in the image of Donald Trump?

This book, I strongly suspect, will infuriate many of my old comrades on the right who will conclude that I have gone soft in the head or sold out my beliefs to gain popular acceptance in liberal circles. I, in turn, am convinced that they are the ones who have gone off the rails by embracing a demagogue who seems to equate bigotry with conservatism. There is a gulf between us that cannot be bridged, at least not while Trump is still in office. Likewise, what follows is unlikely to satisfy the hard left. No matter how strongly I come out against Trump and his hateful works, I find it is never enough for the most doctrinaire leftists who seem to think that no step short, perhaps, of ritual suicide will atone for my “war crimes,” which upon closer examination seem to consist of supporting an invasion of Iraq that was backed by bipartisan majorities in both houses.

This book is not addressed to the far left or the far right. It is written with the center- left and the center- right in mind. My hope is that my ideological odyssey will inspire others— that I can be part of a larger, bipartisan movement in America toward greater moderation and civility in our politics. Or, if that doesn’t happen, and if the present trend toward extremism continues, I will at least register my dissent in the strongest terms I know.

I love America. I am devoted to conservative principles. I want to defend what I hold dear when I see it under unprecedented attack from within— with the greatest threat posed by a man at the very pinnacle of power. This is how I became a conservative and why I no longer feel part of a movement whose betrayal of its principles is abhorrent to me.

Excerpted from The CORROSION OF CONSERVATISM by Max Book. Copyright © 2018 by Max Boot. Used with permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Washington Post: “ Opinion: The dark side of American conservatism has taken over” — “You know how, after you watch a movie with a surprise ending, you sometimes replay the plot in your head to find the clues you missed the first time around? That’s what I’ve been doing lately with the history of conservatism — a movement I had been part of since my teenage days as a conservative columnist at the University of California at Berkeley in the early 1990s. In the decades since, I have written for numerous conservative publications and served as a foreign policy adviser to three Republican presidential candidates. It would be nice to think that Donald Trump is an anomaly who came out of nowhere to take over an otherwise sane and sober movement. But it just isn’t so.

“Upon closer examination, it’s obvious that the history of modern conservative is permeated with racism, extremism, conspiracy-mongering, isolationism and know-nothingism. I disagree with progressives who argue that these disfigurations define the totality of conservatism; conservatives have also espoused high-minded principles that I still believe in, and the bigotry on the right appeared to be ameliorating in recent decades. But there has always been a dark underside to conservatism that I chose for most of my life to ignore. It’s amazing how little you can see when your eyes are closed!

Mother Jones: “ ‘We Need to Destroy the Republican Party’: A Conservative Luminary Calls for a Clean Start” — “In his new book, ‘The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right,’ Max Boot goes further than the handful of other prominent Republicans who have stood against Donald Trump and reconsiders the conservative movement writ large. He sat down to discuss his epiphany with Washington bureau chief David Corn for the Mother Jones Podcast.”

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