Pissing over a pissyv little pissant. Preamble:
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?
Or is it perhaps time to consider another option: stand aside and watch as what we’ve been pleased to misnomer “conservatism” for all these years continues to shrink away until it vanishes into the ether, a victim of its cringing eagerness to hoover up whatever measly crumbs Left/liberalism might deign to toss out for their tame “opposition” to consume? But on to the pleasure of reducing the contemptible Max Boot to his constituent atoms:
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.
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?
I’d guess the same as it did for temporary faux-conservatives like Jennifer Rubin or Andrew Sullivan: a convenient, comforting citadel from which they could advocate for Endless War after having had the wits frightened out of them when the 9/11 attacks hit just a little too close to home for them—quite literally, in some cases.
Boot is keeping company with all the other gormless NeverTrump irrelevancies like George Will, Jeff Fake, Kap’n Bill “Krunchberries” Kristol, and NRO entire in their sudden but well-earned obscurity. And really, the thing that pulled the rug out from under them all is also the very thing that makes any attempt to resuscitate or defend now-remaindered “conservativism” itself pointless: the ground has shifted under their very feet, without their knowlege or permission, and they lack the legerdemain to adapt. The political terrain has been radically altered, necessitating an equally-radical new approach by anyone hoping to negotiate it successfully.
The Old Guard is now simply lost, with only a tattered, outdated map by which to navigate. Whatever influence Boot and the rest may once have (arguably) enjoyed, they for sure and certain have none now. Their input is no longer solicited, needed, or even wanted, least of all by the Left from which they now must openly seek succor. If moribund “conservatism” has become naught but a dead end, a nullity, then how much more profoundly so must its false advocates be? Even abandoning their gossamer-thin masquerade can avail the homeless NeverTrumpTard vagabonds but little now, as they all drift away on a new, fresher breeze like the wraiths of nothingness that, despite their pretention and posturing, they always really were. The denouement:
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.
Trust me, we will. In fact, most of us aren’t even listening to babbling boobs like Boot anymore, those who ever even did. He’d probably have difficulty “influencing” the corner bodega enough to cream and sugar the coffee for him these days, I’d bet. Which public loss of face is the sharpest cut of all for people like these; for them, it’s the blow to the ego that really smarts.