The Republican Party will survive the defection of Max Boot, the neoconservative military historian, think tanker and, until this week, lifelong Republican. But will Max Boot survive his defection?
Politicians who change sides are treated with suspicion, as though they have betrayed their principles. But commentators get an easier ride than they used to. In the deranged heyday of 20th-century politics, when the party was the family you always wished you’d had, the schism was so total that the splitters had to get new friends and new wives along with their new allegiances. The thinning of political convictions, and the thickening of media opportunities with the advent of cable news, lowered the cost of changing sides.
Boot already has one foot on the liberal ground at CNN. The other, once he had extricated it from the sands of the Iraq War, is on the Council of Foreign Relations. There is nothing so appealing to the virtuous as the penitent. Boot’s earlier transgressions — his enthusiasm for the invasion of Iraq, his insistence on the pursuit of a lost war — will be overlooked by pro-Democratic media, just as pro-Republican media overlooked the moral idiocies that littered the past of Christopher Hitchens after his conversion from barroom Trotskyite to armchair general.
Yesterday, I heard Boot on NPR; the traffic was slow, and the classical station had a fundraising drive. He confessed about calling for war in Iraq, consented to mild flagellation about Barry Goldwater, and agreed that the Party of Lincoln has been a racist party since the early Sixties. This would suggest that the Republicans are irredeemable — the party of Deporables and other non-NPR listeners. But Boot suggested that Republicans concerned about redeeming the racist Republican soul can do just that by voting Democratic in the midterms, and continuing to vote Democratic until the party gets the message.
Boot’s suggestion that the Republican Party can only be reformed if it internalises a series of catastrophic defeats is a domestic inversion of the Shock and Awe strategy that he liked in Iraq. It’s about as logical as Thomas Friedman, that pastiche of a thinking person, saying that American troops should democratise Iraq by going house to house from Basra to Baghdad. It goes against historical pattern, too. Political parties, like the factions in Iraq, respond to defeat by radicalising in defense of their ideologies. And democracy, whether you’re sustaining it or trying to build it, cannot work by force, only suasion.
So Boot hasn’t learnt anything from the Iraq fiasco, other than that he was wrong, which everyone else knew years ago; that the Bush administration, by stumbling dumbly into Iraq while it mismanaged the economy, made the Republican Party look like stumbling, dumb mismanagers; and that force remains the way to get what you want. The road from Baghdad leads to the road to Damascus. But why would voting Democratic fix any of that?
The Obama administration continued Bush’s dumb wars, poking the hornet’s nest of Islamism with drone strikes and special forces while telling the public that the wars were over. The Obama administration doubled the deficit, too, though few noticed, because the pro-Democratic media that had told us that the deficit was the biggest issue in the 2008 election suddenly found that it didn’t matter at all, now that their man had the national credit card. The Obama administration followed the Clinton and Bush administrations in the frivolous use of military force to make a point on the evening news.
The Democratic party are the other parent of the monster child that is Trumpism. Why would voting for a party controlled by Clintonites and staffed by the cadres of Sanders chasten the Republicans and fix the system?
Boot is right to be alarmed by Donald Trump’s electoral victory of 2016, by the Trump family’s questionable financial associations, and by Trump’s egotism, misogyny and race-baiting. Boot is also right to be alarmed at the tolerance the Republicans have long shown for know-nothings, racists and theocrats.
Better, then, to hand the reins to the Democrats, the party of Bill Clinton, the president who incarcerated millions of black men, bombed the Russian embassy in Belgrade, failed to take Osama bin Laden seriously, created an unsustainable mortgage bubble, set up a foundation for the laundering of ‘donations’ from foreign powers, and has been accused of multiple sexual assaults.
Boot believes that he has no choice. He says that a third party could never alter the landscape, even though Ross Perot’s run was crucial to Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992; and despite the 2016 campaigns of Sanders and Trump, both of them third-party candidates in all but party name. A third party does not need a majority; it only needs to drive a wedge into the centre, sufficient to force the larger parties to moderate their policies. Yet Boot advocates a knee-jerk recourse to the Democrats, and a pattern of voting as rigid as that of his former Republicanism.
True, the current Republican Party is a living mockery of conservative principles. But it is not clear why a Democratic Party increasingly enthralled by socialism and the isolationism of the left would welcome someone like Boot, a classical liberal and centrist. Boot would do better trying to reform the Republicans, or even adopting the strategy that the largest segment of the electorate already use. Independent voters look at candidates and issues on grounds of merit, not increasingly antique notions of party loyalty.
Sooner or later, Trump will be out of office. The dysfunction that produced him will remain. For the problem is much bigger than the decay of one party or the other.
Compound the ethical and strategic corruption of the Clinton years with the military and economic frivolity of the Bush years, and you have the corruption and frivolity not just of Trump, but of all current American politics, which is rendered absurd and destructive by the trivialisation of politics as entertainment, a chronic failure to accept the truth of bipartisan culpability, and a pandering unwillingness to address a related truth, the public’s repeated preference for hedonism over seriousness.
Boot entitles his apologia The Corrosion of Conservatism, but his change of heart is not a change of mind. He offers no solutions, only further proofs of a corrosion endemic to American politics.
Dominic Green is Life & Arts Editor of Spectator USA.