Book review: The Corrosion of Conservatism

Robert Philpot investigates wrecked Republicanism


The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right By Max Boot
Liveright, £17.99


‘November 8 2016,” writes Max Boot in the opening line of The Corrosion of Conservatism, was “one of the most demoralising days of my life”.

He is far from alone in finding Donald Trump’s election profoundly depressing. What makes his perspective important, however, is Boot’s conservative pedigree.

An immigrant at six with his Russian Jewish parents, Boot has near-impeccable credentials. A campus “conservative troublemaker” whose intellectual idol was William F Buckley and political hero Ronald Reagan, Max Boot was a youthful Wall Street Journal op-ed editor, the Council on Foreign Relations’ resident man of the right, and an adviser to Republican presidential candidates John McCain, Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio.

In 2016, he crossed the aisle to vote for Hillary Clinton, having watched with horror Donald Trump seize his one-time party’s presidential nomination. Among the “precious few” leading conservatives who similarly refused to back the President, Jews played a prominent and honourable role, with the likes of David Frum, William Kristol and John Podhoretz joining the ranks of the “conscientious objectors”.

Boot rehearses President Trump’s many “transgressions against common decency and good sense — and quite possibly the law itself”. But what makes his book so compelling is the author’s surgical dissection of the Republican party’s appeasement of, and then utter surrender to, a man who trampled on many of the principles — from fiscal responsibility to free trade and internationalism — that it once championed.

As Boot admits, there is a question that still “haunts” him — did his own advocacy of conservatism “contribute to the rise of this dark force in American life”? He bravely accepts that he ignored “the tide of extremism” that was rising on the right long before Donald Trump’s political ascent.

However, this is not just a highly readable guide to the moral and intellectual weaknesses of contemporary US conservatism. British ears will detect familiar echoes of the rise of Jeremy Corbyn. Despite their obvious differences, the President and Labour leader are in many regards simply opposite sides of the populist coin.

Max Boot’s characterisation of the conservative movement — its conspiracy-mongering and heretic-hunting, cult of personality, narrative of betrayal and “indiscriminate, unthinking, all-consuming anger” — has strong parallels with the hard left that now dominates the Labour party. Moreover, few will fail to recognise, too, the manner in which that takeover has, as with Donald Trump’s of the Republican party, been aided and abetted by politicians who should have known better but “in lieu of principles… had poll numbers”.


Robert Philpot is a freelance writer

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