The impeachment drama hinges on a battle between two men: Donald Trump and his former national security adviser John Bolton. Senate Democrats have focused all their energy on an unsuccessful push to pressure Republicans to call witnesses, in the hope that Bolton, in particular, could provide devastating testimony. Bolton’s forthcoming memoir reportedly confirms that Trump withheld aid to Ukraine with the goal of smearing Joe Biden.
Trump, as is his wont, took a swipe at Bolton on Twitter, portraying the diplomat as a sniveling job-seeker and psychotic warmonger. Trump’s airing of grievances against Bolton produced an entertaining litany of insults: “For a guy who couldn’t get approved for the Ambassador to the U.N. years ago, couldn’t get approved for anything since, ‘begged’ me for a non Senate approved job, which I gave him despite many saying ‘Don’t do it, sir,’ takes the job, mistakenly says ‘Libyan Model’ on T.V., and many more mistakes of judgement, gets fired because frankly, if I listened to him, we would be in World War Six by now, and goes out and IMMEDIATELY writes a nasty & untrue book. All Classified National Security. Who would do this?”
On Thursday night, Bolton spoke at a private event in Austin, Texas, where he praised former colleagues who had testified to the House of Representatives. “The idea that somehow testifying to what you think is true is destructive to the system of government we have—I think, is very nearly the reverse—the exact reverse of the truth,” Bolton reportedly said. These comments are clearly directed against Trump and his defenders.
In the theatrics of impeachment, Trump and Bolton are foes. Yet, if we look at policy rather than politics, Trump and Bolton remain on the same side. When Trump ordered the airstrike that killed Iranian commander Qassim Suleimani at the beginning of the year, Bolton took to Twitter to applaud the act. “Congratulations to all involved in eliminating Qassem Soleimani,” Bolton enthused. “Long in the making, this was a decisive blow against Iran’s malign Quds Force activities worldwide. Hope this is the first step to regime change in Tehran.”
The killing of Suleimani shows that you don’t need Bolton actually working in the White House to carry out his preferred warmongering. One of the major unreported stories of the Trump era is how the hawkish Bolton faction of the American foreign policy establishment, often called neoconservative, has enjoyed a resurgence in power. The return of the neocons has occurred despite the fact that Trump ran in explicit opposition to their agenda, and they have often quarreled with the president.
The neocon renaissance under Trump shows that political networks have a robustness that is stronger than nominal ideological shifts. When Trump announced his campaign in 2015, his cocktail of policy ideas was pointedly nationalist in orientation, in direct contrast to the supposed “globalist” agenda of the neoconservatives. As a group, neoconservatives favored increased immigration, free trade agreements, and an aggressive foreign policy that reveled in pushing for regime change in hostile foreign governments. Trump, echoing critiques of nationalist conservatives like Pat Buchanan, advocated for the exact opposite agenda: restricted immigration, protectionism, and a scaling back of foreign entanglements.
In a February 2016 debate, Trump set himself apart from the Republican field by denouncing the Iraq War as “a big, fat mistake.” He added, “We can make mistakes. But that one was a beauty. We should have never been in Iraq. We have destabilized the Middle East.”
This sort of language made Trump anathema to neoconservatives, who formed the bedrock of the Never Trump movement. To this day, neocon writers like William Kristol, David Frum, Max Boot, and Jennifer Rubin remain the president’s most vociferous critics.
But these writers are only a small part of the neoconservative movement, which continues to dominate right-wing think tanks. The denizens of those think tanks exist to fill Republican administrations. As a Washington outsider, Trump didn’t have a ready-made network to plug into key positions. So, after an initial period of disagreement, Trump found himself turning to the available pool of neocon talent to staff his government.
To be sure, the reconciliation between Trump and the neocons was a rocky one. The notorious war crimes apologist Elliott Abrams was initially discussed as a possible deputy secretary of state. This nomination was scuttled thanks to Abrams’s signing a Never Trump manifesto. But eventually Trump found he needed Abrams after all. When Venezuela came under the Trump administration’s gunsights, it turned to Abrams, a seasoned hand at counterrevolutionary plots.
Writing in The New Republic, Jacob Heilbrunn recently noted, “The neocons are starting to realize that Trump’s presidency, at least when it comes to foreign policy, is no less vulnerable to hijacking than those of previous Republican presidents, including the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.”
Trump has proven easy to bamboozle because, like George W. Bush, he has no strong ideology of his own. He knows he doesn’t like full-scale invasions like the Iraq War, but is otherwise open to displays of belligerence and nationalist chest-beating. Tearing up treaties and drone attacks serve that purpose. Trump seems to think that if such actions risk bringing America to the brink of large-scale war, he can always weasel his way out with deal-making.
Trump is also vulnerable to neocon persuasion because he needs the support of congressional Republicans, who are the bulwark of his defense against impeachment. The neocons still have a stranglehold over these very lawmakers.
Writing on his website Nonzero, Robert Wright used the career of Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, a leading advocate for regime change in Iran, as proof of the continued strength of the neocon network.
Cotton, Wright notes, is “a protégé of famous neoconservative Bill Kristol,” who has provided extensive help throughout the senator’s career. As Wright points out, “Cotton got elected to the Senate with the help of a million dollars from Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel, subsequently hired Kristol’s son Joseph as his legislative director, and has in various other ways settled into a cozy symbiosis with Kristol’s network. The Washington Free Beacon—whose founding editor is Matthew Continetti, Kristol’s son-in-law—highlights Cotton’s exploits so regularly that any given page of its Tom Cotton archives (say, this year’s July–September page) will feature an array of headlines that speak to the vast range of the senator’s expertise.”
Kristol, like Bolton, is nominally a Trump opponent. But through Cotton, Kristol can continue to shape Trump’s actions while keeping his hands clean. Cotton’s job is to yelp about the dangers of Iran. Trump, needing to keep his coalition together, pursues anti-Iran policies to please Cotton. Kristol basks in praise from liberals for his bold anti-Trump stance, while Bolton gloats over the killing of Suleimani knowing his bank account fills up when “Resistance” liberals turn his book into a best seller.
Neoconservatism, which seemed so beleaguered only a few years ago, remains the most lucrative grift in American politics and a decisive force for the future.