National Security Adviser John Bolton speaks during a White House news briefing at the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House October 3, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Getty Images/Alex Wong)

Is John Bolton a hero? Hell no — except in the gritty mob-thriller version of the Trump era

Bolton has turned on his former boss, and it's delicious. But I guarantee he wants no part of the decaf #resistance


Andrew O'Hehir
October 27, 2019 4:05PM (UTC)

In the forthcoming movie version of the downfall of the Trump administration — which may be more fun than watching the actual event in real time — no character will be more compelling, or more coveted by name actors, than John Bolton. (Who do you like for the role? I mean, if for some reason Jeff Bridges turns it down.) President Trump’s former national security adviser has evidently turned against the boss, and the consequences could be devastating. It seems clear that Bolton has already played a pivotal backstage role in exposing the Ukraine scandal, and that sooner or later he will be a star witness at impeachment hearings. 

As Shakespearean or “Game of Thrones”-style revenge drama, this makes for an irresistible narrative. As a political power struggle in the real world, it’s so full of contradictions and so overloaded with irony that it’s much harder to read. Two truisms may be helpful here, which are overused because they are true: The enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend, and not every story has a good guy and a bad guy.

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Is John Bolton now a hero of the anti-Trump “resistance”? Well, the short answer is, Ha ha ha, oh hell no. Anybody who is trying to sell that line, even with a nod and a wink, is either trolling themselves or trolling the rest of us. 

Bolton is only slightly more likely to support the Democratic Party on anything, ever, than he is to sign up with ISIS — and in his heart of hearts, he might think the latter course of action was less cowardly.

But the longer and more truthful answer is more like, Hmm, it depends what those words mean. If the principal or primary goal of “resistance” is to get rid of Trump by whatever means necessary, and worry about the other stuff later, and if you see this as one of those plot points in a comic-book movie where superhero and supervillain must forge a temporary alliance to battle a galactic menace, then, sure, I guess the walrus-mustached warmonger is one of the Avengers now.

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Bit of a puzzler, am I right? I think where I come down is in a different film genre: Bolton is like the renegade antihero of a mob thriller, who is now plotting a hit on his corrupt former overlord, knowing full well he is likely to go down in the crossfire. His motives and worldview are almost entirely reprehensible, and the world is much better off with him far away from the levers of political and military power. Yet within that frame, it’s fair to say that Bolton has conducted himself with integrity and honor, as he understands those things. He has certainly never been dishonest about his principles or goals, which are largely about reasserting American hegemony everywhere in the world, at almost any cost.

Bolton was reportedly outraged by the Trump administration’s back-door amateur-hour diplomacy with Ukraine, partly on policy grounds and partly on process grounds. In an NPR interview last week, former Bolton aide Mark Groombridge described him as a stickler for proper procedure, as a way of forcing weak-willed libtard foes to engage him on policy. That’s an important key to understanding his recent decisions.

Although it does not appear that Bolton was the whistleblower who eventually alerted Congress to Trump’s infamous July phone call with Volodymyr Zelensky, I’d be shocked if he didn’t know it was coming, and not the least bit surprised if he orchestrated it. He urged subordinates and diplomats — including Fiona Hill, then the National Security Council’s Russia expert, and Bill Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador in Ukraine — to create paper trails to protect themselves. Those two people have already given congressional depositions that were immensely damaging to Trump. According to Hill, Bolton described Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, as a “hand grenade who's going to blow everybody up." (Admittedly, that falls under the heading of “no shit, Sherlock.”) 

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Writing what sounds like Aaron Sorkin’s next screenplay in advance, Bolton also supposedly told his staff he wanted no part of “whatever drug deal [Gordon] Sondland and [Mick] Mulvaney are cooking up.” That was a reference to the malevolent but idiotic scheme, personally directed by the president and his most loyal underlings — including his EU ambassador and acting chief of staff, respectively — to use $391 million in military aid to arm-twist the Ukrainian government into launching phony investigations of Joe and Hunter Biden, the Democratic National Committee’s mythical server and God knows what else. 

This is undeniably delicious material: You can hear the withering contempt in the phrase “whatever drug deal.” Bolton is encrusted with many hardened layers of neocon ideology, but he also went to Yale Law School, and no one has ever suggested he was a low-grade crook or a dumbass. 

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I’m quite sure he has zero problem with the “unitary executive” theory holding that the president of the United States is essentially an elected monarch. But he found this particular elected monarch unbearably stupid, sloppy and underhanded, and resented seeing his “muscular” foreign policy goals — staging a coup in Venezuela, invading Iran and nuking North Korea into smoldering ruins — undermined by a global snipe-hunt conducted by untrustworthy morons. So Bolton got out of the burning building with his head held high (according to him), and now he’s gonna make those bastards pay.

Beyond the appealing concept that karma is a bitch and that what goes around comes around, and beyond the delightful irony that Trump’s decision to hire the most hawkish commentator on Fox News may have been a fatal mistake — well, where the hell are we? Some commentators on the left have suggested that after his Trump divorce Bolton could become the next object of liberals’ long-running romance with foreign policy hawks (and/or war criminals) like Henry Kissinger, Madeleine Albright and Zbigniew Brzezinski. 

Anything’s possible, in an upside-down world where Democrats have somehow convinced themselves that the CIA and FBI are their friends. But Bolton would probably tell you that Kissinger and Albright were insufferable hypocrites on the subject of human rights. (He would have a point.) As mentioned above, he might rather self-deport to Tajikistan than knowingly consort with liberals.

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Bolton might fit in slightly better, actually, as a fringe member of what Salon columnist Bob Cesca has dubbed the “coalition of normals” — that is, a short-term alliance of liberals, moderates and NeverTrump conservatives determined to address two near-term goals: Getting Trump out of the White House and correcting the failures of constitutional democracy that allowed him to get there in the first place. Bolton’s critique of Trump, as far as I can tell, is perfectly aligned with the CoN agenda: Trump is an embarrassing clown who breaks the rules and commits dipshit little crimes. (Whereas John Bolton has his paperwork in order, and prefers crimes on a global-historical scale.)

I grasp the pragmatic impulse at work behind the CoN project, which is no doubt admirable: We have to repair the machinery of democracy before it gets wrecked for good, and can get back to fighting over policy and ideology after that. I also don’t trust it. NeverTrumpers like Bill Kristol, George Will and Tom Nichols (and most certainly John Bolton) were not innocent bystanders during the process by which the Republican Party transformed itself into an authoritarian, white supremacist cult of personality. At best, they politely ignored the racist paranoia, the woman-hating, the gay-bashing, the pandering to religious fundamentalism, the know-nothingism and all the rest of it. There is no reason to believe they are now less duplicitous and self-serving because they couldn’t stomach the vulgarity of Donald Trump.

What fully-online NeverTrumpers like Nichols and Rick Wilson want, to be fair, is no secret: They want to rebuild or rebrand the conservative movement, either by reconquering the post-Trump Republican Party, or if they can’t do that, by constructing a new party from its ruins, or if they can’t do that, by pulling the Democratic Party as far in their direction as it’s willing to go, which based on recent history is pretty fucking far. It goes without saying that they’re welcome to advocate for their views and support whomever they like — but it’s hopelessly naive to claim that any coalition that includes that faction has no ideology or no policy goals. I see no reason why leftists or progressives who have a dramatically different vision of post-Trump America and its priorities should play along.

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Furthermore, I can’t help perceiving an implicit (and ambitious) policy goal behind the entire conception of a return to “normal,” which is the same policy goal behind Joe Biden’s presidential campaign: Restoring the unquestioned validity of the “Washington consensus,” meaning the set of interlocking economic and foreign-affairs policies that have dominated the Western world since at least the end of the Cold War. 

One accidental byproduct of the Trump presidency has been the revelation that U.S. foreign policy largely is conducted by “unelected bureaucrats,” according to principles that are hardly ever discussed in public, and almost never debated in election campaigns. None of which is even remotely an endorsement of Trump’s erratic drift from one photo-op to the next, his incoherent trade wars, his on-again, off-again relationship with traditional U.S. allies or his bromances with tyrants of all persuasions. But I don’t think anyone would deny that he’s making these decisions himself.

Do you and I understand why the United States is so deeply involved in sustaining the precarious, corruption-plagued Ukrainian government, and supporting its border war with Russia? Because I definitely don’t remember getting to vote on that, or any presidential candidate explaining to us why it was a matter of urgent national security. Whatever you make of Russian intervention in the 2016 election and whether it made a decisive difference in electing Trump (something we will never know for sure), most Americans appear unaware that it didn’t come out of nowhere, and from the Russian point of view was partial payback for a long campaign of aggression and subversion conducted right on Vladimir Putin’s doorstep.

Maybe this newer, quieter version of the Cold War is necessary to maintain international order, and maybe it’s not. My point is that people like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden and Jim Clapper, and John Bolton and the NeverTrumpers, whatever their internal disagreements, all believe they belong to the class of people qualified to make such decisions, and the rest of us do not. If a return to “normal,” following the defenestration of the Idiot King, means returning that mandarin caste to power in the secret rooms at the top of the castle, so the peasantry can Netflix-and-chill in peace, I’d have to say I’m not down.

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In fact, I think the greatest respect I can show to John Bolton, at this moment, is to suggest that he’s far too intelligent not to view that entire line of reasoning with contempt, and not to understand that, in walking away from the Trump White House, he has almost certainly surrendered power for the last time. (Yes, there’s an argument that President Mike Pence might be more congenial to Bolton’s dreams of world conquest. I don’t think Bolton is shallow enough to put all his chips on that number.)

If I’m writing Bolton’s character from here on out, he tells the #resistance and the NeverTrumpers and the can’t-we-just-get-along Democrats to kiss the fine Corinthian leather of his entire ass. If they want to run American foreign policy by girly-man consensus where everyone gets an orange slice, they are welcome to it. If I’m not misusing the expression, he is fresh out of fucks. He just wants to shiv the incompetent orange lard-ass in the prison yard and stand over him while he bleeds out and his henchmen disappear into the shadows. 

What happens after that is anyone’s guess. But at the end of the movie, after the credits roll, we might get one of those coda sequences: John Bolton, in a bar somewhere on the other side of the world. Buy him an expensive brandy and a good cigar — a Cuban, for Christ’s sake — and he’ll tell you the whole story. OK, yeah, his version of it anyway.


Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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