The Ugly Departure of Max Boot

Charlie Cooke
Max Boot on Real Time with Bill Maher (via YouTube)

Since Max Boot was reborn in the age of Trump, he’s decided that conservatism — pretty much all of it — was corrupt from the start.

Max Boot and I agree on quite a few things with regard to Donald Trump and even a couple of things about today’s GOP. So I understand — and empathize with — his account of how the rise of Trump could cause him to take a rigorous personal inventory and prompt him to embark on his “ideological journey.” But I find the spectacle of it quite ugly.

I have many problems with Max’s approach, but I will focus on two. First, he essentially admits — in his book and in interviews — that he didn’t do much firsthand analysis of conservatism and many conservative positions.  The election of Donald Trump caused him to question the conservative movement he’d aligned himself with since he was a teenager, and:

Upon closer examination, it’s obvious that the history of modern conservatism 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!

On most public controversies, he outsourced his convictions to those on the right he trusted or to conservative conventional wisdom and merely focused on his core issues. His adherence to a conservative party line was “a process of indoctrination — largely self-indoctrination, I should add — that took decades and that I am only now escaping.”

On one level, I don’t have a huge problem with Boot’s reliance on others. Every columnist, on both the right and the left, relies on experts, authorities, and colleagues they trust to do some of the heavy lifting for them. Whenever I write about guns, I always try to talk to someone like Charlie Cooke. When I write about North Korea, I make sure to talk to or read Nick Eberstadt. I don’t see this as “indoctrination” but education — and argumentation — because I will try to listen to the other side as well.

It’s also worth noting that I don’t recognize the ideological monolith Boot has discovered in hindsight. Indeed, at National Review, we’ve always celebrated the fact that conservatives are far more ideologically heterogeneous than the stereotypes (that was the original idea for the Corner — to show how conservatives could disagree with one another). And it should be admitted, forthrightly, that National Review has its own baggage on issues of race and other topics (as does, for example, The New Republic and virtually every old intellectual journal).

Regardless, it’s fine if Boot didn’t know much about conservative intellectual history and just took it on faith or extrapolated from the non-racists he worked among that they in fact represented his cause. And it’s even good that he admits it now. But since Boot has become reborn in the age of Trump, he’s decided that conservatism — pretty much all of it — was corrupt and he just never noticed. He has simply gone from defending one stereotype to attacking another. As Charlie puts it in his review of Max’s book:

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.

Leave aside the fact I don’t agree with Boot’s history of conservatism, nor am I inclined to outsource my judgment to his given how his emotions so clearly are in the driver’s seat. Nor am I moved by his constant conflation of the GOP with intellectual conservatism. It is the second part of my problem with Boot’s approach that bothers me the most. He is constantly boasting about his virtue while often claiming anyone who still holds the conservative positions he once did must be doing so in bad faith or be suffering from ideological indoctrination of the sort he suffered from. In fairness, he will sometimes check himself with a “to be sure” qualification about how there are a handful of “good conservatives” out there, but they are always the exceptions to the rule.

For instance, his Washington Post column on Tuesday was titled “I was wrong on climate change. Why can’t other conservatives admit it, too?” You would think with a headline like that, the column itself would provide an argument about conservatives. Instead we get a whole column demonstrating his commitment to liberal party line on climate change and a single paragraph of raw assertion tacked on at the end:

I’ve owned up to the danger. Why haven’t other conservatives? They are captives, first and foremost, of the fossil fuel industry, which outspent green groups 10 to 1 in lobbying on climate change from 2000 to 2016. But they are also captives of their own rigid ideology. It is a tragedy for the entire planet that the United States’ governing party is impervious to science and reason.

I see. So everyone on the right whom Boot once agreed with — at the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere — either is lying because they’ve whored themselves out to the fossil-fuel industry, or is an ideologically blinded zealot “impervious to science and reason.” And he knows this . . . how? Mind reading? Clearly — or at least presumably — he didn’t know this when he himself was a climate-change skeptic. Instead he’s discovered the truth about everyone who holds something like his old position only after he’s decided they’re all terrible in other ways, too.

There are a lot of different views on climate change on the right. (I myself am mostly in the Matt Ridley “lukewarmer” camp.) But he ignores all of the competing views in favor of an argument that amounts to little more than fan service for liberal readers. One can believe that climate change is a real concern, with some legitimate science on its side, while also believing there is a range of available policy options that do not conform to the liberal party line and declining to act in a spirit of righteous panic. (Noah Rothman notes how the enlightened position on climate change must always be even more “hysteria.”) Acknowledging this is not an option for Boot because he is a modern Diogenes, carrying his lamp by day in search of the last honest man on the right. But since he departed, there are none to be found.

Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute and is a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, is on sale now.