Karl Popper once said, “A theory that explains everything, explains nothing.” John Bolton’s forthcoming memoir of his 17-month stint as Donald Trump’s national security adviser, “The Room Where It Happened,” offers a corollary: A book that tells all, yet somehow manages to tell nothing.
Bolton writes that Trump’s Ukraine quid pro quo was “bad policy, questionable legally, and unacceptable as presidential behavior.” We knew that. He writes that Vladimir Putin “had to be laughing uproariously at what he had gotten away with in Helsinki.” Knew that. He writes that, for Trump, “obstruction of justice [is] a way of life.” Knew that, too.
Bolton writes that Trump tried to bend the criminal justice system to do favors for China’s Xi Jinping and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Not surprised. He writes that Mike Pompeo, obsequious with Trump in public, privately thinks his boss is “so full of shit.” Not surprised. He writes that, in the midst of a trade negotiation, Trump pleaded with Xi to help “ensure he’d win” the 2020 election. Not surprised. He writes that Trump thought that China’s construction of concentration camps for ethnic Uighurs was “exactly the right thing to do.” Appalled — but not surprised.
Bolton writes that he is “hard-pressed to identify any significant Trump decision during my White House tenure that wasn’t driven by re-election calculations.” Yep. He writes that Trump’s “thinking was like an archipelago of dots … leaving the rest of us to discern — or create — policy.” Sounds right. He writes that Trump seemed not to know that the U.K. was a nuclear power and wondered whether Finland was part of Russia.
Wait, is Trump some sort of ignoramus?
And on it goes: One knockout revelation after another, ultimately revealing very little. If by now you haven’t concluded that Donald Trump is “erratic,” “irrational,” “foolish,” and “stunningly uninformed” — among the epithets Bolton applies to the president — this book isn’t likely to convince you.
But the larger question looming over Bolton’s book isn’t about its subject. It’s about its author — and everyone else who joined the administration without illusions, participated in it without defiance, and exited it without shame. How do people like Bolton, Reince Priebus, Gary Cohn, Rex Tillerson or (when he eventually departs) Pompeo justify their witting, willing service to this witless, wicked president?
In a superb essay in The Atlantic, Anne Applebaum draws on the inspiration of Czeslaw Milosz’s “The Captive Mind” to address the question. There is the relief, and pleasure, of political conformity. There is the allure of power, or proximity to it. There is a profit motive. There is a kind of savior complex, in which officials like the “Anonymous” New York Times Op-Ed writer from 2018 claim to form part of a secret resistance within the upper reaches of government.
All true. And all eminently applicable to Bolton. But there’s an additional factor at work, described by Hannah Arendt in “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” How do demagogues get away with their nonstop lying — even with those who at some level understand they are being lied to? Arendt observed “a curiously varying mixture of gullibility and cynicism with which each member, depending upon his rank and standing in the movement, is expected to react to the changing lying statements of the leaders and the central unchanging ideological fiction of the movement.”
A similar mix seems to explain Bolton’s behavior.
It took cynicism to work for a president whose character he disdained and whose worldview he opposed. It took gullibility to think he could blunt or influence either. It took cynicism to observe the president commit multiple potentially impeachable offenses and then sit out impeachment on the pathetic excuse that Democrats were going about it the wrong way and that his testimony would have made no meaningful difference. It took gullibility to assume his book would have any effect on Trump’s re-election prospects now. It took cynicism to reap profits thanks to a president he betrayed and a nation he let down. It took gullibility to imagine he’d be applauded as a courageous truth-teller when his motives are so nakedly vindictive and mercenary.
Above all, it took astonishing foolishness for Bolton to imagine that his book would advance the thing he claims to care about most — a hawkish vision of U.S. foreign policy. That vision will now be forever tarred by its association with him, a man considered a lunatic by most liberals and a Judas by many conservatives.
I write all this as someone who shares many of Bolton’s hawkish foreign-policy views. I’m also someone who urged Bolton, while he was still in office, to resign on principle. It’s a shame he didn’t do so while he still had a chance to preserve his honor, but it isn’t a surprise. Only the truly gullible can act totally cynically and imagine they can escape history’s damning verdict.
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