To be a prelapsarian conservative in America today — as that creed was understood before 2016 — means getting used to heartbreak. One after another, conservatives that I have admired and respected — Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Tom Cotton, Bill Bennett, Chris Christie, Newt Gingrich, Scott Walker and many others — have failed the Trump test. They have sacrificed their purported principles to curry favor with a populist demagogue who is turning the Republican Party into the American version of France’s National Front.
The most conspicuous Republican to fall from grace — and he had a long way to fall because he once reached such a lofty pinnacle — is Rudy Giuliani. He has gone, in Joe Scarborough’s biting but accurate phrase, from “America’s mayor” to Trump’s chump. But not even the gaudy, post-9/11 phrase “America’s mayor” can convey the true depth of Giuliani’s achievement, especially to a non-New Yorker.
Giuliani, more than any other individual, made New York what it is today: one of the safest, richest and most dynamic cities in the world. There is not in Manhattan today a single “bad” neighborhood — every part of the borough is thriving, and Brooklyn is catching up fast.
This was not the case when Giuliani became mayor in 1994, the very year I moved to New York. Back then the city was being asphyxiated by crime, economic malaise, racial tensions, graffiti, garbage, dysfunctional but expensive government and myriad other ills. Those were the days when the middle class was fleeing the city, jobs were disappearing, people were afraid to walk through Central Park, and drivers routinely put signs in the window of their cars proclaiming “no radio” to ward off thieves.
New York is now a magnet for talented newcomers from all over the world, and if New Yorkers are being driven out, it’s due to high real-estate prices, not urban decay.
The mayors who have come since Giuliani — Michael Bloomberg and now Bill de Blasio — have done a good job of maintaining the quality of life and even improving it while smoothing off some of the rough edges of the Giuliani approach. But the quality-of-life revolution started under Giuliani’s uncompromising leadership. The numbers tell the story: In 1993, the year that Giuliani was elected, there were 1,946 murders. In 2001, the last year of his mayoralty, the number was down to 649. That’s a decline of more than 66 percent. It’s true that crime was also dropping across the country, but it seemed to fall further and faster in New York City than anywhere else.
It wasn’t all Giuliani’s doing: His predecessor, David Dinkins, hired more cops, and Giuliani’s first police chief, William Bratton, improved the effectiveness of the NYPD by using a statistic-driven approach called CompStat to deploy cops where they were needed most. But it was Giuliani who provided the political cover for the NYPD to take a tough-on-crime approach that initially drew criticism (some of it warranted) from minority communities.
Mayor Giuliani also restored fiscal sanity by reducing taxes and spending and cutting welfare rolls in half.
It was one of the most spectacular achievements in governance in modern America. Just as Ronald Reagan dispelled the widespread impression that America was in terminal decline, so Giuliani dispelled that same impression about America’s largest city.
Not only was Giuliani an exceptionally able leader, but he was also, despite his intemperate style, a political moderate. He is a supporter of immigration, abortion rights, gun control and gay rights. He celebrated diversity and denounced as “inhumane” a 1994 California initiative that cut off undocumented immigrants from access to state services such as public schools.
Giuliani was so impressive that I considered supporting his presidential campaign in 2008. Instead, I went to work as a foreign-policy adviser for John McCain, but my admiration for “America’s mayor” remained undiminished — until Giuliani decided in 2016 to become an apologist for a candidate who had spent a lifetime obliterating the kind of ethical redlines that he had spent his own career enforcing.
What happened? Giuliani, like the rest of us, always had character flaws; in his case, they include arrogance, vanity, vindictiveness, self-righteousness, intolerance of criticism and lapses in judgment. As U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York in the 1980s, he launched high-profile prosecutions of Wall Street figures that were later thrown out of court.
My theory is that Trump, the most deeply flawed individual ever to occupy the Oval Office, exposes and magnifies the flaws of his followers. Like so many other Republicans, Giuliani has failed the Trump test. He is far from alone: Hardly any prominent Republican will emerge from this sorry epoch with reputation intact.
Max Boot is a columnist with The Washington Post.