Until very recently, writer Max Boot shared a political party with your Aunt Nutjob. After earning degrees from Berkeley and Yale he launched a writing career that placed his work everywhere from the Christian Science Monitor to the New York Times. His writing and research focused almost entirely on his neo-conservative foreign policy. Under Bush II he’d been a major proponent of intervention in Iraq and elsewhere. He served as a foreign policy advisor to both the McCain and Romney campaigns. Currently he is the Kirkpatrick Fellow at the Council of Foreign Affairs.
Max Boot is not a moron, yet until the Trump campaign in 2016 he at least nominally adhered to the same political platform as your average right wing loon. For the remnant of the old anti-Soviet bloc of the GOP, Trump was a bridge too far. After battling authoritarians overseas for decades, this narrow and dwindling wing of the party could not make peace with an American Kleptocrat. Boot would leave the party over Trump. Then a fascinating process began, a process we’re seeing play out among many Republican refugees.
When our networks change, so do our opinions. Boot is delivering a live demonstration of how we form and re-form viewpoints. Human beings do not, in fact, arrive at decisions in a fully individual, rational manner. Most of our opinions are shaped or even dictated by our networks, our social interactions. In short, we reason socially. Boot is demonstrating how this process works and what happens when our networks break down and re-form.
Max Boot spent the last couple of decades writing apologia for the foreign policy ambitions of right-wing Republicans like Dick Cheney. In a quick review of his work, it’s hard to identify a US military adventure he didn’t support. Seldom, if ever, did he explore or question the rest of the Republican Party’s agenda. In fact, you won’t find tons of introspection anywhere in his work. Here’s a representative sample, from a 2003 piece in the Weekly Standard:
I went to Iraq in August, the day after a bomb had ripped through the United Nations compound in Baghdad, killing 23 people including the U.N. special envoy. I came home the day after another massive car bomb exploded at a mosque in Najaf, taking more than 95 lives including that of a leading cleric. Yet I returned more optimistic than when I went.
So, that’s who you’re dealing with.
The rise of Trump not only repudiated his policy ambitions, but threatened Boot at the level of his personal identity. As a Jew and an immigrant, racial hatred fanned by Trump was aimed squarely at people like him. In a career that bounced from one coastal enclave to another, it’s unlikely Boot had ever spent much time with the actual voters, mostly in places like Mississippi and Texas, who deliver the electoral heft beneath Republican politics. Trump was a stunning, unexplainable surprise, a cold introduction to reality.
Re-emerging recently at the Washington Post after leaving the party in 2016, Boot is now penning paragraphs like this:
Upon closer examination, it’s obvious that the history of modern conservative [sp] is permeated with racism, extremism, conspiracy-mongering, isolationism and know-nothingism…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!
His recent articles have explained that the GOP is a monster that must be destroyed, human-induced climate change is a serious threat, white privilege is a real thing, and that the Republican Party is essentially a vehicle for Neo-Confederates. Max Boot, a grown-ass man with many college degrees, is just now waking up to the realization that climate change is real and the Confederacy remains a looming influence on US politics.
Why are Boot’s eyes suddenly opened to these realities? For two decades he shared an agenda with a group of people we commonly think of as “low information voters,” folks who thought Jade Helm was a dark conspiracy and Obama was born in Kenya. Is he suddenly smarter than he was in 2015?
Something interesting happens when our network connections change. For clues, look at the transformation we’ve seen from other dissident Republicans. Bill Kristol fought Republicans’ effort to repeal the ACA. It’s tough anymore to identify any opinion Jennifer Rubin holds other than opposition to Trump. With the positions they are now taking, you have to wonder why they weren’t Democrats all along.
Has Max Boot been quietly harboring doubts about Republican climate denial for the past decade? Perhaps, but probably not. Why do I believe in climate change while my goofy cousin out in East HeeHaw doesn’t? We’re tempted to write it off as stupidity. Deniers are “idiots” who “don’t understand” climate science.
Here’s the thing, though. I don’t understand climate science and neither does Max Boot, either in his present 2.1 version, or in his classic pre-Trump edition. I have no capacity whatsoever to personally judge the merits of the thousands of research papers being submitted on climate science. I haven’t read the most recent UN climate report, or any of the prior ones. In fact, when I argue the matter with my hayseed cousin he brings up supposed facts I’ve never heard of and don’t know how to evaluate.
My acceptance of basic climate science is not a product of my grand intellectual superiority. Thanks to education, travel, life choices and yes, to a small extent perhaps, intellect, I’m participating in a great many networks of far higher quality than my erstwhile relative who works down at the Tractor Supply. I don’t understand climate science, but I participate in networks that include people who do, and I rely on those networks for guidance in this and many other matters.
These networks are not fool-proof. Within these same networks I’ve been treated to lectures from bright people on the healing power of essential oils and the dangers of vaccinations. But on the whole, access to smarter networks yields valuable insights on everything from politics to investing.
Meanwhile Cousin Boondocks is limited to some pretty sketchy networks, heavily influenced by predatory data pollution engines like the Daily Caller, Breitbart and the rest of the rightwing media vampire squid. The impact of these poor networks extends beyond politics, as he lost a worrying sum of money buying gold coins during the Obama Administration. He still refuses to participate in his company’s 401K because banks and other investment vehicles are tools of the international globalist elite. Data networks are evolving into a form of capital, and not all capital is equal.
For years, Max Boot was tied into a data network of poor and consistently declining quality, a network in which I also participated. His loyalty to that network was critical to maintaining access to powerful people. We seldom waste energy looking inward at our own assumptions. All the focus is on the other side. Self-examination amounts to criticism of our own networks, and questioning the assumptions of our social groups is dangerous.
Critical thought is least costly for those with a lot of resources, a strong assumption of personal safety, and exposure to many social and information networks. Critical thought is unthinkably dangerous for people isolated in only a single network, with access to few resources, or among those who perceive themselves, accurately or inaccurately, as under threat.
Boot broke loose from his Republican network allegiance when that network turned on him. Very quickly, his views evolved in closer conformity to the larger networks in which he still participates. He is adopting viewpoints consistent with the rest of his identity as a highly-educated, affluent resident of a deep-blue coastal city.
That kind of introspection isn’t so easy for lower income whites tied into low-quality networks with few alternatives. Breaking with prevailing propaganda could cost them vital support and even impact their income. Losing their place in a church or community group could have serious material consequences. If they are experiencing doubts based on tiny threads of dissonant data, they’ll probably suppress those doubts waiting for a general collapse of that network, rather than accept the risk of independent action.
When the Trump era ends, likely soon, we’ll be faced with the challenge of piecing this nation back together. Central to that challenge is a problem we’ve seldom considered and little understand – network isolation. How do we build bridges across barriers of demographics and geography which are reinforced by data bubbles? In time, we’ll likely recognize malformed social networks as a problem on par with income inequality or rural poverty. Ironically, the same social media technologies that helped create this problem probably hold our most promising solutions.