Skip to content

Under the Boot

Max Boot's conversion narrative proves one thing—he hasn’t changed a bit

Whenever I try to explain Marine Corps lingo to the uninitiated, I always return to my roots and say that it’s a lot like Yiddish. I’m by no means an expert yid, but I’ve learned an expression or two throughout the years—and as my father always insists, there really is a perfect-sounding Yiddish word for everything, or at least for most things other languages seem to neglect. Marine Speak achieves a similar end. One of my Corps favorites is the term salty. If a staff sergeant is salty, that means they’ve been at sea for a long while. They’re hardened. But the term often also carries a strong whiff of disillusion. A salty Marine, usually, is a Marine who has been disabused of the callow mythologies of their youth.

The opposite of being salty is being boot. Being a boot, in its more common noun form, just means being a Marine fresh out of boot camp. But its other connotations are more interesting. On one level, a boot isn’t all that different than a novice or naif; in the eyes of the more seasoned ranks, boots can come off as relatable, maybe even charming. Yet such a fledgling can also become foolhardy, a cross between a useful idiot and the weakest link. Having taken the gung-ho theatrics of entry-level training too seriously, this specific kind of boot risks shooting or charging when they shouldn’t be doing either, which means they risk getting people killed.

Max Boot has never volunteered to do any shooting or charging himself, but in his new book, The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right, he brags about hobnobbing with generals and colonels in various war zones as a policy advisor. He notes with relish the time, while joining high brass on a ground-mobile convoy in Iraq, that a vehicle in front of his hit “a roadside bomb” and he “took machine gun fire from a nearby building.” For most combat veterans, this boast wouldn’t impress. But Boot’s intended audience isn’t comprised of salty sergeants. It’s made up of perpetual boots, much like himself.

Some on the Internet have dubbed the prominent neoconservative, Washington Post columnist, and #NeverTrump darling of the liberal media “Maximum Boot,” an image that evokes a fascist brute. But what defines the man isn’t so much the vulgarly vicious as the cluelessly reckless, no matter how willful that cluelessness might be. The bootness of Max Boot, and the bootness of his memoir in particular—a book that purports to have abandoned the exact bootness it embodies—reflects the overriding bootness of the military-industrial-media complex that has so lavishly rewarded talking heads like Boot. The contradiction between Boot’s affected saltiness and his actual bootness marks the principle if unwitting drama of The Corrosion of Conservatism. It also happens to epitomize one of the stubborn absurdities of our time—namely, an inane but lethal ruling class lecturing us with one side of their mouth that Trumpism signals the worst of chauvinist America, and with the other, telling us that we must resurrect the chauvinist status quo that brought us Trumpism in the first place.

Boot’s intended audience isn’t comprised of salty sergeants. It’s made up of perpetual boots, much like himself.

Boot’s faux confessional is instructive in this regard, since despite his dizzying reversals and non-sequiturs, he ends up arguing that there is a direct line to be drawn from William F. Buckley to Donald J. Trump—the latter just corroded (as opposed to doubled down on) the former. Likewise, he admits America has always been beset by misogyny, racism, and an unstable class imbalance, but argues that the answer is to restore the same center-right politics that built and maintained this crisis-ridden order. As if his muddled thinking weren’t already on full display, Boot places his ersatz solution—a call for a new, center-right party—under the banner of what the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called the “vital center”—even though Schlesinger envisioned something similar to the Bernie Sanders-like coalition that Boot spurns. As David Marcus recently put it, The Vital Center was “a call to arms for liberals, social democrats, and, yes, socialists.”

That Boot, a middle-aged man, seems not only to have enthusiastically discovered and embraced Schlesinger’s classic mid-twentieth-century “vital center” over a decade and a half into the twenty-first century, but also seems to have unknowingly redefined the concept as its opposite? This is a boot thing to do. That he has chosen to wield the “vital center” against the social democratic program Schlesinger pushed for throughout his adult life is equally boot. You’d be forgiven for assuming this example signifies the outer limits of Boot’s bootness, but the reality is that such bootness pervades every paragraph, perhaps every word and even syllable, of this beloved pundit’s latest cri de cœur.  

When recounting the rapport he developed with then-Senator Hillary Clinton during their shared time on a Defense Department advisory board, Boot describes one of the politicians most known for her warmed-over platitudes as “utterly free of political cant”—“at least,” he adds, as if aware of the statement’s risibility, “in this private setting.” The statement stands alone as boot, but given that it appears in a book dripping with sanctimony, it becomes all the more so. The quote comes just a few pages after the author sings a saccharine hymn to American exceptionalism and ruling class deference:

Trump’s lack of restraint caused me to loosen my own restraints. I had grown up in a culture in which, even after the convulsions of the 1960s and 1970s, the President—a title that was always capitalized—was treated with deference and respect. I was influenced by watching old black-and-white movies from the fifties in which the chief executive was such a mighty personage that he could only be glimpsed in silhouette or from the back—seeing his face would have seemed as sacrilegious as glimpsing the face of God. That attitude had carried over to my work as a political pundit. Even when I disagreed with presidents such as Barack Obama or George W. Bush, I was careful to treat them with the respect that their accomplishments and office demanded. A similar habit of deference carried over to presidential candidates, any one of whom (almost) could be the future commander in chief. But I could not treat Trump as a normal candidate when he was transgressing every norm not just of presidential politics but also of civilized society. I had some trepidation about calling out a presidential candidate—and a Republican to boot—in terms normally reserved for foreign tyrants, but my indignation propelled me forward. I could not stay silent.  

This is textbook boot, and like most boot claims, it’s less than entirely accurate. Although it’s true Boot has been harder on Trump than previous presidents or presidential candidates, it’s untrue that he always treated the others with respect.

In a September 2004 article for the Los Angeles Times, Boot accused then-presidential candidate John Kerry of “pandering to leftist isolationism” and “appeasement” for whispering about dialing down involvement in Iraq. The smear came with the additional complaint that Kerry—when not playing the part of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to America’s newest Hitler, presumably—whined about President Bush devoting billions to Iraq that could have, as Boot sneers, gone to “schools, healthcare, firefighters and no doubt free treats for good little girls and boys.”

As late as 2011, Boot was recycling the same false imputation against President Obama for preferring “nation-building at home” to military adventurism abroad. The Corrosion of Conservatism still maintains that Obama was “too noninterventionist”—another conspicuous appraisal given Obama’s disastrous record of interventionism in Libya, Afghanistan, and Yemen, never mind his perilous expansion of special operations and the drone war in Africa and elsewhere. Even in Syria, where he was largely castigated for inaction, Obama authorized shipments of arms and equipment to Syrian rebels, as well as, by 2015, regular airstrikes. Sanders’s progressive internationalism, meanwhile, gets lumped in with Trump’s “protectionism and isolationism.”

Equally boot is Boot’s weightless twaddle about there being “no finer fighting force in history” than the U.S. military; about all American presidents from Harry Truman to Barack Obama promoting “collective security, international law, free trade, and human rights”; about the supposed shock of a Vladimir Putin admirer leading “the Land of the Free”; about the “entire nation” being “touched and uplifted” by Ronald Reagan’s speech in the wake of the Challenger explosion in 1986; about Reagan being a hero for immigrants in part because he set in motion what would become the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); about Reagan being a fiscal conservative and his ideological progeny’s plutocratic incantations on the horrors of “the debt” or “entitlement reform” being good faith and legitimate; about the fortieth president’s “optimistic and inclusive” conservatism altogether; about late Senator John McCain being “one of America’s greatest war heroes” and a “leading champion of America’s role as a global leader”; about Senator Mitt Romney being an “honorable man”; about Special Counsel Robert Mueller representing the “best of America”; about the integrity of former CIA Director John Brennan and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper; about demagogues “prey[ing] on the fears of their constituents and vilify[ing] minorities” such as “‘the rich’”; about concerns surrounding the gargantuan power of Amazon and Jeff Bezos (Boot’s boss at the Post), or the merger of AT&T and Time Warner, being driven by nothing more than the “strongman” instincts of authoritarians like Trump, Putin, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, or Turkish President Recap Tayyip Erdogan who dislike an independent press; or about Boot’s own conservatism, which he claims derives from the “nineteenth-century English classical liberal tradition.”

What’s most revealing about this capsule of neoconservative bromides, all of which dissipate after the slightest contact with reality (spend some time with those links if you don’t believe me), is that they now pass just as well as liberal bromides. It’s become a bipartisan affair to praise men who have devoted their lives to the violent redistribution of wealth and power upwards, and to run interference for the capitalist empire—or in boot parlance, the “rules-based international order”—that has allowed them do so. The great conceit is that this alliance between the left and right is merely strategic. As the recent parting letter of veteran NBC/MSNBC reporter William Arkin attests, what we’re actually seeing is a long-simmering ideological romance coming out of the shadows. In Arkin’s words, NBC and other supposedly liberal media outlets have begun “emulating the national security state . . . busy and profitable.”

It would be nice to think that someone being paid extravagant attention and cash to write a book on partisan politics in the United States would obtain a basic grasp of the relevant fault lines. As any half-sentient observer of Boot nevertheless knows, the opposite is the case. In the Marines, the boot, especially the perpetual type, tends to be contained. In the punditocracy, by contrast, the elevation of the boot isn’t a bug, but a central feature. It is, after all, the function of capitalist media to defend the indefensible from morning to midnight, whether that be austerity, endless war, or a brutal settler-colonial outpost in Palestine. This can sometimes be done by hiring a standard shill. But sincerity delivers a much better sell than disingenuousness. This is where the boots of the world come in handy. No one does dumb sincerity better than Max Boot.

It’s become a bipartisan affair to praise men who have devoted their lives to the violent redistribution of wealth and power upwards.

Consider the man’s career. He first made a name for himself writing and editing opinion pieces for the Wall Street Journal, where he was made to cover economics and law, both of which he confesses he knew next to nothing about. He’s still marketed as a respected historian, even though his historical work is frequently panned by real scholars. He earned his fame and senior fellowship at the boot-ridden Council on Foreign Relations by hawking for or retroactively defending nearly every devastating war, intervention, or alliance in the past three decades, with no military experience whatsoever. Boot and his fellow roundtable devotees have spent the past two years cheerleading the militarization of Russia’s periphery, from Poland to Romania to Georgia, despite the fact that one of the parties with the most to gain from such escalation is the far right—including neo-Nazis in Ukraine, the latter of whom the U.S. government, with likely back-channel assistance from Israel, has tacitly supported and possibly armed. This follows a long tradition of the United States and Israel backing far-right elements across the globe.

And yet Boot and his peers can’t stop flaunting their supposed anti-fascist bona fides by flamboyantly opposing right-wing bad guys like Orban (another cozy ally of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, as it happens). Even The Corrosion of Conservatism fits this pattern, seeing as it’s a book about an ostensible conversion from someone who shows no fundamental signs of having converted. For all his talk of leaving the right, he hasn’t wandered too far from home. 

This isn’t to say that Boot hasn’t learned anything. His evident disillusion with the U.S.-Saudi Arabia alliance against Iran, specifically in Yemen, is noteworthy—though he was one of the lead boosters of all of the above not that long ago. He’s still very much a fanatic when it comes to maintaining “American primacy” in the region, even if that means cutting Social Security, Medicare, or any other social investment he sees as getting in the way of his treasured imperialist project. And despite a much-ballyhooed about-face on racism in America, particularly within the American right, he has declined to connect the dots between that racism and the empire he loves so dear. This became evident recently when he posited the United States’ genocidal Indian campaigns as a twenty-first century model for endless war, and then bootly whined about the legitimate backlash thereafter. But perhaps the most revealing fact in The Corrosion of Conservatism is that Boot kept an outsized poster of Winston Churchill in his childhood bedroom—an anecdote made even more revealing by his apparent lack of awareness that Churchill could be anything other than revered.

This makes sense. When Boot finally gets around to expressing regret for supporting the war in Iraq, he deflects most of the blame by reminding his audience that plenty of others, including plenty Democrats, also supported it. Ignoring that he was one of the war’s most influential and long-lasting propagandists is bad enough. So is not mentioning the countless other acts of U.S. aggression he’s supported, like regime change in Libya, a country now plagued by terror and a modern-day slavery market. But the aspect of Boot’s perfunctory apology that truly rankles is his refusal to name the estimated dead. Brown University’s Watson Institute calculates that at least 480,000 people have been killed by direct violence in the United States’ post-9/11 wars in the Greater Middle East, and many times more have been killed indirectly due to infrastructure breakdown. Millions now scrape the earth jobless, homeless, parentless, childless, limbless, faceless, or hopeless because of America’s wars. It is a testament to Boot’s failure to depart from his boyhood room that these people’s lives and deaths remain just as invisible to him as those of Churchill’s countless victims. Whether racism has anything to do with this failure is a question neither Boot nor his fans will ever ponder.

As I made my way through this latest Jon Meacham-approved tome, I kept thinking of Andrew Bacevich, another prolific, albeit less popular, voice on questions of so-called national security. The distinguished Boston University professor emeritus is over twenty years Boot’s elder, a retired lieutenant colonel, a Vietnam War veteran, a West Point graduate, and the father of an Army officer who died in the Iraq War in 2007. He has also emerged as one of the country’s most perceptive critics of American militarism and has likely sacrificed endless air time and accolades from media gatekeepers for his sins. In a word, Bacevich is everything Boot is not, and it’s for that very reason only one of them has prevailed as an MSNBC celebrity. To this I can only conclude, as my people from the old country might have said, what a shanda.