Neocons Paved the Way for Trump. Finally, One Admits It.

Max Boot charts his journey through—and out of—the conservative intellectual movement.

The NeverTrumpers may have failed to prevent Donald Trump from becoming president, but he has been a godsend for their public reputations. Instead of remaining in the wilderness, the neoconservatives who make up the bulk of the NeverTrump movement have fitfully begun to move back toward, or at least flirt with, the Democratic Party, which is where the original neocon journey began. Among some of their longtime detractors, it’s creating a vertiginous sensation. James Wolcott, for example, recently observed in Vanity Fair, “One of the chewier ironies of the Trump interregnum is finding that I’m following former foes on Twitter and elsewhere that I once mocked, reviled, and cast into outer darkness during the Bush presidency, especially after the invasion of Iraq.”

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The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left The Right by Max Boot

Now that the neocons have, in a manner of speaking, been born again, they are once more crusading for regime change against an authoritarian foe, only this time on the home front. Trump, not Saddam Hussein, is the main object of their ire, and they are earning quite a hearing in mainstream liberal outlets. Eliot A. Cohen and David Frum regularly appear in the Atlantic. Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss have decamped from the Wall Street Journalto the New York Times. William Kristol and Jennifer Rubin are regulars on MSNBC.

And then there is Max Boot, a columnist for the Washington Post and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Unlike Kristol or Stephens, Boot’s breach with the Republican Party is complete. He does not believe that the party can be redeemed, and he isn’t sure that he should call himself a conservative anymore. The day after the 2016 election, after a lifetime of backing the GOP, he re-registered as an independent. In August, he posted on Twitter a screenshot of a fundraising pitch that read, “Hey, this is Newt Gingrich. President Trump needs your help to elect more Republicans in 2018. Will you make a 4X matched donation today?,” with this accompanying text: “Hey, this is Max Boot. Hell no.” His sallies have earned him brickbats from the right; the pro-Trump website American Greatness has branded him a “soulless, craven opportunist.”

Boot’s defection from conservative orthodoxy carries a particular sting because he was once the most explicit exponent of American greatness. After 9/11, he endorsed American imperialism in a Weekly Standardcover story. The benighted countries of the Middle East, he announced, “cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets.” His name became a synonym for neocon warmonger, and he went on to advise the George W. Bush administration and presidential aspirants such as Senator Marco Rubio.

In the past two years, however, Boot has not merely parted with the conservative stances that he previously espoused, but has been actively assailing them, whether the issue is race, gun control, or the Iraq War. Indeed, as a columnist for the Washington Post, Boot has relentlessly attacked Trump and his enablers. “If there has been an outcry against Trump’s virulent racism from the right, I must have missed it,” he wrote in August. “The only conservatives who are willing to regularly call out Trump’s bigotry are those of us who are #NeverTrumpers—and, as I constantly hear online, we aren’t ‘real’ conservatives because we do not worship at the orange altar.”

Now, in The Corrosion of Conservatism, Boot charts his ideological odyssey. He deftly recounts his early attraction to the conservative cause and his revulsion at its embrace of Trump. For Boot, who immigrated to the United States from the Soviet Union as a child, the 2016 election felt like back to the future. As Trump sailed toward the Republican nomination, Boot’s Twitter account and email began to fill up with anti-Semitic, pro-Trump messages. He became increasingly alienated from the conservatives who ended up trying to curry favor with Trump, ranging from Rubio to Paul Ryan. He had naively expected them to repudiate Trump’s authoritarianism. When they didn’t, he felt betrayed.

For Boot, it was personal. Joining the conservative movement had been part of coming to America. It gave a young immigrant from Moscow a sense of identity and mission. In contrast to Kristol, who has already begun plotting to stymie Trump in the 2020 primaries, or Frum, who has sought to chart the ideological course of the GOP in books like Dead Right, Boot was never a Republican operative. He isn’t trying to rescue the GOP to restore the old order. Instead, he is a historian who has always relished being an intellectual dissident. His basic temperament hasn’t changed at all, which is why he may be the ultimate neocon.

The value of Boot’s book does not rest in any original political analysis. Instead, he explains what it was like to immerse himself in what amounted to a conservative madrassa. In describing his self-conversion from zealot to apostate, he emerges as the Candide of the right.

Now it’s the Republican Party, not the left, that is in his sights. He understands that he missed the real danger to freedom that was right in front of his nose: a party that flirted with white nationalism, cozied up to Russian autocracy, and toppled into obsessive conspiracy mongering. And he is haunted by a question: “Did I somehow contribute to the rise of this dark force in American life with my advocacy for conservatism?”

Unlike previous accounts of breaking with the right, such as Garry Wills’s Confessions of a Conservative, the value of Boot’s book does not rest in any original political analysis. Instead, he explains what it was like to immerse himself in what amounted to a conservative madrassa. In describing his self-conversion from zealot to apostate, he emerges as the Candide of the right, offering fascinating insights into the psychology of a true believer. His fervor for explaining why the right is wrong brings to mind Arthur Koestler’s remark in The God That Failed: “When all is said, we ex-communists are the only people on your side who know what it’s all about.”

Boot, who was born in 1969 in Moscow, had firsthand experience with communism and was deeply shaped by the persecution of Soviet Jews. His parents divorced when he was two, but both later immigrated to America. Boot’s father, Alexander, was a dissident who distributed samizdat and managed to get out in 1973. His mother emigrated with Max in 1976 and then taught Russian in California.

Boot makes it clear that his enthusiasm for his father—a self-described monarchist who now lives in England and devotes his time to denouncing atheism and the welfare state—is quite constrained. But Alexander’s gift of a National Review subscription to Max when he was thirteen left a lasting imprint. The younger Boot absorbed the worldview of its writers, ranging from the reactionary Austrian aristocrat Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn to William F. Buckley Jr. himself. Boot also read up on the standard conservative texts: Whittaker Chambers’s Witness, F. A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, and Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind. Ronald Reagan, who inveighed against the “evil empire” that Max and his parents had fled, was Boot’s contemporary hero. The liberals who preached détente with the Soviet Union, or even accommodation, were the new appeasers.

Boot’s dream was to become the next Buckley or George Will. At his bar mitzvah ceremony, he ignored the usual Torah theme to deliver an impassioned defense of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1983. According to Boot, his remarks “displayed my precocity, my attachment to Israel, a country I had not yet visited—and my questionable judgment, since the invasion would turn out to be a fiasco that would embroil Israel in a Vietnam-like quagmire.”

As an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, Boot played the part of adversary, battling against the campus left. Upon graduation, he went to work at the Christian Science Monitor. But his true aspiration was to become an editor for the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, which under the direction of the brilliantly talented polemicist Robert L. Bartley had become an ideological battering ram on behalf of supply-side economics and a hawkish foreign policy.

Boot says that in 1994 he received a call that Bartley wanted to meet with him. He reckoned that Bartley would want to talk about his political philosophy. Instead, Bartley mentioned that he had two positions open, one for an editorial writer on economic issues, another as an assistant op-ed writer. Boot explained that he knew nothing about economics. This pleased Bartley. “I later learned,” Boot writes, “that he liked to take writers who did not know much about the subject and train them in his way of thinking.”

In the end, Boot took the latter position, and quickly plunged into the social whirl of the cloistered New York conservative world. He attended dinners at the Manhattan Institute and went to the monthly “Monday Meeting,” where conservative activists promoted everything from the gold standard to Central Park’s horse-drawn carriages. He says he became a “made man” in 2007 when he won the Eric Breindel Award for Excellence in Opinion Journalism, which was established by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. and is bestowed annually on a writer who exhibits a “love of country and its democratic institutions” and “bears witness to the evils of totalitarianism.”

But Boot had contrarian instincts from the outset at the Journal. He once invited a Princeton professor named Paul Krugman to write an op-ed critical of supply-side economics, which almost prompted Bartley to fire him. Needless to say, it never ran. “This was an early indication,” Boot writes, “that groupthink could be just as tenacious on the right as on the left.” Boot also confesses that he found it difficult to decipher the baroque conspiracy theories that Bartley and his acolytes concocted about Bill and Hillary Clinton involving Whitewater, the airport in Mena, Arkansas, and the death of Vince Foster. “I thought he was a deeply flawed man,” Boot says of Clinton, “but I appreciated the achievements of his presidency.” But Boot subordinated any reservations he may have felt in order to promote the Reaganite principles of free trade and a crusading foreign policy.

One of the more unusual aspects of The Corrosion of Conservatism is Boot’s acknowledgment that Trump did not emerge from out of nowhere. “There is no doubt that there has always been a dark underside to conservatism, and one that I chose for most of my life to ignore,” he writes. For all the political right’s hosannas for Buckley, he established the revanchist conservatism that views compromise, either at home or abroad, as tantamount to treason. It’s important to remember that Buckley began his career by supporting the iniquitous Joseph McCarthy—a sentiment he never repudiated—and that he viewed Dwight Eisenhower as a dangerous establishment Republican who refused to liberate eastern Europe militarily and failed to roll back the New Deal. Nor was this all. Buckley also opposed the civil rights movement and for decades supported the apartheid regime in South Africa. Even as they decried the Soviet Union and China for human rights violations, Buckley and other conservatives were remorseless apologists for one of the most odious regimes in the world.

After McCarthy’s demise, the GOP remained addicted to conspiracy mongering. Boot usefully reminds us that Phyllis Schlafly’s 1964 best-selling tract A Choice Not an Echo suggested that hidden kingmakers were preventing Republican presidential candidates from winning. “It wasn’t any accident,” she claimed. “It was planned that way” by New York financiers who supported “a continuation of the Roosevelt–Harry Dexter White–Averell Harriman–Dean Acheson–Dean Rusk policy of aiding and abetting Red Russia and her satellites.” The failure to distinguish between White, who was a Soviet agent, and Acheson, who was not, wasn’t any accident, either. The message was that egghead liberals, whatever they might say about battling communism, were, at bottom, traitors.

One of the more unusual aspects of The Corrosion of Conservatism is Boot’s acknowledgment that Trump did not emerge from out of nowhere. “There is no doubt that there has always been a dark underside to conservatism, and one that I chose for most of my life to ignore,” he writes.

The populist style often played a key role in helping Republican candidates win elections. But Boot distinguishes between a populist pose and actual populism. For him, the breaking point began with Sarah Palin and ended with Trump. In his view, “[t]he rise of Palin and now Trump indicates that the GOP really truly has become the stupid party. Its primary vibe has become one of indiscriminate, unthinking, all-consuming anger.” Boot himself warned against the rise of a meretricious populism in a 1994 Wall Street Journal column in which he maintained that the GOP should not “ ‘Rush’ to embrace talk show democracy.” He now denounces Fox News and figures like Dinesh D’Souza and Ann Coulter for peddling conspiracy theories on Trump’s behalf.

Perhaps the most notable part of Boot’s book is his willingness to face up to the fiasco that was the Iraq War. He notes that for years he felt defensive about his support for it and was too stubborn to cede any ground to his critics. “It is not nearly as easy to remake a foreign land by force as I had naively imagined in 2003,” he writes. And he recognizes that the catastrophic policies he espoused helped create the terrain for Trump to rumble to victory. In listening to Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, Boot says that he recognizes “my callow, earlier self. Bolton, a conservative firebrand since his days as a student at Yale University in the early 1970s, is whom I used to be.”

Boot thus differs from the many other NeverTrumpers who often fail to recognize that belligerent policies have led to disaster at home as well as abroad. He issues a scorching indictment of the GOP: “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.” Indeed, he concludes, “having escaped the corrosion of conservatism, I am a political Ronin, and will swear allegiance to no master in the future. I will fight for my principles wherever they may lead me.”

There’s a whiff of grandiosity in this declaration. Like Whittaker Chambers, who pioneered the breaking-ranks genre in Witness, Boot takes an apocalyptic view of politics. But his readiness to reexamine his old convictions is admirable. If it ends up prompting him to sign up as a Democrat, then his neocon journey will have come full circle.

Jacob Heilbrunn

Jacob Heilbrunn, a frequent contributor to the Washington Monthly, is the editor of the National Interest and the author of They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons.