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The gods that failed

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This is pretty awesome in a horrifying way:

When Max Boot was a young conservative apparatchik on the make, the key moment in his career occurred when he got a meeting with Robert Bartley, editor of The Wall Street Journal editorial page, one of the movement’s most prestigious and influential organs. To Boot’s surprise, Bartley offered him a job as economics editorialist. The prospect “horrified” him, he writes in his new memoir and critiqueThe Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right, because he “had never taken a class in the subject and had no interest in it.” Boot later learned that Bartley sought out conservatives unfamiliar with economics for such jobs. “He did not want to hire an economist because most professional economists disdained supply-side economics,” which is to say, an inability to see through the pseudo-economic nonsense was a cherished attribute.

Boot is an interesting figure, because he is one of a tiny handful of life-long conservatives who have recognized that rejecting Donald Trump means rejecting the movement that made Trump’s political career possible, i.e., modern American conservatism:

The truly radical act in The Corrosion of Conservatism is its clear-eyed excavation of the movement’s history. The right has spent decades regurgitating a potted version of their own history that is so selective and sanitized that it amounts to an upside-down version of reality. The conservative creation myth, which any right-wing pundit, intern, or congressional staffer could recite from memory, runs as follows: In the mid-1950s, conservatism lacked any form or intellectual coherence. Then William F. Buckley emerged to build conservatism as a serious movement of ideas. He purged the Birchers, instilled intellectual rigor in the movement, and while their first foray into elective politics, the Barry Goldwater campaign, failed, it set the stage for the triumphs of Ronald Reagan and his successors.

Even many anti-Trump conservatives cling tightly to this mythical history. It is the foundation of a much weaker book of the same form by Charlie Sykes. A conservative talk-show host, Sykes turned against Trump, and spends his book grappling inconclusively about how the great movement of Buckley and Goldwater took a sharp and inexplicable turn into Trumpism.

Boot acknowledges that he, too, subscribed to this myth. But revisiting that past, he discovers something very familiar. Conservatism trafficked all along in anti-intellectualism, bigotry, ideological radicalism, and loopy conspiracy theories. The conservative movement was a revolt against the moderation of mainstream Republicans like Dwight Eisenhower while fiercely defending the vicious lies of Joe McCarthy. Buckley renounced the president of the John Birch Society while continuing to endorse the organization itself, which was a large and powerful constituency. While most mainstream Republicans at the time supported civil rights, conservatives opposed those mainstream leaders for that very reason. Conservatives understood very clearly at the time that their project of turning the Republican Party into a vehicle for conservatism required prying millions of white segregationists from the Democratic Party.

Boot is not so reductive as to depict Trump as the inevitable historical consequence of conservatism’s historical arc. He is able to acknowledge that Trump is both a freakish outlier and an authentic outgrowth of conservatism. The movement had cultivated an atmosphere congenial to his bigoted demagoguery, and a freakishly dangerous figure walked through the door conservatism had opened for him.

Among Boot’s former comrades, the rise of the conservative movement is the unquestioned shining past to which every faction lays claim. Boot is making an astonishing break in his suggestion that the Republicanism of Eisenhower was actually good, and that the conservative alternative of McCarthy, Buckley, and Goldwater was misguided. His analysis is as heretical as an orthodox Communist arguing in the 1950s that the problem with the Soviet Union began with the October Revolution. Ross Douthatwrote a New York Times column politely inviting Boot not to return to the GOP. Some of his former cadres think he has gone insane. “Calling Barry Goldwater an ‘extremist,’” complains conservative columnist Jay Caruso, “is not ‘reasoned criticism.’” (Goldwater, of course, famously declared, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” which was a forthright defense of his belief that liberty required such radical steps as risking nuclear war to liberate territory from Soviet control and tearing down vast swaths of the government.)

But it is hard to see any choice between Boot’s radical surgery, which will require ripping the party’s conservative dogma out by the roots, and disaster for the brand of center-right values he espouses. The disaster may take the form of Trump and his party continuing their lurch into authoritarianism, which increasingly offers the only avenue for imposing unpopular policies on taxes, spending, and regulation demanded by its plutocratic base. Or it may involve the Republican Party discrediting itself irrevocably, as polarization allows Democrats to move farther and farther left without losing the loyalty of a base that will never forgive the party of Trump. A disaffected foot soldier from the conservative movement can now clearly see that the party’s salvation lies in prying it free of conservative control.

Jon doesn’t put it quite so bluntly, but the most likely explanation for Boot’s intellectual and social defection — not a small matter for a man who has spent his life at the very core of American conservatism — is that he’s a Russian Jew by birth, i.e., someone who has always been in something of a liminal position in regard to that movement, and whose background gives him every reason to view ethno-nationalist authoritarianism with the disgust it should elicit in any decent person.

Speaking of Russia, when the histories of American movement conservatism’s rise and fall are written, the parallels with the rise and fall of Soviet communism will be interesting.  I was reading recently about the death of Stalin, and was struck by how men like Molotov and Malenkov seemed genuinely heartbroken at his deathbed, even though they were well aware they themselves were falling out of favor, and that Stalin’s death may well have saved their lives (It’s also possible that they may have participated in bringing his death about for that very reason, which, even if true, doesn’t necessarily make their grief any less genuine).

Trump is not Stalin, the Republican party isn’t the CPSU, and 2018 isn’t 1953, but authoritarian cults of personality all have certain things in common.  One of those things is that they produce stories of defectors who come to recognize these movements for what they are. Those storytellers should be praised for acts of intellectual and — even more so — emotional renunciation, that will always remain beyond the capacities of good party men.

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