In Two New Books, Unhappy Conservatives Ask: What Now?
By: Jennifer Szalai
To hear Max Boot tell it, he feels as forlorn as the despondent, battered elephant on the cover of his new book, “The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right.” Boot minutely describes a disillusionment that wasn’t only “painful and prolonged” but “existential.” Here he is — a lifelong Republican with sterling neoconservative credentials (an enthusiastic supporter of the Iraq War and a champion of “American empire”) — explaining why he’s eager for the day when “the G.O.P. as currently constituted is burned to the ground.”
The scorched-earth rhetoric reflects not just a pro-war pedigree but also a profound feeling of betrayal. In the run-up to the November 2016 election, Boot was a vocal Never Trump conservative who couldn’t fathom that a “crudely xenophobic” reality television star would become the standard-bearer of the Grand Old Party, much less president of the United States. Along with Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse’s “Them: Why We Hate Each Other — and How to Heal,” another new volume by a Republican critic of Trump, Boot’s book attempts to answer a looming question for conservatives unhappy with the current occupant of the White House: What now?
“The Corrosion of Conservatism” does double duty as a mea culpa memoir and a political manifesto, detailing Boot’s “heartbreaking divorce” from the Republican Party after decades of unstinting loyalty. He charts a political trajectory that gave his life social and emotional meaning. As the 6-year-old son of Jewish refuseniks, Boot emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1976; at 13, he was inducted by his father into the world of “learned, worldly, elitist” conservatism with a gift subscription to National Review.
Years later, even amid the peer pressure of “Berzerkeley,” the young Republican persisted. He may have been a white man of some means, but he enjoyed seeing himself as a besieged minority. He “loved making a bonfire” of Berkeley’s “liberal pieties” in his column in the student newspaper and trolling his peers with a “Bush-Quayle ’88” sticker on his dorm-room door. He swiftly clambered up the echelons of the conservative establishment, editing the op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal by the time he was 28 and eventually advising the presidential campaigns of John McCain, Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio.
Those candidates all lost their bids for the highest office, but it would take Boot a while to get to where he is now — repulsed by the Republican Party’s fealty to President Trump and instructing Americans to “vote against all Republicans.” His surprisingly anguished book is peppered with so many penitential lines (“I am embarrassed and chagrined”) and so much bewildered disappointment in figures like Rubio (“I thought he was a man of principle”) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (“I had viewed him as smart, principled and brave”) that even the most die-hard leftist might be moved to hand Boot a hankie.
Not that he’s a particularly moving stylist; Boot’s clean, starched prose marches forward with all the spontaneity of a military parade (he’s uncommonly fond of words like “pusillanimous” and “japery”). But the stodginess reveals how much soul-searching it must have taken to write this candid, reflective book. For his entire life, Boot wanted to be a good soldier. Instead he’s now in his late 40s, waking up to the historical brutality of “white identity politics” (“I have had my consciousness raised,” he says) and incredulously wondering: “How could all these eminences that I had worked with, and respected, sell out their professed principles to support a president who could not tell Edmund Burke from Arleigh Burke?”
How indeed? And Arleigh who? The confident name-dropping (of an admiral in the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, natch) is quintessential Boot, who describes himself as one of the “sophisticates” of the Republican Party.
There’s something refreshing about an elite conservative owning up to being an elite conservative. The closest that Ben Sasse comes to doing the same in his new book is a cryptic recollection about how, when he and his wife lived in Chicago, they “were fortunate to be able to make ends meet.” (He was working as a management consultant at the time.)
Sasse (B.A. from Harvard, Ph.D. from Yale) spends a great deal of “Them” honing his down-home credentials (Nascar, TGI Fridays). He emphasizes the importance of civil debate, denouncing Fox News and MSNBC, and laments the extreme partisanship that characterizes public life in the Trump era. But “the dysfunction in D.C.,” he says, stems from something “deeper than economics,” and “deeper and more meaningful” than politics. “What’s wrong with America, then, starts with one uncomfortable word,” he writes. “Loneliness.”
He shores up his argument by referring to scholars of social isolation like Robert Putnam and Eric Klinenberg — though the socially conscious Klinenberg (with his emphasis on the crucial role of publicly funded institutions) might find it hard to recognize the conclusions Sasse has drawn from his work. Community, Sasse says, is fostered by individual acts of charity and fellow-feeling; government does what it needs to do when it gets out of the way. “Citizens in a republic must cultivate humility,” he writes in a section titled “Civics 101.” It’s “the only way to preserve sufficient space for true community and for meaningful, beautiful human relationships.”
This is standard conservative stuff; a little cloying in the delivery, sure, but not shocking. After all, Sasse — who regularly boasts about having one of the most conservative voting records in the Senate — doesn’t have a responsibility to become a Democrat in the Trump era, much less satisfy Boot’s desire for a politician who can “make centrism sexy.” (I had to laugh before I cringed.) Even Sasse’s ability to sentimentalize “rootedness” in little communities in one breath and welcome the “uberization” of existing industries in the other can be chalked up to an old strain of techno-optimism among business-friendly conservatives.
What’s curious, then, is not so much the careful avoidance of politics — politicians are really good at this — but Sasse’s repeated assertions that political solutions are meaningless. “Ultimately, it’s not legislation we’re lacking,” he writes. Public servants like him “simply need to allow the space for communities of different belief and custom to flourish.” It’s a pretty idea, though anyone familiar with how “belief and custom” have long propped up local prejudices (Jim Crow being a glaring example) knows that there’s nothing simple about it.
As he did in his previous book, “The Vanishing American Adult,” Sasse talks a lot about the importance of “meaningful work,” yet he has chosen to be a United States senator, spending five days a week away from his family back in Nebraska in order to do whatever it is he does in Washington — which is what? Apparently vote with Trump close to 90 percent of the time and help his party try to bulldoze health care legislation and tax cuts through Congress, keeping crucial details secret until the last minute — all the while writing a book that solemnly proclaims the necessity of respectful debate and “engaging ideological opponents.”
“Our occupation links us to other people and gives us an identity and a sense of meaning,” Sasse muses, before waxing lyrical about a bedbug exterminator. For all his paeans to other people’s jobs, you might begin to wonder what the senator makes of his own.