John Bolton and the Emperor's New Clothes
For a while, there was a statue of a nude Donald Trump at Union Square Park in New York City. I generally try to forget that I ever saw it. Every now and again, however, it serves as a decent metaphor. An emperor with no clothes. To be clear, there weren’t a great many people who believed Donald Trump to be anything but bare even before he became the proverbial emperor. But nearly every day he does something that makes it harder and harder to believe that anyone ever saw him as covered.
On Thursday Donald Trump appointed John Bolton to be his National Security Advisor. Even for someone who considered Trump a dangerous charlatan since he emerged as a serious political figure, this particular appointment is stunning.
For months Trump claimed to have opposed the Iraq war in spite of having endorsed the action in its early stages. John Bolton, a member of Bush’s administration, pushed hard for the war and claimed the invasion was the right decision even a decade later.
Trump has clashed repeatedly with intelligence agencies and mocked them specifically for the intelligence failures that lead up to the invasion of Iraq. Those who claim that the poor intelligence and disastrous decisions leading up to the invasion were bad faith rather than just failures are able to do so credibly, in large part, because of the active role that officials like Bolton played in manipulating that intelligence and molding it to suit their politics.
Donald Trump is far more accustomed to untruth and far less capable of shame than the average sociopath. Still, even for him, the appointment of John Bolton is a remarkable betrayal of, not just his campaign promises, but twenty years of quasi-political shit-shooting and third-party presidential flirtation.
But this should come as no surprise.
He campaigned, for example, on a promise to “drain the swamp” of corruption, but has covered up for a batterer, dismissed multiple members of his administration when it became public that they abused their positions and wasted federal money, failed dismiss still others, allowed members of his administration to operate with temporary security clearance even after it became apparent that the permanent clearance wouldn’t be approved, and allows his son-in-law to remain a high-level advisor even after lying on multiple security clearance questionnaires and taking a five hundred million dollar loan after meeting with the lender in the White House.
His hypocrisy is big. He campaigned on a promise not to cut Medicaid and promptly endorsed the first Republican health insurance proposal to do just that. His hypocrisy is small. He mocked Barack Obama’s occasional golfing but holds himself to no such standard.
But this should come as no surprise.
Maybe the emperor has no clothes, but the point of the story is not that he disrobed one article at a time as he marched down the street. The point is that he was naked the whole time. The point of the story is not that people thought he had clothes and found out, to their dismay, that they were mistaken. The point is that he was always naked and everyone always saw him that way but refused to be the first to admit it. The story was never supposed to teach us about the Emperor. It was supposed to teach us about the onlookers.
There were never particularly compelling reasons for anyone to believe that Trump was elegantly appointed, but, for the sake of argument assume there were. If there was ever any reason to trust the man, I can think of only three reasons one might still. Some onlookers may be so genuinely disconnected from the reality of this administration that they don’t see the bare ass before them. Others are so pleased with the things he’s done in place of his promises that they don’t mind the dangerous foolishness they enable. But more and more I think of the third.
Perhaps the emperor is still fully clothed.
Perhaps he cast off only socks, a hat, a watch, and gloves as he passed tax cuts, hobbled health insurance programs, threatened Medicaid, bent ear to ruthless interventionists, and handed the government over to self-indulgent sycophants. Perhaps to some the cultural antagonism, the Twitter fights, the casual race-baiting, the dehumanization of immigrants, the Islamophobia, and the revolting misogyny are all the covering he needs.
Demagoguery and prejudice are the only clothing he could possibly have left. Maybe the emperor has no clothes and many of his supporters refuse to see it. Or maybe the emperor strolls down the street decked out in regalia so offensive and disappointing that his opponents always preferred to imagine him nude.