CALIFORNIA Magazine: In the prologue of your new book, The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right, you say you are now “perceiving ugly truths about America and about conservatism that other people had long seen but I turned a blind eye to.” What are some of those ugly truths?
Max Boot: As an immigrant who came to America from the Soviet Union in 1976, age 6, I always had a fairly romantic view of the United States as the land of freedom and opportunity. I quickly became a conservative because conservatives were anti-Communist. I loved the Reagan brand of conservatism: an inclusive ideology that was pro-trade and pro-immigration, in favor of free markets and a limited government, supportive of American international leadership and a strong defense—and standing up to dictatorships such as the USSR. I closed my eyes to the fact that a lot of people in the Republican Party did not share my version of conservatism. There were a lot of protectionists, isolationists, racists, and nativists, many of whom had migrated from the Democratic Party when it embraced civil rights in 1964–1965. Republicans dog-whistled toward these “deplorable” elements, but I didn’t really notice it until it became a wolf-whistle under Trump.
For years I indignantly denied that Republicans were racist. I now realize that the liberal critics were right. Certainly not all conservatives hold these views, but a far larger number than I had realized. Trump has figured out how to mobilize them, transforming the GOP from a conservative party with a white nationalist fringe, into a white nationalist party with a conservative fringe.
CM: Elsewhere in the book you write, “My ideology has come into conflict with reality—and reality is winning.” Reality doesn’t always win out over ideology. To the contrary, it seems that most of us deal with cognitive dissonance by doubling down on our beliefs. What made you reexamine them instead?
MB: It’s true that people have a powerful tendency to shoehorn “reality” into preconceived ideological molds. I did the same thing myself for many years. What really woke me up was the shock of the 2016 election. I saw the Republican Party switch its position on issue after issue—going from free trade to protectionist, from pro-immigration to nativist, from tough on Russia to appeasing Russia, from fiscal discipline to fiscal irresponsibility, from defending the rule of law to undermining it. That made me reexamine what the Republican Party was all about—and made me realize that a lot of the trends that Trump took advantage of (populism, prejudice, conspiracy mongering, irrationalism) had been there all along. I just wasn’t paying attention to them, or rather I didn’t think they were important. The cognitive dissonance between what I believed Republicans should stand for, and what they actually stand for, became too big for me to ignore.
CM: In The Washington Post, where you are now a columnist, you’ve publicly renounced your Republican Party affiliation, but you haven’t embraced the Democrats. Why not?
MB: After having had my heart broken by the Republican Party, I’m in no hurry to join another tribe. For the moment, I’m politically homeless. The Democrats are much better than the Republicans—they are standing up for the rule of law and our democracy, rather than acquiescing in Trump’s attacks. But I fear that as the Republicans go to the far right, Democrats may be going to the far left. Trump and the GOP are bankrupting America, doubling the deficits they inherited from President Obama to, soon, more than $1 trillion a year. That’s grossly irresponsible, but I fear that the Bernie Sanders–Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party could be even worse. Sanders’s Medicare for All plan could double the federal budget, and yet it is all the rage among progressives.
I am a person of the center right—after years of thinking that I was a Reagan Republican, I now think of myself as a Rockefeller Republican or, more accurately, an Eisenhower Republican. Unfortunately, neither party today reflects my outlook.
CM: Ronald Reagan famously said he didn’t leave the Democratic Party; the party left him. Do you feel similarly abandoned by the GOP?
MB: I do feel abandoned by the GOP, which has reversed its position on so many issues. If this were still the Reagan Republican Party—the party of Mitt Romney and John McCain, both of whom I advised on foreign policy—I would have remained a loyal party member. But in fairness, my own views are shifting a bit as well. For example, I wrote about how recent events—namely the #MeToo movement and the videotapes of police brutality toward African Americans—have sensitized me to my own white privilege and made me realize that sexism and racism are more toxic and more pervasive in American society than I have been willing to admit in the past. The spate of school shootings have also made me realize that stronger gun control, including a ban on military-grade assault weapons, is imperative. That represents another break on my part with the old conservative orthodoxy. I am on a political journey. Having left my old moorings, I am still not sure where I will end up.
CM: As you’ve said, your conservatism was rooted in the efforts of American neoconservatives to get Jews out of the Soviet Union, which helped your parents come to America in 1976. Back then, conservatives were the real hard-liners against Russia, and the Left was suspicious of the “deep state.” Now we have a Republican president who treats the Russian leader with kid gloves, and many conservatives who dismiss evidence from U.S. intelligence of Russian interference in our national elections. Have we entered some kind of Bizarro world?
MB: It certainly does seem like a Bizarro world when the Republican president refuses to speak ill of what Ronald Reagan called the “evil empire.” Of course, Russia has changed since the days of Communism, but not as much as we would like. Vladimir Putin is a ruthless dictator who has invaded his neighbors, committed war crimes in Syria, attacked America, repressed his own people, murdered journalists and dissidents—and yet Trump has not a bad word to say about him. At the Helsinki summit, Trump even took Putin’s word over that of the U.S. intelligence community.
We are now in a situation where lots of intelligence veterans, such as former CIA Director John Brennan and former Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper—respected, apolitical professionals—say that Putin has “something” on Trump. You can’t explain Trump’s behavior otherwise. Talk about bizarre: We are debating whether a real-life Manchurian Candidate occupies the Oval Office. The fact that he is a Republican, representing a party that has postured as tough on Russia ever since the Bolshevik Revolution a century ago, is all the more surreal.
CM: As a columnist at The Daily Californian in the late 1980s and early ’90s, you said you thought the biggest threat to the First Amendment came from the Left, not the Right. In the book you say you no longer believe that. Why?
MB: I still think there is a left-wing threat against the First Amendment, as witness all the attempts to censor speech on campus. I’m a free-speech absolutist, so I can’t stand this nonsense about “trigger warnings” and all the rest. But I have to admit that the Right is the bigger threat to the First Amendment today. Donald Trump actually calls the media the “enemy of the people,” using the same terminology as Stalin and Hitler. He incites his supporters to ugly displays of animosity toward the press, and he has actually plotted to punish media organizations he doesn’t like—e.g., the “Amazon Washington Post.” Luckily the press is protected by the First Amendment, but Trump is leading his followers into an Alice in Wonderland world where up is down and black is white. He is rejecting the very idea of objective truth in favor of “alternative facts,” and he is turning his base even more against the “mainstream media” than they were before. Ironically, they trust Fox News, which has become a state propaganda organ just like RT in Russia. All of this is profoundly un-American and terribly dangerous.
CM: Finally, you confess to having enjoyed, during your time at Berkeley, skewering the liberal pieties the campus is famous for. That has become an increasingly popular sport among alt-right provocateurs. How should liberals counter the provocations from the Right?
MB: I want to stress I was not an “alt-right” provocateur when I was at Berkeley. I was not promoting racism or nativism. I was not saying batshit crazy stuff to “own the libtards.” I was arguing for a principled conservative position—I was inveighing against rent control and [supporting] Operation Desert Storm. The proper way for liberals to respond to such arguments is with arguments of their own.
It’s a tougher issue when you are dealing with right-wing performance artists such as Dinesh D’Souza, Ann Coulter, and Milo Yiannopoulos, who are deliberately staking out offensive positions in the hopes of getting a reaction and mobilizing their hard-right followers. I think it’s tragic for College Republicans or anyone else to invite these know-nothing rabble-rousers to speak on campus, but if they are invited I think they have a right to speak. Of course, those who are offended by their presence also have a right to protest, as long as they do so peacefully. We need to do our best to preserve civility in the public sphere, to uphold the norms of democratic discourse, even when—or especially when—they are under assault from extremists.