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If this is what conservatism has become, count me out

  • Author: Max Boot
    | Opinion
  • Updated: February 26
  • Published February 26

I'm used to being vilified by the far left as a bloodthirsty neocon warmonger for the Original Sin of having supported the invasion of Iraq along with 72 percent of the American public. It has been a little more surprising to be simultaneously vilified by the far right as a dangerous left-winger.

David Horowitz's FrontPage magazine accused me of going "full leftist" for acknowledging that racism and sexism remain pervasive problems. Breitbart called me, with ironic quotation marks, the "Washington Post's ostensibly new 'conservative' columnist," because, among other sins, I support gun control and immigration. American Greatness wrote that I am a "soulless, craven opportunist" whose "brain is broken," because I compared President Donald Trump's indifference to the 2016 Russian election assault to a president ignoring 9/11. For the same offense, Jack Posobiec – an internet troll notorious for pushing the theory that Hillary Clinton was running a child-sex ring out of a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor – said I was "sick" and a "Russian propagandist." In the Orwellian language of the far right, someone who wants to combat Russian aggression is a "Russian propagandist," whereas someone who echoes Russian propaganda is putting "America first."

In the past I would have been indignant at such attacks and eager to assert my conservative credentials. I spent years writing for conservative publications such as the Wall Street Journal editorial page and Commentary magazine and working as a foreign policy adviser for three Republican presidential campaigns. Being conservative used to be central to my identity. But now, frankly, I don't give a damn. I prefer to think of myself as a classical liberal, because "conservative" has become practically synonymous with "Trump lackey."

Richard Brookhiser, a longtime stalwart at National Review, summed up the Trump effect: "Now the religious Right adores a thrice-married cad and casual liar. But it is not alone. Historians and psychologists of the martial virtues salute the bone-spurred draft-dodger whose Khe Sanh was not catching the clap. Cultural critics who deplored academic fads and slipshod aesthetics explicate a man who has never read a book, not even the ones he has signed. … Straussians, after leaving the cave, find themselves in Mar-a-Lago. Econocons put their money on a serial bankrupt."

Principled conservativism continues to exist, primarily at small journals of opinion, but it is increasingly disconnected from the stuff that thrills the masses. I remember as a high school student in the 1980s attending a lecture at UCLA by William F. Buckley Jr. I was dazzled by his erudition, wit and oratorical skill. Today, young conservatives flock to the boorish and racist performance art of Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter. The Conservative Political Action Conference couldn't find room for critics of Trump, save for the brave and booed Mona Charen, but it did showcase French fascist scion Marion Maréchal-Le Pen.

The career of Dinesh D'Souza is indicative of the downward trajectory of conservatism. He made his name with a well-regarded 1991 book denouncing political correctness and championing liberal education. Then he wrote a widely panned 1995 book claiming that racism was no more, and it was all downhill from there. In 2014 he pleaded guilty to breaking campaign finance laws. Now, as the Daily Beast notes, he has become a conspiratorial crank who has suggested that the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, was staged by liberals, that Barack Obama is a "gay Muslim" and Michelle Obama is a man and that Adolf Hitler, who sent 50,000 homosexuals to prison, "was NOT anti-gay." He managed to sink even lower last week by mocking stunned Parkland school-shooting survivors after the Florida legislature defeated a bill to ban assault weapons: "Worst news since their parents told them to get summer jobs."

It is hard to imagine anything more cruel and heartless, but for a bottom-feeder like D'Souza it's all in a day's work. As he wrote in his 2002 book "Letters to a Young Conservative," "One way to be effective as a conservative is to figure out what annoys and disturbs liberals the most, and then keep doing it." (Thanks to Windsor Mann for the quote.) That, in a nutshell, is the credo of today's high-profile conservatives: Say anything to "trigger" the "libtards" and "snowflakes." The dumber and more offensive, the better. Whatever it takes to get on (and stay on) Fox News and land the next book contract!

Naturally, just as drug addicts need bigger doses over time, these outrage artists must be ever more transgressive to get the attention they crave. Coulter's book titles have gone from accusing Bill Clinton of "High Crimes and Misdemeanors" to accusing all liberals of "Treason," of being "Godless" and even "Demonic." Her latest assault on the public's intelligence was called "In Trump We Trust: E Pluribus Awesome!"

If this is what mainstream conservatism has become – and it is – count me out.

Max Boot, a Washington Post columnist, is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of "The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam."

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