Washington Post columnist and former Republican Max Boot has been driven from the comfort of his political bubble by President Donald Trump’s brand of conservatism to find, with his blinders now removed, that the “dark side of American conservatism” has been snaking its way into the mainstream for decades.
Boot not only left the GOP after lifelong membership but believes, as it currently stands, that the Republican Party must be “burned to the ground.”
> You know how, after you watch a movie with a surprise ending, you sometimes replay the plot in your head to find the clues you missed the first time around? That’s what I’ve been doing lately with the history of conservatism — a movement I had been part of since my teenage days as a conservative columnist at the University of California at Berkeley in the early 1990s. In the decades since, I have written for numerous conservative publications and served as a foreign policy adviser to three Republican presidential candidates. 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. But it just isn’t so.
> Upon closer examination, it’s obvious that the history of modern conservative is permeated with racism, extremism, conspiracy-mongering, isolationism and know-nothingism. I disagree with progressives who argue that these disfigurations define the totality of conservatism; conservatives have also espoused high-minded principles that I still believe in, and the bigotry on the right appeared to be ameliorating in recent decades. But there has always been a dark underside to conservatism that I chose for most of my life to ignore. It’s amazing how little you can see when your eyes are closed!
Boot notes that as far back as the 1950s, the likes of William F. Buckley Jr., Barry Goldwater, and Ronald Reagan were bucking against the moderate conservatism of Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Moving forward to the 1960s, progress in the realm of civil rights drove the wedge between more moderate conservatives and the extreme members of the Republican Party.
> Most Republicans in Congress voted in 1964 and 1965 for landmark civil rights legislation, but not Goldwater. In his 1960 bestseller “The Conscience of a Conservative,” Goldwater wrote that “the federal Constitution does not require the states to maintain racially mixed schools.” Goldwater was not personally a racist — he had integrated the Arizona Air National Guard — but, like his GOP successors, he was happy to make common cause with racists in order to wrest the South from the Democrats.
> In 1964, the GOP ceased to be the party of Lincoln and became the party of Southern whites. As I now look back with the clarity of hindsight, I am convinced that coded racial appeals had at least as much, if not more, to do with the electoral success of the modern Republican Party than all of the domestic and foreign policy proposals crafted by well-intentioned analysts like me. This is what liberals have been saying for decades. I never believed them. Now I do, because Trump won by making the racist appeal, hitherto relatively subtle, obvious even to someone such as me who used to be in denial.
By 1996, Bob Dole and Goldwater were joking that they had “sort of become the liberals” of the Republican Party.
> The ascendance of extreme views, abetted in recent years by Fox News, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and the tea party movement, increasingly made the House Republican caucus ungovernable. The far-right Freedom Caucus drove House Speaker John A. Boehner into retirement in 2015. His successor, Paul D. Ryan, lasted only three years. Ryan’s retirement signals the final repudiation of an optimistic, inclusive brand of Reaganesque conservatism focused on enhancing economic opportunity at home and promoting democracy and free trade abroad. The Republican Party will now be defined by Trump’s dark, divisive vision, with his depiction of Democrats as America-hating, criminal-coddling traitors, his vilification of the press as the “enemy of the people,” and his ugly invective against Mexicans and Muslims. The extremism that many Republicans of goodwill had been trying to push to the fringe of their party is now its governing ideology.
All of this is why Boot said he could no longer call himself a Republican, and furthermore, wishes “ill fortune on my former party”.
> I am now convinced that the Republican Party must suffer repeated and devastating defeats beginning in November. It must pay a heavy price for its embrace of white nationalism and know-nothingism. Only if the GOP as it is currently constituted is burned to the ground will there be any chance to build a reasonable center-right party out of the ashes. But that will require undoing the work of decades, not just of the past two years.