Dear Partners in thought,
I would like to tell you about “The Corrosion of Conservatism” (Why I left the Right), a book by Max Boot that is quite topical in this mid-term season in America though also stands out given his very author. As we are indeed in a key election week, I will also humbly ask two main questions that I find are critical to the soundness of the American democracy going forward.
The “Corrosion of Conservatism” is a book about a passionate personal and political journey deeply into and away from American conservatism while being flavored by what we knew to be “the American dream”. Max Boot was born in Russia in a Jewish family which emigrated to America when he was six during the start of the Carter Administration. He went to Berkeley, then a hotbed of radicalism built during the late sixties, and on to Yale where he started to mix with the Conservative world ranging from National Review’s WF Buckley Jr. (the pope of modern American conservatism, author of the famed “God and Man at Yale” and the key architect of the Reagan revolution) – of note MB’s own father introduced him to National Review – to the various leaders and donors of the conservative movement and GOP. MB was very impressed by the introduction of morals into politics that was demonstrated by the drive of the likes of Democratic Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, the strong defence hawk of the 1970s, to exert pressure on the Soviet Union to let Russian Jews emigrate as part of benefitting from the policy of detente of those days. He grew up looking up to Ronald Regan, his true American hero (although a bit older than MB and growing up in Paris, I felt the same for Reagan with his John Wayne swagger and his resolute confrontentation of the “Evil Empire”). This moralistic approach to foreign policy that departed markedly from the realpolitiks of Henry Kissinger or Zbigniew Brzezinski was to eventually lead MB to the camp of the Neo-conservatives led by intellectuals Norman Podhoretz (Commentary) and Irving Kristol (Public Interest) and their respective sons Bill and John (who launched the Weekly Standard to which MB contributed for ten years until 2017) who “promoted” the invasion of Iraq in 2003. While a columnist for the Washington Post and a global affairs analyst for CNN, MB today is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations where he has focused on military history, his life passion as demonstrated by his many books on guerilla and small wars (read “The Road Not Taken” the biography of Edward Lansdale and inner tragedy of the Vietnam war). MB’s current book, which is very rich, reflecting the breadth of intellect and knowledge of his author, is about his detailed journey into this American conservative world and how it left him rather than he left it (to paraphrase Reagan about his earlier democratic affiliation) with the unlikely but staggering ascent of DT to the White House.
MB decided to change its voter registration from Republican to Independent the “morning after” (the election of DT). He never saw American conservatism as “blood and soil” and “chauvinistic and pessimistic” as he would see it in Europe but as “optimistic and inclusive”. Conservatism to MB was prudent and incremental policy-making based on empirical study; support of American global leadership and American allies; a strong defense and a willingness to oppose the enemies of freedom; respect for character, community, personal values and family; limited government and fiscal prudence; freedom of opportunity rather than equality of outcome; a social safety net big enough to help the neediest but small enough to avoid stifling individual initiative, enterprise and social mobility; individual liberty to the greatest extent as possible consistent with public safety; freedom of speech and of the press; immigration and assimilation, and colorblindness and racial integration. He believed (and still does) in two documents: The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as both defining what it is to be an American citizen with rights and duties. His book is a story of first love, marriage, growing disenchantment and eventually a heartbreaking divorce prompted by DT’s highjacking of the GOP. Today MB is a man without a party but he remains committed to conservative principles deeply regretting that his former party and its elected officials sold these out in order to stay in office however the short term-minded objective and the long-lasting damaging effect on American politics and society…and the world.
MB wants us to understand his journey as a a conservative so we get a full picture. He started his real career journalistic career at The Wall Street Journal for the editorial page under the leadership of Bob Bartley, working for a number of leading writers to finally become a leader himself at the young age of 28. He wrote a book on the trial lawyers taking a well known Texan lawyer as target in a prelude to the populist revolt that was first seen in small town America’s large jury awards against large out-of-state bi-coastal corporations (a book he was not happy about retrospectively). He finished the first draft of his book on America’ small wars on 9- 11, the latter which he witnessed first hand downtown Manhattan. He was an unabashed supporter of Iraq II in 2003 to punish and remove from power Saddam Hussein and bring in democracy (he makes the point that the Neo-conservatives that were fingered as the leaders of the Iraqi adventure were in fact following Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld and all…). Today he regrets his move fifteen years too late as he admits and would no longer commit troops and risk lives simply to promote democracy in an Iraqi-like scenario. In 2008 he was part of the John McCain team and was deeply impressed by the American hero who often knew more about foreign policy than his foreign policy advisers but got undone largely by his VP choice, his relative lack of economic matters mastery and the beginning of the financial crisis. In 2012, he advised Mitt Romney, “less at home in foreign affairs but a very decent man“. He was underwhelmed with Obama who he thought withdrew too early from Iraq in 2011 and failed to stop what his friend David Petraeus called the Syrian Chernobyl. In 2016 he did not back Jeb Bush, finding him not conservative enough (wishing today he could have backed him) and supported Marco Rubio whom he thought would lose to a Jeb Bush. He still wonders how he could have overestimated his fellow Republicans and not see DT coming up from behind to gradually seize the nomination, the presidency and then the GOP.
MB goes through the last GOP primary reminding us of all the tenors of the Republican party falling down one after the other, Ted Cruz being the last one to go in spite of a victory in Texas. He goes through all the rejections and the gradual changes of mind of all the Republican leaders who found redeeming features and then strong qualities to the man they clearly despised only a few months or weeks before, presaging a trend that would be found throughout most if not all the Republican Party and conservative landscape. Supporting “the nominee” took precedence on anything including values among politicians and the leading conservative media commentators such as the cast of Fox & Friends. The number of conservatives that refused to back DT, becoming the Never-Trumpers being far and few, with only two leading GOP politicians refusing to endorse, Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush. MB at this point saw the Republican Party as “dead” and the anti-Trump holdouts as “the real Republican party in exile” hoping “they could return from the wilderness after November”. MB started losing friends with one of his conservative road travellers feeling he was getting angry when talking about Trump, so too emotional. MB goes through a very detailed assessment of both what is wrong with DT and why his positions and style are anything but what should represent conservatism and its followers. He points out the incredible high wire act of the Christian evangelicals (amazingly including the ladies) who strongly back DT in spite of his behaviour with porn stars, Playmates and statements about how “handling” women as if these ranked low and were just “private matters” in relation to ensuring the Supreme Court is secured for thirty years or the U.S. embassy shifted to Jerusalem. The Republican Party and its electorate gives gradually reason to DT boasting that he could kill someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue while not losing any backing.
Putting aside the relish of the Republican and conservative base to “fight back” the liberals and what they stood for like say the hard to stand PC-ness (a key positive, long overdue for them), MB sees the case for DT from the Republican Party and base and its couter-arguments as follows:
- A strong economy: All GOP backers and Trump admirers believe that DT created the strong economy they enjoy, with record low unemployment, low interest rates and a great (until October 2018) bull market. They actually forgive DT his abhorrent personality and poor style as he has presided over what they perceive to be a strong economic performance, which is all that matters to many of them. In fact the US economic performance under DT was largely inherited as is often the case, with job creation and the rise of the Dow Jones being stronger under Obama. Measured by the Brookings Institution against five other presidents who inherited a growing economy since 1960 DT’s record is tied for last place lagging even behind Jimmy Carter.
- The defeat of ISIS: While DT claims that he defeated ISIS, the drive to do so was started by Obama and he almost pulled out of Syria 2,000 US troops that could have jeopardised the gains against ISIS while opening eastern Syrian to Iranian expansion.
- The pullout from treaties like the Paris Climate Accord and the Iran Nuclear Deal: DT is in denial about global warming and pulled out of a treaty with no mandated job-killing regulations while he pulled out of an imperfect nuclear treaty with Iran which the latter was respecting and his own secretary of state and the main US allies wanted the US to keep.
- The move of the US embassy to Jerusalem: DT focused on implementing a symbolic promise made and time and time forgotten by every president but failed far more strategically to strengthen Israel’s security by limiting Iran’s advance in Syria.
- The summit with Kim Jong Un: The meeting between the two leaders was a first and a good step towards working on a peaceful resolution of peninsular issues after very bellicose rhethorics but was also deemed a win for Kim without having produced tangible commitments for the North Korean regime to adhere to.
- The passage of a massive tax bill in his first year of office. Clearly a very well received move even if the “top earners” were the main and some would say only beneficiaries. And a clear break in Republican fiscal orthodoxy so much heralded during the Obama times and which also gave rise to a now forgotten Tea Party.
- The selection of conservative candidates for the Supreme Court: This matter was key to many if not most of DT’s supporters who also forgave him for “the rest” believing that the Court was a guarantor that their values would be upheld in American society for many years to come, all the more by picking relatively young conservative Supreme Court justice candidates.
As seen this past week in a New York Times survey, it would appear that Republican and conservative voters are markedly more supportive of DT than they are of the Republican party which stresses the magnitude of DT’s takeover and the rationale of its elected officials in backing him fully in order to stay relevant.
MB actually recognises a few positive developments such for him as the embassy move to Jerusalem, the intensification of efforts against ISIS, the early sanctions against North Korea and the cut of corporate tax rate to bring the US tax code in line with international standards. The list short is rather short.
MB finds several areas where DT has been willingly or unwillingly destructive as follows (a close read of the argumentation is certainly useful to get a full picture):
- Racism and race relations in America
- Nativism and the opposition to immigration (arguably of the illegal kind)
- Collusion and all matters related to the subject of the “Russian meddling”
- The Rule of Law and the relationship between the executive and judicial branches
- “Fake News” and the relationship between the executive/the country and free press
- Ethics and the lack of them by some administration officials
- Fiscal Irresponsibility and the gifts paid for by future generations
- The End of the Pax Americana and the void created by a leaderless world
I would add a key feature that can be found across the Trumpist offering which is the lowering or degradation of the political discourse with consequences for and on all party sides together with an indirect or subliminal incitation to societal violence and hatred permeating to the level of individual inter-actions. America has become cruder and incivility is more societally acceptable in the Trump era particularly among members of the younger generations as demonstrated by recent surveys.
Interestingly MB, in a quest for “who he is” after all, listed all the key features that define him politically as follows:
- Socially liberal: Pro LGTBQ and pro-choice. Not religious but respectful of those who are as long as they don’t tread on others’ individual rights.
- Fiscally conservative: Deficit reducer and controller of entitlement spending without shredding the safety net.
- Pro-free markets and the welfare state: the latter (he sees as a conservative, Bismarkian, institution) ensuring the success of the former with government working on its imperfections.
- Pro-free trade: Concluding more treaties as they have ensured America’s and the world’s prosperity, all without forgetting those that globalisation have left behind via government aid and related programs so they also don’t support populist policies that end up harming America and the world.
- Pro-environment: Recognising the obvious climate change and not opening indiscriminately federal lands to strip mining and oil digging.
- Pro-gun control: Ensuring extensive testing and safety training is performed on civilians purchasing military-grade weapons like in other democracies
- Pro-immigration: Immigrants, like himself, being a source of America’s greatness; ensuring a path to citizenship to millions of undocumented immigrants and increasing legal immigration to address a shortage of native- born workers and skills all with proper screening to avoid a popular backlash while making the case to white America that changing demography is no threat to their wellbeing.
- Pro-free speech: However opposed to identity politics and rhetorics of both minority groups and the declining white majority. Believing in the melting pot, integration and colour blindness while keeping working on erasing the historical stain of racism.
- Strong on defence: Maintaining a capable military to cope with multiple enemies and rivals (like Russia and China, but also rogue states and non- state terrorist actors); maintaining a presence in Europe, the Middle East and Asia to keep peace and deter aggressors (all with the hard lessons from Iraq learned by this chastened hawk).
- Clear internationalist: Believing in America’s self-interest in promoting and defending freedom and a rules-based international order as performed since 1942 while standing by allies, especially the democratic ones. Rejecting unworkable isolationism in today’s interconnected world.
The first reaction when looking at this list is that DT and his administration do not tick many boxes, at least in their entirety.
Today MB feels homeless from a political party standpoint as no American party reflects this compendium of convictions. Looking back at American history and remembering what Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in 1949 called “the vital center”, MB, having thought of himself for years as a “movement conservative” realizes he is actually a “Rockefeller Republican” even if “Eisenhower Republican” seems more apt for him due to the impressive and competent traits of the man. Ironically, MB fels that historical conservative figures like Barry Goldwater and certainly Ronald Reagan would be seen as RINOs by the current GOP and its backers (Republicans In Names Only).
Strangely enough I relate to that “Rockefeller Republican” appellation which I have used many times for myself over the last two years, trying to find a family for those center right individuals, be they America nor not, who would adhere to most of the features that MB listed. I feel more historically from the center, even if from its right, than I would have thought MB was from, probably due to his Iraq II war drive at one point. His journey seems a real one and not just linked to the fact that the Republican party “left him“ as if there was a degree of humanity and reality that had crept in while reflecting upon his times and their changes. I would adhere to most if not all of the features listed by MB even if some like pro-immigration is a very sensitive one. His take, doubtless flavored by his own, highly positive, experience, is not easy given its magnitude and the times and looks more like an ideal that, everything being equal, America and the Western world could follow. However identity matters and a certain balance in policies should be respected for the natives in their respective countries and indeed nations to feel still at home – echoing, Michel Rocard, a former French Prime Minister (whom inspired a very young Macron): “France (but one can replace it for America) cannot accept/integrate all the misery of the world”, a quote that is undeniably heavy to bear and express but is also dispassionately realistic.
One feels that MB wants for the Democrats to win so the GOP that lost it ways can be reborn even if he does not believe in the Democratic party which he sees having gone way too leftwards – my very concern as well (starting with a “differentiated“ and campus-popular Bernie Sanders in 2016, but now in reaction to the times reflecting its whole leadership and as vividly seen in by-elections in the Northeast) – as the GOP has gone far-right populist, leaving many like MB (and I, should I be American) disenfranchised. MB does not believe that there could be a third party in America today as the libertarians could attest, except perhaps in California where the GOP as we know it is on an extinction path. One could think that a third party needs a man (or a woman) charismatic enough and with fresh and appealing ideas – like an American Macron – to upset the status quo though MB is probably right that the two parties, whatever shape they are in today are too entrenched at the local level for a third party to emerge. It is more likely that a politician from the past will emerge as the one to have a go at ending the Trump era in 2020. Some experts say Elizabeth Warren (surprisingly given her radicality on the spectrum). Others say Biden or even Kerry (I see a one term Biden a very practical and centrist option). Others say (like me too) Romney who is not simply going to the Senate to replace Orrin Hatch but wisely keeps a low profile for now. Wild card thinkers mention newcomer Texan “Beto” O’Rourke who is now facing Ted Cruz in Texas but may be too Bob Kennedy-esque for our times. What is clear is that America needs a candidate that can project the features that MB listed for his own beliefs and bring back to us the America we and the world need. The road is not too long but will be tough and starts on Tuesday.
Reading MB and having witnessed the last two years as an “engaged observer” as philosopher Raymond Aron would have put it (le spectateur engagé) one cannot not think about the way executive and legislative leaderships are chosen in America in the mid-2010s on the basis the Founding Fathers devised 250 years ago. And then they expressly did so (with their successors refining the process) in order to preserve America from the very situation it finds itself in. While taking the risk of being unwittingly iconolistic, I will leave you with two (or three) thoughts to consider:
- How is it possible in 2018 for a leading, modern, world democracy to elect as the leader of its executive branch someone who gathered nearly three million less votes nationwide than its opponent simply as he would have had a lead of 80,000 votes that let him garner the “delegates” in three states? (It was odd that no public debate really took place post-November 2016 as if the topic was culturally off limits).
- How is it possible for all the 50 states, given the huge disparities in population sizes at play, to send two senators each to the US Senate, a majority of whom will decide inter alia via the Supreme Court justice confirmation process on how America should eventually “live”? (Would the House not be enough to ensure “smaller states” and their citizens be properly represented? Are state rights more important than democracy in 2018 in America, 153 years after Appomatox?)
- A subsidiary question would be why there is no mandatory retirement age for Supreme Court Justices simply to ensure that they can “also” fully relate to societal developments and represent the very citizens, especially the younger ones, they should serve.
It is hard not to find that there is a democratic deficit in American politics today where majorities are not properly reflected in election results. I realize that it would be anathema for many, including those who would benefit from it, to alter the enshrined system for its own good if only as it might be an unraveling start of a system that worked well “in the past” (I heard the words “secession risk” in relation to my second question last week, which I find highly unlikely for sheer practical reasons). Would America as a nation (I know I am being an Hamiltonian Federalist here) not benefit from an electoral system that is found in modern democracies? And work hard and decisively to understand the voters of small states, making sure it corrects the imperfections of our modern, globalized, world? I wonder what Max Boot and a contemporary visiting Tocqueville would think.
Serge Desprat- 3rd November, 2018 (Prague)