Why John Bolton is much more like Trump than some think

Apr 3 2018

Cas Mudde*- The Guardian

Their views, from Iran and Israel to hard power in a dog-eat-dog world, are aligned – and their personalities are startlingly similar

 ‘The vast majority of the Trump electorate doesn’t care much about foreign policy and largely supports Trump’s instinctive ‘America First’ agenda. Just like John Bolton.’ 

Even after more than a year in power, President Donald Trump is still able to take the punditry by surprise. When he appointed John Bolton as the new national security adviser, liberal publications were quick to declare that Trump’s alleged far-right isolationist base would deem this a betrayal. After all, Bolton was one of the figureheads of George W Bush’s interventionist, nation-building administration. But the backlash, if there is any, is overstated – and it shows how little we understand Trump’s supporters.

While Bolton is a clear betrayal of the so-called alt-right and isolationalist conservatives, they are a marginal part of the electorate. Similarly, the much-discussed libertarians and Bernie Bros who voted Trump to keep the “war-mongerer” Hillary Clinton away from the presidency are electorally inconsequential. The vast majority of the Trump electorate doesn’t care much about foreign policy, and largely supports Trump’s instinctive “America First” agenda. Just like John Bolton.

More than anything, the narrative that Trump voters will feel betrayed by Bolton’s appointment show that most liberals still don’t understand the Trump phenomenon. They continue see it as the US equivalent of the rise of the far right in Europe, that is, led by an “alt-right” elite and powered by the white working class. The fact of the matter is, however, that the Trump vote was, first and foremost, a Republican vote, and was much more based on cultural backlash than economic anxiety.

Despite his common portrayal in the (liberal) media, Bolton has never been part of the neoconservative elite, which is deeply integrated into the Republican party establishment. Bolton fits at least as much Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda as he fitted George W Bush’s neoconservative agenda. Moreover, much of his “neoconservatism” is also part of Trump’s America First view.

Bolton is one of the main spiders in the Islamophobic web, and chairs the anti-Islam Gatestone Institute thinktank

Like Trump, Bolton sees the world as a brutal and hostile place, a dog-eat-dog world where everyone is out for themselves and politics is a zero-sum game. Both men are essentially authoritarians who believe in military might and physical punishment (hard power). Like Trump, Bolton was never really interested in “winning hearts and minds” (soft power), at least in theory a main component of the neoconservative agenda.

Within this hostile world, “Global Islam” is the most existential threat to “the West”, another thing he has in common with the president. Bolton does not just have “deep and extensive ties” to the so-called Counter-Jihad Movement, he is one of the main spiders in the extensive Islamophobic web. Bolton is chairman of the Gatestone Institute, probably the best-connected and best-funded anti-Islam “thinktanks” in the west.

While neoconservatives are skeptical about multinational organisations and are happy to go it alone if supranational organisations or foreign partners don’t want to join, Bolton is an extreme sovereignist. In fact, his appointment as US ambassador to the United Nations, an organisation he openly despises, was Trumpian avant la lettre – including the passing by of Congress!

Bolton and Trump see eye to eye on two major and related foreign policy issues: Iran and Israel. They loathe the Iran nuclear deal, which they believe exemplifies the Obama administration’s misguided and soft position, and strongly support the rightwing governments of Israel. Unsurprisingly, Israeli ministers were among the few global politicians to applaud Bolton’s appointment.

Their main points of contention, at this moment, are North Korea and Russia. On both, Bolton is extremely hawkish, whereas Trump holds a more moderate if fairly volatile position. Bolton sees both countries as dangerous threats to the US and, before his appointment, called on the president to take a tougher line. At the same time he applauded Trump’s shock announcement about a meeting with Kim Jong-un on Fox News, before he was appointed, and has since said that now “the important thing is what the president says”.

This is also why predictions of a short tenure, even by the new standards of the Trump White House, may be premature. In essence, John Bolton is a foreign policy equivalent of Jeff Sessions, by now the longest-serving non-family member of Trump’s inner cabinet. Both Bolton and Sessions say in public what most conservatives only dare admit in private. They are perceived as radical and vulgar, but more for the presentation than the content of the message. This makes them outsider-insiders, embraced politically, shunned personally. Does that remind you of someone?


*Cas Mudde is a Guardian US columnist, an associate professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia, and a researcher in the Center for Research on Extremism at the University of Oslo.

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