Not the guy Trump once loved.
by Bryce Greene
Opposing the current president is a worthy goal for anyone who wants a better world. But if that opposition is based on TV ratings and ad sales, then it is just as morally bankrupt as the president himself.
John Bolton’s new book, The Room Where It Happened, has earned him enormous amounts of free publicity for antagonizing the president. In their zeal to once again expose Trump as an all-around bad man, corporate media have elevated someone who should be condemned by a civilized society.
Bolton’s entire professional history should be enough to make him persona non grata in any respectable circles—from his work on the Buckley v. Vallejo case that legalized mega-spending on election campaigns (Intercept, 6/18/20), to his efforts in the Reagan administration to dismantle regulations on advertising baby formula in the Global South (USA Today, 4/24/05).
Bolton is most known for his hyper-militaristic foreign policy. During the George W. Bush years, he was one of the loudest cheerleaders for the murderous US invasion of Iraq, a war that has been responsible for as many as 3 million deaths (AlterNet, 3/15/18). He threatened international officials who got in his way, telling one, “We know where your kids live.” In order to sell the war to the public, he told outright lies to the public. Bolton has said that he has never regretted his support for the war.
After he joined the current administration as National Security advisor in 2018, Bolton spearheaded some of the Trump White House’s most aggressive foreign policies. In the spring of 2018, he encouraged a massive strike to “eliminate Syria’s air force” in response to alleged Syrian chemical weapon use (Vox, 4/16/18). He was also a driving force behind Trump’s withdrawal from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) weapons treaty (Washington Post, 10/19/18).
Bolton was at the head of a massive campaign to delegitimize the government of Venezuela, part of the years-long American project of destroying Venezuela’s political stability through economic and public relations warfare (Time, 1/30/19). Washington’s economic sanctions killed an estimated 40,000 people in the country in 2017–18 alone (Independent, 4/26/19; CEPR, 4/19).
Bolton has also long been at the forefront of the neoconservative call for war with Iran. He has accepted tens of thousands of dollars from a group of Iranian exiles known as the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), dedicated to overthrowing the current government; the group was officially designated by the US as a terrorist group from 1997 to 2012, due to a long record of bombing and assassination campaigns (Politico, 12/13/16). Eight months before joining the Trump administration, Bolton told the group that regime change in Iran should be the US’s stated policy, and that “before 2019, we will celebrate here in Tehran.”
In 2015, the New York Times (3/26/15) published Bolton’s opinion piece, “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran.” In addition to failing to disclose Bolton’s ties with the MEK, the piece contained multiple factual errors (Intercept, 4/4/15). According to Jon Schwartz of the Intercept, the Times initially linked one of Bolton’s key claims to a source that contradicted the claim, only fixing it after Schwartz pointed it out.
Despite this long history of lying, and advocating a violent and aggressive foreign policy, Bolton’s latest project has been attacking the Trump administration for its gross incompetence and corruption. Media allowed Bolton to frame himself as a whistleblower trying to stop the lawlessness of an out-of-control Trump administration.
Bolton’s central importance to corporate media is illustrated by a New York Times headline: “Trump Poses ‘Danger for the Republic’ if Re-Elected, John Bolton Charges” (6/21/20). Bolton’s usefulness as a club to bash Trump renders all of his past deeds beyond mention.
The Times (6/18/20) provided a summary of the main takeaways from Bolton’s book. One of the most prominent was that Bolton professes to substantiate key accusations from the House impeachment of Trump. This is not a surprising revelation; Bolton’s opposition to the administration’s efforts to force Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden was a major topic of discussion during the impeachment hearings. (For what it’s worth, Bolton also argues that impeachment was a political stunt rather than a serious inquiry, offering this as an explanation for why he didn’t testify about it at the time.) The rest of the book’s revelations center around the familiar narrative of Trumpian disregard for established norms and rules.
There has been debate about Bolton’s decision not to testify at the impeachment trial without a subpoena. According to CNN (6/17/20), Bolton “betrayed his country” by neglecting to blow the whistle on Trump and Ukraine earlier. Of course, there was no mention of Bolton’s history of leading (or trying to lead) the US into deadly wars.
These past several days, substantive policy issues were mostly drowned out by political gossip and pointing out the most obvious of Trump’s flaws. But on the few topics that Bolton has discussed, he feels that Trump hasn’t been hawkish enough.
In 2019, when Trump decided to call off a strike that could have killed 150 Iranians, Bolton felt this aversion to war was “the most irrational thing I ever witnessed any president do” (despite the fact that a war with Iran could make Iraq look like a cakewalk). On Trump’s ongoing coup attempt in Venezuela, Bolton believed that Trump wasn’t sufficiently undermining the current elected Venezuelan government.
Last week Bolton had some of his highest visibility ever, with interviews all across the media. ABC News (6/21/20) had a much-hyped special, while USA Today (6/26/20) offered a similar interview. Several political cartoons have depicted Bolton as a significant challenge to Trump’s administration.
Late-night television personalities touted Bolton’s book. Bolton even appeared on CBS’s Late Show (6/23/20) with Stephen Colbert; the two ended up sharing laughs, much like Colbert had earlier rehabilitated Trump press secretary Sean Spicer (FAIR.org, 9/19/17). Mother Jones (6/24/20) called this interview “The Interview John Bolton Really Deserves,” because Colbert took the bold step of calling him “naive” for believing that Trump would follow the rules.
Bolton’s main contribution to the national discourse is exemplified by what he said to George Stephanopolos on ABC‘s Good Morning America (6/22/20):
[Trump’s] policymaking is so incoherent, so unfocused, so unstructured, so wrapped around his own personal political fortunes, that mistakes are being made that will have grave consequences for the national security of the United States.
Giving Bolton a platform to express his disdain for Trump also allows him to turn a realistic critique of Trump foreign policy on its head: Rather than being too violent and militaristic, the problem is that Trump is “incoherent” and “unfocused” in his violence and militarism.
Bolton also made appearances on the two main Sunday talk shows. Chuck Todd on NBC’s Meet the Press (6/28/20) asked Bolton whether or not Trump “is afraid to make Putin mad, because maybe Putin did help him win the election and he doesn’t want to make him mad for 2020?”
Bolton’s name is reaching peak levels of interest, according to Google Trends, and his book even made it to the top of the New York Times Bestsellers list. The book follows in a long line of anti-Trump insider White House accounts; Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, Bod Woodward’s Fear and Omarosa Manigault Newman’s Unhinged each hit the top of the New York Times Bestsellers list.
In our pop culture world, Bolton, like many prominent public policymakers, is most importantly a celebrity. Sure, he may have had a troubled past, but that is a distant backstory to this current season. Regardless of his past disregard for human life, he is a new man, and has ridden the media wave into the halls of the anti-Trump #resistance.
Bolton’s ideas are dangerous to America and the rest of the world. Was rehabilitating the public image of a warmonger and elevating his voice really worth telling us, for the thousandth time, that Donald Trump runs the White House like a selfish child?