Max Boot is the latest former GOP operative to write a book explaining why they left the Republican party. Like David Frum, Bill Kristol, George Will, and Rick Wilson, the election of Donald Trump forced Boot to look at the ideological bubble he had long lived in and he came to some unsettling conclusions.
Like most conservatives I know, Max Boot had a very shallow reading of the foundational texts, speeches, and compiled histories of the modern conservative movement. Boot admits to shrugging off criticisms of the GOP as having a racist and misogynist bent as hysterical liberal propaganda. The more liberals and journalists pointed to academics (ie, historians) as having an overwhelming consensus that the GOP post-Goldwater was built on a racist ‘Southern Strategy’ the more conservatives waved off academia as yet another leftist enemy. But as a Jewish conservative born in Russia, the rise of Donald Trump and his anti-Muslim rhetoric and policies forced Boot to reevaluate his position.
In Boot’s own words:
In 1964, the GOP ceased to be the party of Lincoln and became the party of Southern whites. As I now look back with the clarity of hindsight, I am convinced that coded racial appeals had at least as much, if not more, to do with the electoral success of the modern Republican Party than all of the domestic and foreign policy proposals crafted by well-intentioned analysts like me. This is what liberals have been saying for decades. I never believed them.
Liberals have been saying this for decades because historians have been telling them this is what happened. And historians have not based this on their liberal beliefs. We can point you to all the documents where the conservative politicians and operatives at the time LITERALLY SAID THEY WERE DOING THIS. Just like the Confederate apologists of the Dunning School who promote the idea that the Civil War was not about slavery (it was, every single declaration and new constitution the terrorist slave owners wrote said so directly), the modern conservative movement likes to whitewash this ugly truth. There is no getting around the Southern Strategy. There is no getting around the defense of segregation that William Buckley and the Goldwater-forward GOP mounted. They never reversed course on these.
And as Jane Coaston reminds us, black Republicans and conservatives tried to warn the movement this was happening at the time.
Boot has been reminding us frequently that it is not just the establishment of the GOP that has sold itself out to Trump. It is a malignancy at the core of conservatism that has created a disgusting base. Where young conservative kids at college once flocked to see educated and erudite lectures from William F Buckley, they now come to cheer “the boorish and racist performance art of Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter.”
The career of Dinesh D’Souza is indicative of the downward trajectory of conservatism. He made his name with a well-regarded 1991 book denouncing political correctness and championing liberal education. Then he wrote a widely panned 1995 book claiming that racism was no more, and it was all downhill from there. In 2014 he pleaded guilty to breaking campaign finance laws. Now, as the Daily Beast notes, he has become a conspiratorial crank who has suggested that the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville was staged by liberals, that Barack Obama is a “gay Muslim” and Michelle Obama is a man and that Adolf Hitler, who sent 50,000 homosexuals to prison, “was NOT anti-gay.” He managed to sink even lower last week by mocking stunned Parkland school-shooting survivors after the Florida legislature defeated a bill to ban assault weapons: “Worst news since their parents told them to get summer jobs.”
It is hard to imagine anything more cruel and heartless, but for a bottom-feeder like D’Souza it’s all in a day’s work. As he wrote in his 2002 book “Letters to a Young Conservative,” “One way to be effective as a conservative is to figure out what annoys and disturbs liberals the most, and then keep doing it.” That, in a nutshell, is the credo of today’s high-profile conservatives: Say anything to “trigger” the “libtards” and “snowflakes.” The dumber and more offensive, the better. Whatever it takes to get on (and stay on) Fox News and land the next book contract!
Conservative media and the grassroots of the GOP really latched on to the “Basket of Deplorables” phrase Hillary dropped. The phrase may have been new, but the conservative outrage at the suggestion that racism was part of their party platform or political movement is the great personal outrage that they use to justify all sorts of gross behavior. Boot spoke about this idea at length:
I can talk about my own blindness. I thought, “I’m not racist. And I’m a Republican. So it seems like a gross libel to accuse Republicans and conservatives of being racist if I personally am not racist.” And what I’ve realized is there are a lot of racists that the Republican Party is appealing to. There’s also been a disconnect between what Republicans do in office and what they do on the campaign trail. Because going back to 1964, when the parties basically switched positions on civil rights, Republicans have been appealing for white votes with coded racial appeals. Whether it was Nixon’s Southern strategy, or in 1980 Ronald Reagan kicking off his general election campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, or the Willie Horton ad from George H.W. Bush. You can point to all these examples. But when you look at the actual Republican presidents and leaders, I think they were actually decent people who weren’t delivering on this white-power agenda that a lot of their supporters might have been led to think they would deliver on. And so you had a disconnect between the Republican Party on the campaign trail and the Republican Party in power. Trump exploited that, because he has no compunctions about doing in office the kind of things that previous Republican standard-bearers only hinted at on the campaign trail. And he is tapping into frustration in ranks with what they see as being RINOs, as Republicans in Name Only. What I think they mean by that is candidates who did not deliver on the kind of racist, xenophobic, white-power agenda that a lot of Republicans would actually like to see. Before Donald Trump, the Republican Party was a majority conservative party with a white nationalist fringe. Now it’s a white nationalist party with a conservative fringe.
I’ve written about this extensively. As Boot said here, Trump simply made explicit things that Republican politicians had winked at for decades. Because Trump is incapable of nuance and has no capacity to temper himself in front of a mic, he says loudly the part that is supposed to be quiet. Indeed, Trump repeatedly accused establishment Republicans of not following through on their wink-wink, nudge-nudge racism and promised he would. And the people love him for it. As Boot said, RINO came to be an absurd and perverted dog whistle for “pretend racist.” Boot, like many other serious and thoughtful conservatives, saw this and had to think about just who makes up the coalition they belong to. I’d argue he came to the wrong conclusion. While I believe the establishment was largely a conservative party with a white nationalist fringe, the base has always held these views. It is what animates so much of the anti-establishment self-loathing we’ve seen in the conservative movement and media since Obama was elected (if not earlier).
Indeed, Boot seems to admit it on occasion:
There is a small group of “Never Trump” conservatives. But it is a small group, and I’ve actually been surprised that there are not more of us. There’s enough of us for a dinner party, not a political party. I wish there were more. Within the grassroots, a lot of people really love the Trump message, the racism, the xenophobia, the nonstop insults against liberals. That’s actually what they like most about him. And in Washington, there are a lot of cynical people who say, “Well, Trump has the support of 84 percent of Republicans, so we can’t get on his bad side.” These people that I used to admire have sold out their principles. Nobody’s more shocked and surprised than I am. This is a movement to which I dedicated my whole life. And now I realize, what the hell was that about? Who were these people? They’re not who I thought they were.
That grassroots is the party. You can stand for your principles and be primaried or you can reverse course on nearly everything you have ever said you believe, point to a couple of things that are consistent with your earlier beliefs (“see, we are getting conservative judges!” or “tax cuts!!!”) and say pathetic things like “he fights” to defend the indefensible.
Serious question. Has any single American politician ever displayed less spine and more cravenness than Ted Cruz?
From publicly calling for Republicans to vote their conscious to begging Donald Trump to come campaign for him in Texas, Ted Cruz lit his dignity on fire and abandoned his principles to remain a Senator. Not a Senator who accomplishes anything he cares deeply about. Just a Senator. He faced the same crossroads that people like Max Boot did and said “fuck it, I really like being a Senator.” What could be more “establishment” than that, Ted?
Boot had some interesting things to say about Lindsey Graham and Paul Ryan (and indirectly Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio) on With Friends Like These. To summarize, he is shocked that they all care more about tax cuts and clinging to power than upholding their principles, dignity, or conservative ideology. Kanye West isn’t the only sad sack willing to sell out at the altar of Trump.
I don’t know what the GOP equivalent of being called Sambo is, but I propose we just call it Ted. Lying Ted, if you want a full formal name.
In Boot’s liberal podcast/media blitz, one thing has really jumped out at me– his repeated claims (accurate, in my mind) that there is no pay off to saying you are wrong in our current political climate. The people who agreed with you before will hate you and the people you are now agreeing with will still hate you. This passage from speaking with David Corn on a Mother Jones podcast illustrates it well:
Well, a general danger of punditry is that there’s very little incentive to change your position or admit error. If you reverse your position, the people who backed you before will be unhappy, but a lot of the people who now agree with you will still pillory you. I’ve gotten that on Twitter; I’m called a war criminal and told that I’m being opportunistic in renouncing the Iraq War. And so these people on the left are basically saying, “Too late. You can’t renounce your beliefs.” There’s very little incentive, from a political economy standpoint, for people to reverse field. And a lot of disincentives. You see that now with Trump, who claimed the handling of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, where 3,000 Americans died, was a tremendous success. And he’s rewarded for that by his followers. I mean, the Trump theory is that if you admit error then you’re showing weakness and you’re going to get destroyed politically. You can argue that could be correct, as a matter of politics. Obviously, as a matter of intellectual honesty and accuracy, it’s an appalling standard by which to hold yourself.
The way progressives treat the Iraq war and the George W. Bush administration, in general, has always bothered me. The rhetoric that was used to oppose Bush was over the top and contributed to the sort of eye-rolling “look at the crazy liberals” mindset that prevents them from effectively countering Donald Trump. The Liberals Who Cried Wolf. Post-Cold War academia was awash with theories that supported the Neocon position in Iraq. The end of history and the ultimate triumph of democracy were not simply conservative positions– it was widely held on across the spectrum. 9/11 only reinforced that view– that the new threat would be rogue actors and terrorists. Destroying their safe havens would lead to a vacuum that liberal democracy would fill. Want proof that this was a bipartisan view? Look at the Senate vote to go to war in Iraq. Look at liberal political and social support for the Arab Spring. We were all wrong.
When progressives play this tribal game of demeaning conservatives (or more moderate liberals) no matter what they say or do they play right into Trump’s hands. But it serves the progressive goal well. The battle over the soul of the Democratic party is one of the moderates who look only a little different than the defunct neocon movement (basically, add caring about black people and women but keep all the foreign policy and basic economic views) and progressives who want to take a hard turn left. It is little surprise that progressives take shots at people like Boot– they said the same things about Hillary and are trying to create a liberal purity test that will rival the Tea Party/Freedom Caucus/Trumpian one on the right.
This is as intellectually dishonest and damaging when the left does it as when the right does it. It creates echo chambers that cannot admit being wrong, cannot see nuance, and cannot compromise. It is arrogant and dangerous.
We live at a crossroads in American political history. The GOP appears to have made its bet. It is now the party of white grievances, white nationalism, patriarchy, huge military budgets focused on 20th-century style arms, protectionist trade policies, and an open promoter of evangelical Christianity over all other forms of religion. The never-Trumpers have either been reabsorbed, using something petty like the Kavanagh confirmation as cover for rejoining the tribe (like Erick Erickson) or they are leaving the party and existing in political limbo like Max Boot.
What comes next is up to liberals and the Democratic party. I fear the changes made to the superdelegate process opens the DNC up to the same chicanery that led to Donald Trump on the right. While I hold some progressive views, namely in civil rights and environmental protection, I also believe deeply that de jure changes only work if de facto cultural processes happen with them. We need a broader coalition than just progressives and the left of center Democrats. I favor alliance with the moderate Republicans. I think there are enough left (that 16% of GOPers who do not approve of Trump, the ones who left, and probably some tepid Trump supporters who simply reflexively fear liberals) to forge a strong party that could institute lasting change on racial, gender, and sexual equality, promote a stable foreign policy (like the one that has kept the world fairly safe for the last 70 plus years), a tax code that is more fair to working Americans and less of a give away to the super wealthy, and craft economic policies that promote innovation and competition without burdening small businesses with unnecessary red tape and clogging up the market with negative unintended consequences. We won’t agree on everything. And that is ok. In fact, it is good. Coalitions that work in lockstep are blind to the unintended consequences of their actions. They are inherently authoritarian.
I choose the messy, frustrating, slow, and tough process of governing through democracy.