Bolton's bombshell book shows it's still possible to be shocked by Trump's presidency

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

The conventional Washington wisdom before Wednesday afternoon was that it was hard to imagine anything that would still have the capacity to shock us about Donald Trump and his presidency.

Then John Bolton’s memoir leaked, with recollections of his time as national security adviser that appeared to have gone beyond parody and just kept travelling.

According to Bolton, Trump told Xi Jinping that the mass incarceration of Uighurs was “exactly the right thing to do”, and asked the Chinese leader for help getting re-elected. He said journalists should be executed. He thought it would be “cool” to invade Venezuela. He was uninterested in disarming North Korea, but obsessed for months about getting a CD of Elton John’s Rocket Man to Kim Jong-un. He thought Finland was part of Russia. He defended Saudi Arabia over the slaughter of dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi as a wheeze to distract attention from a minor scandal involving daughter Ivanka’s use of private email account. And that are just the first scrapings from Bolton’s account

The response has been a collective gasping on Twitter and TV, which has happened before in the wake of a thousand tweets and insider revelations. This is, after all, a head of state who mused about dropping a nuclear bomb into a hurricane.

Related: Trump was willing to halt criminal investigations as 'favor' to dictators, Bolton book says

The most important question is whether these new insights into White House chaos from an insider with rock-hard conservative credentials will cut through the constant din of the Trump era and change any votes – which is a wordy way of asking: doesn’t anything matter any more?

In the language of the pollsters, craziness is already “baked in” when it comes to opinions about the Trump administration. The dividing line is whether Americans are horrified or enthralled by it.

Trump himself has boasted he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” and not “lose any voters”. The reality turns out to be even more macabre. More than 117,000 Americans have died from coronavirus, many of them because the administration’s handling of the pandemic has been worse than just about every other country on earth, with the possible exception of Brazil. Yet nearly 40% of the electorate still think Trump has done a good job in fighting off what he calls the “plague from China”. And almost every Republican senator has continued to vote for Trump’s agenda.

“For diehard Trumpers, Bolton’s book, and the revelations about trading US trade security for election assistance, will make no difference,” Wendy Schiller, political science professor at Brown University, said. “They will still walk over hot coals to vote for him.”

For the ever-Trumpers, there are plenty of ways to ease the pain. Pro-Trump media will attack Bolton as a resentful, self-promoting renegade, and they will have plenty of material to work with.

Bolton does not emerge from his time in office or the ensuing months as an icon of public virtue. If he had agreed to testify before the House impeachment hearings, he would have raised the alarm over the presidential abuses he now says so disturbed him, and just maybe something could have been done about it. It is hard to see his refusal as anything other than to keep the best material for his $2m book deal.

By his own account, Bolton remained at Trump’s side even long after he witnessed the president soliciting the Chinese communist leadership to help him win reelection. The “turning point” only came when Trump changed his mind about bombing Iran, a longstanding Bolton objective.

So there are lots of bullets with which to shoot the messenger, and yet still some reason to believe that the message may survive to inflict its own slow-bleeding wound.

Even with all the inequities of the US electoral system, Trump’s 40% core voters will not be enough to get him reelected. He needs some independents and that’s where Bolton’s book may well deepen and accelerate the process of corrosion.

“For independents and more moderate Republicans who voted for him in 2016 in key swing states, like Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Arizona, the Bolton revelations may further increase “Trump fatigue”, Schiller said. “Given that the US 2020 presidential election will be decided by razor thin margins in these states, if these voters stay home, or worse defect to Biden, Trump loses.”

The Bolton memoir also blunts the central attack line the Trump campaign is using against his Democratic opponent.

On the day the news of the book broke, it was running Facebook ads portraying Biden as Xi’s ventriloquist’s doll, and hugging a map of China with the tagline “Sleepy Joe loves China”. All of that becomes more awkward when the incumbent has told Xi he was “the greatest Chinese leader in 300 years!”, and quickly amending that to “the greatest leader in Chinese history.”

And just to prove irony is dead, buried and forgotten in the age of Trump, the president chose Wednesday to sign the “Uighur human rights policy act” into law, threatening accountability for Beijing jailers, as a way of stiffening his anti-China credentials.

Running against China is Trump’s formula for distracting away from the pandemic and its consequent economic disaster, as well as demonising his rival. That narrative is much more complicated now.

“If he gives in to Xi, has destroyed the economy, and let the virus run rampant, what is left?” asked Thomas Wright, director of the centre on the US and Europe at the Brooking Institution.

But there are still over four months to go before the election and those look like they will be long months. Bolton may seem like ancient history by 3 November. After all, his own conclusions from his time in Trumpworld are that the president is a master of distraction and will do anything to win.

“The Trump presidency is not grounded in philosophy, grand strategy or policy,” Bolton writes. “It is grounded in Trump.”