Max Boot has announced he is no longer a conservative. In cosmic time, the shocking announcement came at the exact moment in racist, russia-collusionist Donald Trump’s administration that black unemployment reached its lowest level ever. Like famed boxer Cassius Clay, Trump may be The Greatest, at everything, ever—but he sure makes a lousy racist.
Mr. Boot explains in a Washington Post op-ed:
It would be nice to think that Donald Trump is an anomaly who came out of nowhere to take over an otherwise sane and sober movement. …
Upon closer examination, it’s obvious that the history of modern conservatism is permeated with racism, extremism, conspiracy-mongering, isolationism and know-nothingism. … There has always been a dark underside to conservatism that I chose for most of my life to ignore.
Oh, please. Even a 50-year-old should have more perspective.
That there were some racists active in the early days of modern conservatism, and now too, should not surprise—Trump having been no more successful than William F. Buckley, Jr., at abolishing original sin. However, Buckley, widely considered to be the founder of modern conservatism, did succeed in hiving off the anti-Semites and the fanatical John Birchers.
But the long story is complicated. It is true, as Boot says, that Buckley’s National Review railed against President Dwight Eisenhower for being insufficiently anticommunist and insufficiently anti-New Deal. Why was that wrong?
Basking now in post-Cold War comfort, it is easy—and a cheap trick—to criticize the policies of an earlier period. We cannot know, now, what a more robust policy (Goldwater’s?) of resistance to the communists might have delivered: perhaps a savings of billions of taxpayer dollars (is there any other kind?) which could have been spent … elsewhere? In retrospect, US policy (Reagan’s building up the military, especially the navy) turned out pretty well, certainly for the United States if not for the millions of people starved, gulaged, and killed behind the Iron Curtain.
But probably it was wholly proper for us to be concerned only about ourselves, not about the millions subjected to communist rule from the 1950s to the 1990s. Raise your hand if that reminds you of America First? Or of isolationism?
Buckley and National Review also railed against Eisenhower’s disinterest in rolling back the New Deal—indeed, Buckley essentially defined conservatives as people who had not made their peace with the New Deal. But he was overly optimistic, in 1955, noting that “the [liberal] Establishment has failed in its efforts to ease over to the federal government the primary responsibility for education, or health, or even housing.”
There’s been a lot of easing over since 1955. Now our primary and high school education system is a mess wholly run by the Democratic Party’s teachers’ unions; and our colleges teach almost nothing while miring students in debt that now exceeds the cost of Mr. Boot’s beloved Iraq war.
It is often said that President Reagan was a convert to the New Deal. That’s not entirely true. He recognized the obligation of Social Security to pay the people who had paid into the system, but knew also that there was a better way: to “privatize” it, at least for people who had the discipline to build their own retirement funds. And Reagan was an early deregulator.
The Civil Rights period is more complex. Buckley’s position has been explored extensively by William Voegeli in The Claremont Review. The worst that can be said about Buckley is that he was late coming to the realization that some federal involvement was necessary to secure equality for blacks.
But his remark in 1961, that he hoped that “when the Negroes have finally realized their long dream of attaining to the status of the white man, the white man will still be free….” was prescient. Lincoln thought preserving the Union, even with slavery, would eventually be better for blacks. Buckley thought limited, constitutional government (what Goldwater had in mind when he voted against Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964) would be better for everyone, including blacks.
You want racism? Try this, from New York Times columnist Charles Blow: “The founders, a bunch of rich, powerful white men, didn’t want true democracy in this country, and in fact were dreadfully afraid of it. Now, a bunch of rich, powerful white men want to return us to this sensibility, wrapped in a populist ‘follow the Constitution’ rallying cry and disguised as the ultimate form of patriotism.”
In any political movement there will be misfits and misanthropes, but it is immature to judge the whole by the part. Mr. Boot may be leaving the conservative side, but where is he going? The alternative is a socialist gulag, diminished First and Second Amendments, Orwellian speech codes, gender fluidity, and physical discomfort enforced by the climate police.
Have a good time, Mr. Boot.