Quick Review: THE CORROSION OF CONSERVATISM by Max Boot (Liveright)

BootM-CorrosionOfConservatismAn interesting account of a Republican’s departure from his life-long political home

Warning that the Trump presidency presages America’s decline, the political commentator recounts his extraordinary journey from lifelong Republican to vehement Trump opponent.

As nativism, xenophobia, vile racism, and assaults on the rule of law threaten the very fabric of our nation, The Corrosion of Conservatism presents an urgent defense of American democracy.

Pronouncing Mexican immigrants to be “rapists,” Donald Trump announced his 2015 presidential bid, causing Max Boot to think he was watching a dystopian science-fiction movie. The respected conservative historian couldn’t fathom that the party of Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Reagan could endorse such an unqualified reality-TV star. Yet the Twilight Zone episode that Boot believed he was watching created an ideological dislocation so shattering that Boot’s transformation from Republican foreign policy adviser to celebrated anti-Trump columnist becomes the dramatic story of The Corrosion of Conservatism.

No longer a Republican, but also not a Democrat, Boot here records his ideological journey from a “movement” conservative to a man without a party, beginning with his political coming-of-age as a young émigré from the Soviet Union, enthralled with the National Review and the conservative intellectual tradition of Russell Kirk and F. A. Hayek. Against this personal odyssey, Boot simultaneously traces the evolution of modern American conservatism, jump-started by Barry Goldwater’s canonical The Conscience of a Conservative, to the rise of Trumpism and its gradual corrosion of what was once the Republican Party.

While 90 percent of his fellow Republicans became political “toadies” in the aftermath of the 2016 election, Boot stood his ground, enduring the vitriol of his erstwhile conservative colleagues, trolled on Twitter by a white supremacist who depicted his “execution” in a gas chamber by a smiling, Nazi-clad Trump. And yet, Boot nevertheless remains a villain to some partisan circles for his enduring commitment to conservative fiscal and national security principles. It is from this isolated position, then, that Boot launches this bold declaration of dissent and its urgent plea for true, bipartisan cooperation.

With uncompromising insights, The Corrosion of Conservatism evokes both a president who has traduced every norm and the rise of a nascent centrist movement to counter Trump’s assault on democracy.

I’ve been aware of Max Boot’s writings for a long time. I read many of his articles as part of my research for one of my PhD chapters. I frequently disagreed with him, especially on US domestic policy, but was always interested in reading what he thought about foreign policy (the subject of my thesis). During 2016, like many who are interested in/obsessed with US politics, I noticed his sharp break from his party and have watched with interest his evolution as his former-party has imploded and wholly bought into Trumpism. Continue reading

Advertisements

Recommendation: Penguin’s World War I China Specials

ChinaPenguinSpecials-WWI

This series of nine short books is fantastic. I bought them quite some time ago — they were released to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I — but I have finally caught up. If you have any interest in learning about China, then I would highly recommend these books. Each of them was informative, engaging, sometimes entertaining, and frequently brutally honest. Continue reading

Upcoming: OUR TOWNS by James & Deborah Fallows (Pantheon)

Fallows-OurTownsUSI have long been a fan of James Fallows‘s journalism — I first read his work in The Atlantic, back in 2007 when he was still living in China (some of his articles from that time have been collected in the excellent Postcards From Tomorrow Square, which I’m reading at the moment). This year, Pantheon will publish Fallows’s latest book, co-written with his wife, Deborah FallowsOur Towns. Here’s the synopsis:

A vivid, surprising portrait of the civic and economic reinvention taking place in America, town by town and generally out of view of the national media. A realistically positive and provocative view of the country between its coasts.

For the last five years, James and Deborah Fallows have been traveling across America in a single-engine prop airplane. Visiting dozens of towns, they have met hundreds of civic leaders, workers, immigrants, educators, environmentalists, artists, public servants, librarians, business people, city planners, students, and entrepreneurs to take the pulse and understand the prospects of places that usually draw notice only after a disaster or during a political campaign.

The America they saw is acutely conscious of its problems — from economic dislocation to the opioid scourge — but itis also crafting solutions, with a practical-minded determination at dramatic odds with the bitter paralysis of national politics. At times of dysfunction on a national level, reform possibilities have often arisen from the local level. The Fallowses describe America in the middle of one of these creative waves. Their view of the country is as complex and contradictory as America itself, but it also reflects the energy, the generosity and compassion, the dreams, and the determination of many who are in the midst of making things better. Our Towns is the story of their journey — and an account of a country busy remaking itself.

I received an ARC of this book recently, and I’m really looking forward to reading it. (I’ll probably start it either after finishing Postcards…, or after my next non-fiction read.)

Follow the Authors: Goodreads — James/Deborah; Twitter — James/Deborah

Quick Review: WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT by Jeffrey Rosen (Times Books)

RosenJ-APS27-WilliamHowardTaftAn excellent, short introduction to the life and career of the 27th president

The only man to serve as president and chief justice, who approached every decision in constitutional terms, defending the Founders’ vision against new populist threats to American democracy

William Howard Taft never wanted to be president and yearned instead to serve as chief justice of the United States. But despite his ambivalence about politics, the former federal judge found success in the executive branch as governor of the Philippines and secretary of war, and he won a resounding victory in the presidential election of 1908 as Theodore Roosevelt’s handpicked successor.

In this provocative assessment, Jeffrey Rosen reveals Taft’s crucial role in shaping how America balances populism against the rule of law. Taft approached each decision as president by asking whether it comported with the Constitution, seeking to put Roosevelt’s activist executive orders on firm legal grounds. But unlike Roosevelt, who thought the president could do anything the Constitution didn’t forbid, Taft insisted he could do only what the Constitution explicitly allowed. This led to a dramatic breach with Roosevelt in the historic election of 1912, which Taft viewed as a crusade to defend the Constitution against the demagogic populism of Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

Nine years later, Taft achieved his lifelong dream when President Warren Harding appointed him chief justice, and during his years on the Court he promoted consensus among the justices and transformed the judiciary into a modern, fully equal branch. Though he had chafed in the White House as a judicial president, he thrived as a presidential chief justice.

William Howard Taft is one of the lesser-known presidents. For many, if he is known at all, it is due to the fact that he was quite large. It’s unfortunate that his story has been boiled down into a punch-line. A life-long Republican who was enamoured with the Constitution and those who crafted it, he spent his career judiciously adhering to what he saw as the tenets laid down by the Founding Fathers. He was meticulous, he was extremely intelligent and well-read. He placed principle above party at almost all times. In his contribution to the excellent American Presidents Series, Rosen gives readers a very good, short and engaging introduction to Taft’s life and career. Continue reading

Quick Review: THE LIFE OF ANDREW JACKSON by Robert V. Remini (Harper)

ReminiRV-LifeOfAndrewJacksonUSA very useful, infuriating single-volume biography of the seventh president

Robert V. Remini’s prize-winning, three-volume biography Life of Andrew Jackson won the National Book Award on its completion in 1984 and is recognized as one of the greatest lives of a U.S. President. In this meticulously crafted single-volume abridgment, Remini captures the essence of the life and career of the seventh president of the United States. As president, from 1829-1837, Jackson was a significant force in the nations’s expansion, the growth of presidential power, and the transition from republicanism to democracy.

Jackson is a highly controversial figure who is undergoing historical reconsideration today. He is known as spurring the emergence of the modern American political division of Republican and Democractic parties, for the infamous Indian removal on the Trail of Tears, and for his brave victory against the British as Major General at the Battle of New Orleans.

Never an apologist, Remini portrays Jackson as a foreceful, sometimes tragic, hero — a man whose strength and flaws were larger than life, a president whose conviction provided the nation with one of the most influential, colorful, and controversial administrations in our history.

Robert V. Remini is considered one of the preeminent scholars of Andrew Jackson and his times. His three-volume biography of Jackson won the National Book Award and many think of it as one of the best, substantial biographies of any president. In The Life of Andrew Jackson, he has written a comprehensive, (relatively) briskly paced biography. However, the book suffers from one major flaw that coloured almost everything Remini included within. Continue reading

Upcoming: HEIRS OF THE FOUNDERS by H.W. Brands (Doubleday)

BrandsHW-HeirsToTheFoundersUSIn H.W. Brands‘s latest book, the acclaimed historian turns his attention to the three men whose political careers had lasting impact on the United States after the Founding generation had left the stage: Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Daniel Webster. (Sort of — they were all active during some of the founding administrations, but they outlasted them all.) As contemporary politics devolves into horrifying farce, there has rarely been a better time in which to revisit the early years of American politics: messy, contentious, often violent, and yet fascinating. Heirs to the Founders is due to be published by Doubleday in November 2018 (in North America and in the UK). Here’s the official synopsis:

The riveting story of how America’s second generation of political giants — Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John Calhoun — battled to complete the unfinished work of the Founding Fathers and decide the shape of our democracy.

In the early days of the nineteenth century, three young men strode onto the national stage, elected to Congress at a moment when the Founding Fathers were beginning to retire to their farms. Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, a champion orator known for his eloquence, spoke for the North and its business class. Henry Clay of Kentucky, as dashing as he was ambitious, embodied the hopes of the rising West. South Carolina’s John Calhoun, with piercing eyes and an even more piercing intellect, defended the South and slavery.

Together this second generation of American founders took the country to war, battled one another for the presidency, and tasked themselves with finishing the work the Founders had left undone. Above all, they sought to remedy the two glaring flaws in the Constitution: its fudge on where authority ultimately rested, with the states or the nation; and its unwillingness to address the essential incompatibility of republicanism and slavery. They wrestled with these issues for four decades, arguing bitterly and hammering out political compromises that held the union together, but only just. Then, in 1850, when California moved to join the union as a free state, “the three great men of America” had one last chance to save the country from the real risk of civil war. But by then they were never further apart.

Follow the Author: Website, Goodreads, Twitter

Upcoming: THE RISE OF ANDREW JACKSON by David S. Heidler & Jeanne T. Heidler (Basic Books)

Heidler-RiseOfAndrewJacksonUSIn October, Basic Books are due to publish the new book by David S. and Jeanne T. HeidlerThe Rise of Andrew Jackson. I have mixed feelings about Andrew Jackson — he was a towering, important figure during one of my favourite periods of American history, whose election helped to fundamentally alter the way presidential elections are conducted.

Generally, though, I have found it to be the case that if you’ve read one book about Jackson, you’ve read them all. Many of his papers were lost in a fire at the Hermitage, and he was by no means as prolific as many of his peers and other presidents. I am not Jackson’s biggest fan. However, the Heidlers’ new book caught my attention because of its focus on the propagandists and journalists who helped Jackson polish his image, to scrub his decidedly unattractive personal history and general manner.

The story of Andrew Jackson’s improbable ascent to the White House, centered on the handlers and propagandists who made it possible

Andrew Jackson was volatile and prone to violence, and well into his forties his sole claim on the public’s affections derived from his victory in a thirty-minute battle at New Orleans in early 1815. Yet those in his immediate circle believed he was a great man who should be president of the United States.

Jackson’s election in 1828 is usually viewed as a result of the expansion of democracy. Historians David and Jeanne Heidler argue that he actually owed his victory to his closest supporters, who wrote hagiographies of him, founded newspapers to savage his enemies, and built a political network that was always on message. In transforming a difficult man into a paragon of republican virtue, the Jacksonites exploded the old order and created a mode of electioneering that has been mimicked ever since.

I’m really looking forward to reading The Rise of Andrew Jackson. The book is published by Basic Books in late October 2018, and will be available in the UK. The Heidlers are also the authors of Henry Clay: The Essential American, among others.

Follow the Authors: Website