Max Boot is a lifelong Republican. A former Soviet emigre to this country and one of the nation’s foremost experts on the Cold War and American foreign policy, Boot has advised many Republican presidents and candidates over the last few decades. Now he is repudiating his party because of Trump and says he thinks it needs to face massive electoral defeat. Salon.com has an interview with him.
How does America extricate itself from the crisis created by Donald Trump and the Republican Party’s assault on democracy?
I’m not 100 percent certain of how we got here and I certainly don’t know how to get out of here. This is something I’ve been grappling with for the last few years. As Trump was in the process of winning the nomination and then the presidency, I watched Republicans who I once respected bow the knee to him. I struggled to understand how that happened and that’s part of why I wrote this book, “The Corrosion of Conservatism.” To come to grips with how Trump came to control I have been grappling with some of the Republican Party’s dark history. These are topics and subjects I have not seriously looked at before. I am now realizing that there were these undercurrents of racism and xenophobia, know-nothingism and other dark trends that were always present in the Republican Party. In recent decades these dark trends have been more at the margins rather than at the center. It was Donald Trump who has put them into the center of the Republican Party.
The question is now, how do you repress these dark sentiments? How do we move them away from the center of American politics? In many ways this is the biggest challenge that we face as a country. There’s no easy answer. I think the answer has to begin with electoral defeat for the Republican Party in November, because as long as Republicans think that attacking minorities and taking absolute far-right stances is a winning political strategy there will be more of the same. If Republicans were to win the House and the Senate in November — which I don’t think it can happen, but it’s not outside of the realm of possibility — Donald Trump will see that as a flashing green signal to do even crazier things as he moves even faster to the far right. Trump would for sure fire [Robert] Mueller, [Rod] Rosenstein, and [Jeff] Sessions. Trump would put our democracy at even more risk.
Even though I’m not a Democrat — and don’t necessarily agree with Democrats on everything — I think it is imperative to have the Democratic Party win in November. If the Democrats win, I believe that will be the beginning of a recovery from this Trumpian period. Republicans, a lot of whom are just being very cynical, need to know that Trumpism is not going to succeed.
Moreover, I think a victory by the Democrats will cause the people who are not the hardcore Trump true believers to reassess what they’re up to. This is especially true of the politicians, many of whom are deeply hypocritical and cynical. In their hearts, they know exactly how dangerous Trump is. They just lack the courage to act on it.
Maybe a few more Republican politicians will find the courage if it no longer appears to be politically suicidal to do so. I think ultimately the Republican Party has to face one shellacking after another until they come to their senses and rebrand themselves in a more moderate direction.
And I agree with him, but it should also be noted that the people Trump has fired up won’t just go away if the Republican party is defeated. That is ultimately the real problem we face, not just Trump himself but the fact that he has reopened the Pandora’s box and let the old know-nothings and Birchers and bigots rise to the surface once again. Putting them back in the box will be a far more difficult task than merely getting rid of Trump or taking control of Congress away from the Republicans.
Boot also discusses the problem of tribalism that I have written about for so long and at such length. I agree with him that it’s the most powerful impulse in politics, and a dangerous one. And I respect the fact that he had to face up to his own tribalism when making the difficult decision to break with his party:
You mentioned the dark history of the Republican Party. As someone from within the tribe, that Republican conservative community, why was there so much denial about the obvious racism as the Southern Strategy, or Reagan’s support of “states’ rights”? Reagan also used thinly veiled racist language about black people, such as “welfare queens” and “strapping young bucks.” There was “birtherism” and its obvious racism. There is a direct line from Sarah Palin and the Tea Party to Donald Trump. Why did it take so long to accept the obvious truths about the Republican Party?
I asked that about myself. I really grapple with that. The real reason is this tribal instinct, which I feel is probably the most powerful impulse in politics. A desire to be in union with other people that you identify as your confederates, your fellow ideologues, however you define it — and you’re not going to be part of a movement if you focus a bright light on some of the dark, ugly parts of that movement. I might add, this is not a universal problem just on the right. It’s a huge problem on the right. I think there are some issues on the left as well. There have been examples of anti-Semitism on the left, for example. If you think about the misbehavior of Ted Kennedy or Bill Clinton towards women, which a lot of Democrats made excuses for, again because they didn’t want to break with their tribe.
The Republican Party today has a lot more to answer for, but it’s the same kind of tribal impulse that caused people like me and many others to refuse to see it. If you start to ask these hard questions then you have to say to yourself, “Well, can I really be a Republican anymore?” This is very difficult because for someone like me. Being a conservative or a Republican was my entire identity. That was how I largely defined myself.
Of course it wasn’t the only identity I had. I also think of myself as a historian and a writer and so forth. But being a conservative and a Republican was certainly an important part of my identity. Therefore, I took a “go along to get along” attitude. I was certainly not somebody who was out there scripting racist campaign ads. I wasn’t connected with the Willie Horton ad which came out when I was in high school, or Jesse Helms’ racist attacks on Harvey Gantt in North Carolina. I had no connection to that, except very distantly, because I went along with the Republican Party and stayed in my lane, focusing on national security issues.
I did not worry about what was happening to the left and right of me. I realized that a lifetime of willful blindness helped to get us into this position where these dark forces have taken over the Republican Party. I can’t stomach being part of that anymore. But a lot of Republicans are totally fine with it and they’re totally in denial. When I point these things out they think there’s something wrong with me.
It’s a very long interview and I encourage you to read the whole thing. He’s absolutely right that much of what Trump stands for is actually a repudiation of genuine conservative principles. He points out, for example, that Trump’s undermining of the judiciary is a very dangerous thing and is practically the definition of being un-conservative because a true conservative would seek to preserve and protect the institutions that have kept the rule of law alive in this country. That’s why this is really about tribalism, not ideology.
Ideologically, Trump is not a conservative (nor is he a liberal, of course). But because he now controls the Republican party, the alleged conservative party, his views now define the limits of both Republicanism and conservatism. So if you’re anti-Trump, you’re now suddenly a liberal, even if you are, like Boot, clearly not. It is possible to be a principled, consistent conservative, but if you support Donald Trump you have forfeited any right to such a title. You have proven that you are motivated only by tribalism, not actual ideas.
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