The Problem of Max Boot

by Corey Robin on January 25, 2019

I’ve been thinking about political converts for a long time. At The New Yorker, I take up the problem of Max Boot, who probably needs no introduction, and Derek Black, who was a leading white supremacist and then renounced it all.

Here’s a taste:

Max Boot, a longtime conservative who recently broke with the right over the nomination and election of Donald Trump, registered as a Republican in 1988. At the time, Boot writes in “The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right,” he wanted to join the “party of ideas.” A movement of highbrows, conservatism was the work of the “learned, worldly, elitist, and eccentric lot” of writers at National Review, “far removed from the simple-minded, cracker-barrel populists who have taken control of the conservative movement today.” It was a movement, Boot explains at the outset, “inspired by Barry Goldwater’s canonical text from 1960, The Conscience of a Conservative. I believed in that movement, and served it my whole life.” A hundred and seventy-five pages later, Boot inadvertently lets slip that reading Goldwater’s “actual words” was something he hadn’t done until after Trump’s election. Throughout his three decades on the right, it appears, Boot believed in the tenets of a book he never read.

But it turns out that the problem of Boot and Black goes much deeper than what books were or weren’t read. If you compare the conversions from left to right—think Arthur Koestler, James Burnham, Whittaker Chambers, and so on—with those from right to left, you find something interesting.
Curiously, the movement from right to left has never played an equivalent role in modern politics. Not only are there fewer converts in that direction, but those conversions haven’t plowed as fertile a field as their counterparts have.

Why is that? Find out here.

{ 25 comments }

1

DocAmazing 01.25.19 at 8:37 pm

As your piece alludes to but does not say outright, Boot was a right-wing intellectual because he said he was a right-wing intellectual. He celebrated, but hadn’t actually read, Goldwater and Buckley; his grasp of his other icons was equally weak. I remember reading his stuff in UC Berkeley’s The Daily Californian back in the middle 1980s and getting the impression that Boot was another dope-with-a-thesaurus like George F. Will, with added militarist bloodthirst.

The bar for being a right-wing intellectual has traditionally been low, and in the present day we see examples like Jonah Goldberg and Megan McArdle putting out high school current-events assignments and being lauded as original thinkers. It’s probably a reflection of the preferences of the people who own the presses.

2

J-D 01.25.19 at 9:19 pm

I take up the problem of Max Boot, who probably needs no introduction

You might be surprised. I’ve never heard of him before.

3

BruceJ 01.25.19 at 9:26 pm

Personally, I rather doubt Boot is truly repenting, but is rather merely taking advantage of the zeitgeist.

“Anti-Trump Repentant Right” sells books, gets him on teevee, etc. The proof of the pudding will be what he does when the neocons are ascendant again.

The likes of Michael Gerson and David Frum sliding from the Bush II White House to “George Boosh?? Never heard of him!” critics of the right always seemed awfully convenient for their post-WH careers.

As DocAmazing says, it’s a reflection of the people who own the presses, of which there has always been an orders of magnitude greater number, prominence and paychecks on the right rather than the left.

The vast ( hugely interconnected, almost incestuously so) network of RW “Think Tanks” and publishing houses funded by wealthy oligarchs pretty much guarantees a safe haven for Left->Right apostates.

There really isn’t such a network for the reverse. The L->R crownd don’t have to spend the long years in the wilderness atoning for their sins, like the R->L side does. (And given the damage the Right has done over recent decades, there is much atonement needed…)

4

nastywoman 01.25.19 at 9:45 pm

@
”Curiously, the movement from right to left has never played an equivalent role in modern politics”.

Perhaps A.T. -(”After Trump”) it will? –

As I never in my life have seen so many Californians -(and other US) Conservatives moving from the supposedly ”right” to the supposedly ”left” –
– and all of it – just because they can’t stand ”the a… hole” – and BE-cause ”the a…hole is supposedly ”on the right”?

It’s a bit like in school – where ”the cool guys” –
or – ”the In-crowd”:
”Spiel nicht mit dem Schmuddelkind”!

5

Ogden Wernstrom 01.25.19 at 11:09 pm

I wonder if Max Boot is familiar with alternate uses of the word, “cracker”.

6

b9n10nt 01.25.19 at 11:25 pm

Here’s the lesson I’d expect from Corey: reactionaries need to continually contrive new rationalizations for reaction, and might thus be inspired by Leftist rhetoric for the task. The Left does not need to similarly borrow from the Right because there’s no need to hide its pursuit of liberty, equality, and solidarity before a popular audience. Hence, left –> right converts are useful to the right in ways that right–>left converts are not. & then you’ve got your empirical evidence to support the theory.

The emphasis, however, was on experience: the right needs to experience the vitality of revolution to understand it and inform counter-revolution. This seems like a weaker explanation, but perhaps the stronger argument would have seemed too shrill for the New Yorker?

7

Dr. Hilarius 01.25.19 at 11:31 pm

Anyone who has spent time with Pentecostal/Evangelical Christians is familiar with public confessions of pre-Salvation sin. The greater the sinning, the more impressive and prized the conversion. If the sinner was a notable atheist, Satanist, evolutionist or communist, the story of his or her conversion can become a lucrative career on the church lecture circuit. (Pity the poor convert trying to attract attention with nothing more than a battle with youthful lust.)

8

Jeff R. 01.25.19 at 11:33 pm

Right-to-left movement of people who happen to be sitting Supreme Court judges has played a very large role in US politics.

9

Mainmata 01.26.19 at 2:34 am

This is a really good article (as usual). I think the essential core is that Boot misunderstood that conservatives and the GOP, in particular, were the party of ideas. Buckley summarized it best when he stated that the role of conservatives was to stand astride the course of history and stay “stop”. The GOP has never been the party of ideas or at least not any ideas that are all rational or workable. They claimed to be about “small government” in an economy dominated by large multinational corporations and cartels. The GOP has always been a fraud, philosophically.’

Nowadays, they’re mainly about racism, misogyny and aggressive foreign policy.

Boot was pretty clueless when he arrived in the US so I kind of give him a little break compared with our home grown rightwingers.

10

steven t johnson 01.26.19 at 3:08 am

Also don’t know who Max Boot is.

As to why right to left conversions real or feigned have less impact, switching from selling to the rich to serving the poor does tend to decrease the publicity and long term acceptability, which seems to be what is meant by impact. On the other hand the built in obscurantism and irrationalism of the right means there is often a greater need for rationalizations.

As to the superior quality of renegades? Gave up on Witness because it was so painfully obvious the man was a pathological liar. His story of how he had been overworked and underappreciated, then his life threatened by the totalitarian party dictatorship in whichever US city he was living in, but he was far too smart for the hapless tyrants, so he stole a car…well, I suppose this is the superior quality of the early converts.

James Burnham was probably at his peak getting his ass kicked by Trotsky. His big revision to Marxism, something something managerialism (?) has been justly forgotten. It’s simply more Marx critique, as crankish and vainglorious as all Marx critique is. Koestler was just as crankish, but at least he wrote The Sleepwalkers. These I think are an excellent example of how abandoning Marxism usually requires abandoning honesty in history and social science.

The notion that Reagan was ever on the left appears to have something to do with SAG. Dan Moldea’s Dark Victory is interesting about Reagan’s union associations. But the issue is how anyone still thinks Reagan was a political thinker and a cultural innovator, rather than an actor selling borax and reaction.

The real mystery is how the likes of Whittaker Chambers and James Burnham could ever have been taken seriously. The answer I think is the needs for sticks to beat your enemies with. They are deep thinkers because if they aren’t deep thinkers their submission to the boni, the good people, isn’t worth anything. And thinkers converted to the left are as worthless as all left thinkers are, so far as the boni, the good people, are concerned.

11

Kurt Schuler 01.26.19 at 4:13 am

Robert Conquest once wrote, “Often at the age of 18 or 20, a student meets some glittering general idea and, far from feeling any responsibility to submit it to serious questioning, henceforward follows it like a duckling imprinted with its mother.” The glittering general ideas that appeal to people of that age are more often leftist than rightist, I think, so the later movement of people who submit those ideas to serious questioning is more often from left to right than from right to left. But Jeff R. (#8) notes an influential group of movers from right to left.

12

abd 01.26.19 at 4:35 am

Norman Finkelstein’s essay on the serial chameleon, Hitchens has many useful insights:

A sharp political break must, for one living a political life, be a wrenching emotional experience. The rejection of one’s core political beliefs can’t but entail a rejection of the person holding them: if the beliefs were wrong, then one’s whole being was wrong. Repudiating one’s comrades must also be a sorrowful burden. It is not by chance that “fraternity” is a prized value of the left: in the course of political struggle, one forges, if not always literally, then, at any rate, spiritually, blood bonds…No doubt he imagines it is testament to the mettle of his conviction that past loyalties don’t in the slightest constrain him; in fact, it’s testament to the absence of any conviction at all.

13

nastywoman 01.26.19 at 6:03 am

@
”A sharp political break must, for one living a political life, be a wrenching emotional experience”.

Perhaps ”Not In America”? –
As having witnessed the sharpest (political??) break of some utmost stereotypical Reaganite’s just because Baron von Clownstick was –
for one of them –
”far too German” -(whatever that means?)
for the other one a ”socially completely unacceptable a… hole” –
and for the last – and most beloved one -(by relatives on all ”political” sides) –
just:
”The enemy of every Californian Surfer” – ”Bohemian” or ”Member of the Sierra Club”.

And I don’t know – If turning one of Americas once ”strongest Bastions of arch-conservatives” around (Orange County south of LA) – isn’t far more – ”political” consequential then ”the problem of Max Boot”?

14

abd 01.26.19 at 8:49 am

@13, You may have a point there, given the gullibility of folks in these parts. Finkelstein, almost admiringly, noted the case of “the Polish émigré hoaxer, Jerzy Kosinski, who, shrewdly siz[ed] up intellectual culture in America” and plied his rusty wares on the university lecture with brio until his past caught up with him (many other European émigrés, e.g. Man Ray, Bruno Bettelheim, etc. also come to mind; google for the sordid details).

Heck, the moral beacon whom Corey Robin never tires of citing, Hannah Arendt, was also a habitual “lifter” of material from others laboring in the archives, not to mention the free ride, intellectually speaking, she got because of “the widespread belief that philosophical murkiness signals philosophical profundity.”

The direction in which the intellectual impostures listed by Pankaj Mishra below are “adjusting” to the prevailing winds is something to be expected from their ilk:

Many journalists have been scrambling, more feverishly since Trump’s apotheosis, to account for the stunningly extensive experience of fear and humiliation across racial and gender divisions; some have tried to reinvent themselves in heroic resistance to Trump and authoritarian ‘populism’. David Frum, geometer under George W. Bush of an intercontinental ‘axis of evil’, now locates evil in the White House. Max Boot, self-declared ‘neo-imperialist’ and exponent of ‘savage wars’, recently claimed to have become aware of his ‘white privilege’. Ignatieff, advocate of empire-lite and torture-lite, is presently embattled on behalf of the open society in Mitteleuropa. Goldberg, previously known as stenographer to Netanyahu, is now Coates’s diligent promoter.

15

Lee A. Arnold 01.26.19 at 1:15 pm

DocAmazing #1: “The bar for being a right-wing intellectual has traditionally been low…”

Excepting for the brilliance of Corey Robin and a few others, it is no lower than the bar on the left, but I think you correctly point to the asymmetry in the general acceptance of the two piles of bosh that are usually produced. But going beyond BruceJ’s fingering (at #3) of the presses and thinktanks for embracing the right bosh, there is a cause in the basic asymmetry of their political preferences, because the right justifies and praises the system, while the left does not. This makes it easier for the productions of the right to slide by, without critical inspection by the large mass of people who just want to get on with their lives.

More complicated still: in our era the left (or most of it) doesn’t want to tear down the system; it would prefer a mixed economy with more redistribution than we have at present, but not the destruction of private capitalism. This more nuanced preference can only explain itself by wading into the deeper ends of economic explanation, while it’s still much easier for the moneyed right to demonize the left using the psychological critique of mere laziness or lack of initiative. This leaves the left with a more complex rhetorical problem in dealing with voter preferences than the right has, which, again, is another asymmetry.

I think the winds are not merely shifting, but we are approaching a different and less stable era. The industrial economy is so successful that its winner-take-all mechanics is increasing inequality. In the US, the intellectual disaster of the right fabricated its bad policy of tax cuts and “smaller” government under Reagan, and the contradictions Reagan engineered took 30 years to crack up the Republican Party until a grifter named Trump could drive a plough through it. And he of course has come a cropper. At the same juncture, the presses and thinktanks have fallen in influence due to the internet where everyone is drowned out regardless of the viability of their ideas. In such a new, unstable, untested environment perhaps the best approach is the one taken by Warren, AOC, etc. — hammer on a few big ideas with broad appeal.

16

nastywoman 01.26.19 at 2:16 pm

@
”because the right justifies and praises the system, while the left does not”.

Really?!

And I thought US right-wingers wanted to destroy the US government –
(and isn’t that ”the system”?)
And that’s why the crazy right erected an idiot and moron who didn’t know that by becoming ”President” he would become the ”the system” – and consequently had to destroy himself –
what he tries to do in the utmost incompetent way – and
”More complicated still: in our era the left (or most of it) doesn’t want to tear down the system; – especially if they are ”the system” and as we suddenly talk about ”economics” –
YES! – the left seems to prefer a mixed economy with more redistribution than we have at present – which also prefer a lot of poor rightwingers and as times are confusing a lot of them think that by destroying ”the system” -(”the gubernment”?) they will get that ”resditribution” they don’t want to call ”redistribution” and some on the Left -(mainly the confused ones) also want to destroy ”the system” -(but keep the government if a nice dude – or a nice gal becomes President) –

and/or something like that….?

17

stretch nickels 01.26.19 at 2:26 pm

nastywoman @4
“Perhaps A.T. -(”After Trump”) it will?”
Doubtful. Their hands hold umbrellas, not offerings.

18

Bob Michaelson 01.26.19 at 2:45 pm

“Throughout his three decades on the right, it appears, Boot believed in the tenets of a book he never read.”
When Yale philosophy professor Paul Weiss was a guest on the Dick Cavett Show he pointed out that when Buckley was a student of Yale he would typically talk about books that he had never actually read. Indeed Buckley continued to do so for the rest of his life.

19

abd 01.26.19 at 8:34 pm

@3 re neocons, this quote of Boot from Corey Robin’s article:

“That my parents and hundreds of thousands of other Soviet Jews were finally able to leave was due largely to neoconservative foreign policy,” Boot writes. “In later life I would support giving moral concerns a prominent place in US foreign policy, a stance that has been associated with neoconservatism.”

reminded me of an answer that E.L. Doctorow gave to following question from Bill Moyers in 1988:

How do you explain that so many intellectuals today are in service to orthodoxy?

…The third element is very interesting, and I think it’s been under-reported–and that is the immense influence of the émigré, Eastern European intellectuals who’ve come over here in the past fifteen or twenty years. Many of them are quite brilliant writers and professors of different disciplines. They have tended to see American life in terms of their own background and suffering, which has been considerable, as people in exile from regimes that have done terrible things to them and their families. They come of the terrible European legacy of monarchism and the reaction to it. So every attempt we make to legislate some advance in our American society, some social enlightenment, they see as a dangerous left-wing weakness leading toward totalitarianism. They’ve had enormous influence in the American intellectual community. They tend to see things as either/or and feel that you must be rigidly against any idea of improvement because the idea of perfection is what kills society and creates totalitarianism. The Utopian ideal leads to revolution. They seem to forget we had our revolution two hundred years ago. Our history is not theirs.

We’ve always gone out into the barn of the Constitution and tinkered. That’s our very pragmatic history. I don’t think these people understand that. So any time we tune something up and fix something and make it more just, make it work a little better, they become alarmed.

20

Glen Tomkins 01.27.19 at 3:24 pm

I don’t know.

I think the most reasonable account of Boot’s conversion is that he hasn’t converted. He’s profoundly angry at Trump because Trump, to the everlasting shame of our side, is the first political figure in generations to dare to question US imperialism, and US imperialism is what Boot is really about. He’s mostly a military enthusiast. Were Trump to gin up a war with Venezuela and/or Iran, Boot would be back on his side in a heartbeat. Blood and Iron!

21

derrida derider 01.27.19 at 11:21 pm

Glen has it right. Trump is nasty and ignorant and a stunningly incompetent President (as he was an incompetent businessman) but his very disdain for high-falutin’ principle is what makes him, in foreign policy, an old-fashioned Republican isolationist. And the imperialists in the GOP cannot stomach that, though they’re happy to stomach his general nastiness and ignorance.

22

MFB 01.28.19 at 8:40 am

Max Boot is only a “problem” if you take him seriously; for instance, if you believe that defeating the Republican Party requires the assistance of Republicans who happen to temporarily be willing to undermine their party so as to gain more power within it. For the rest of us he’s just a ranting charlatan whom nobody need pay the slightest attention to.

23

Jerry Vinokurov 01.28.19 at 2:22 pm

Very interesting piece, and it taught me something that I didn’t know about Boot, namely, that he is a member, like myself (albeit a half-generation older), of the Soviet emigre community. Well, that explains so much, really: you’d be hard-pressed to find a more reactionary bloc in all of American politics. It’s “funny” because many of them are plainly anti-religious but they make (wittingly or un-) common cause with evangelicals because they’re virulently opposed to the very concept of a public good or an active state attempting to mitigate social ills. I need to finish the article before having further reactions, but this was a revelation to me.

24

marcel proust 01.28.19 at 5:06 pm

Jerry Vinokurov@23: A small potatoes objection/question. Considering only Soviet emigres, not the community, including US born descendants of emigres, just the emigres themselves; does this group of individuals make up a more reactionary bloc than its Cuban counterpart?

25

Jerry Vinokurov 01.29.19 at 1:22 am

Considering only Soviet emigres, not the community, including US born descendants of emigres, just the emigres themselves; does this group of individuals make up a more reactionary bloc than its Cuban counterpart?

It’s hard for me to say because I don’t really have much exposure this culture’s Cuban counterparts. My impression with regard to a lot of the Cuban emigres is that they’re substantially more socially conservative than those who came from the former USSR. Not that the latter group is any kind of bastion of wokeness, but for them most of the culture war stuff isn’t a huge motivator. I can’t think of anyone from this group who, for example, ever stated that abortion or opposition to gay marriage was the main motivator for any kind of vote or other political activity. They may not care much for it and I’m sure being e.g. LGBT in this community is no picnic, but it’s not a driver for them that, say, anti-tax mania is. I can’t possibly count how many conversations I’ve had with relatives complaining about this or that “onerous” regulation or tax or whatever that they have to pay and listen to the same “why are they wasting our money” and “I don’t want to pay for this” tirade. Needless to say the vast majority of them, like most American in general, have only the foggiest notion of how American governments (federal, state, local, etc.) operate, but that doesn’t stop them from hating it and knowing deep in their heart that whatever it’s doing, it’s doing it wrong.

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