John Bolton in Ukraine, 2018. Photo credit: paparazzza / Shutterstock.com.
I don’t like John Bolton any more than you do. He’s a crank. He’s a snob. He’s a warmonger. One thing you can’t question, though, is his loyalty. No matter how wrongheaded, how dangerous, how much he prefers airstrikes to diplomacy, you can’t doubt his dedication to the United States. Indeed, he’s loyal to a fault.
This is important to point out, because disagreeing with someone is not grounds for questioning his love of country. The Democrats usually understand the difference between partisanship and patriotism. The Republicans, since Barack Obama’s election, have usually demurred. If you are not a Republican, you’re not quite American; if you’re not quite American, you are tantamount to the enemy.
This, I have argued, is the result of a double consciousness among Republicans. Around 2008, when the country elected its first African American president, members of the GOP split decisively loyalties between the real nation that is the United States and a wholly imagined nation inside the United States, where “real Americans” live and where white Protestant men are chosen by God to rule the United States in His name. Since 2008, you have probably noticed the GOP looking and sounding more Southern. Well, there’s a reason for that. For some people, the Civil War never ended. It just went underground. The result has been that for some Republicans, patriotism is optional. They didn’t exercise that option fully until the country was governed by a Black man.
Bear this in mind as we consider John Bolton’s new book, parts of which were leaked Wednesday to the Washington Post, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal. The former director of the White House National Security Council was present during Donald Trump’s talks with foreign leaders. He paints a familiar picture. From the Times:
It is a withering portrait of a president ignorant of even basic facts about the world, susceptible to transparent flattery by authoritarian leaders manipulating him and prone to false statements, foul-mouthed eruptions and snap decisions that aides try to manage or reverse.
There are many conclusions we can draw from available parts of his book. (The Bulwark has a handy rundown of takeaways.) I’m interested in two moments when Bolton was a fly on the wall. One is Trump’s discussion of military aid to Ukraine. Two is Trump’s interactions with China’s leader Xi Jinping. To take the second first, the president offered to reduce tariffs imposed on Chinese imports in exchange for Xi’s buying up of U.S. farm products, which would put him in good stead with farm states. In other words, Trump asked China for help in getting reelected, as he did with Ukraine.
The differences are important. As Jonathan Bernstein wrote in Bloomberg, it’s probably not abuse of power for Trump to trade favors with China, even if the favor requires turning a blind eye to Xi’s rounding up Uighur Muslims and “reeducating” them in concentration camps in China’s northeast corner. I agree. That’s probably not abuse of power. If Trump’s interest in getting reelected aligns with farm-state interest in selling more soybeans, so be it. But that’s about all the good we can find in this episode. What Trump did in trading blood for soybeans is a repudiation of our republican values and a forfeiture of our influence overseas. This may not be an abuse of power, but it sure-as-hell is a betrayal of everything we tell ourselves we stand for.
As for Ukraine, Bolton confirms what we already knew. The president was extorting Volodymyr Zelensky, holding up tens of millions to aid his country’s eastern war against the Russians in exchange for an investigation into Joe Biden’s son for the purpose of smearing Trump’s most likely opponent in the 2020 election. Or as Bolton put it: Trump “said he wasn’t in favor of sending them anything [military aid] until all the Russia-investigation materials related to Clinton and Biden had been turned over.”
This is usually characterized as Trump not just welcoming foreign interference in our elections (as he did in 2016) but demanding it. That’s bad enough, but we really should call an attempted international criminal conspiracy to defraud the American people by its real name. Yes, we are not at war, which is what critics say whenever I introduce the T-word. I’m not interested in legal and constitutional word-parsing. I’m interested in speaking the whole truth plainly, and what this president did was flat-out treason.
More importantly, I think, is what the Republicans in the Senate did. Remember that John Bolton didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. When the Senate Republicans decided against gathering evidence and hearing testimony in Trump’s impeachment trial, they almost certainly knew they were preventing the public from learning more, thus making their decision to acquit that much easier to defend.
Make no mistake, however. The Republicans would have made the same decision. This president isn’t rogue. He’s an outgrowth of a political party that has become increasing dedicated to a wholly imagined nation within a nation, where “real Americans” are chosen by God to rule the United States in God’s name, the result being that “real Americans” are released from the awesome and solemn responsibility to bargain in good faith in pursuit of the greatest good for the greatest number. Indeed, the greatest good has become the greatest threat, thereby justifying even the highest-order crime.
Let’s be clear: Every single Republican senator who voted to acquit Donald Trump knew he was trying to sabotage the sovereignty of the American people. They knew he abused his power. They knew he obstructed justice to cover it up. They acquitted him anyway, the result being a president not only above the law but the law itself. He is a king. The Civil War never ended. It went underground — until a Black man dared be president. The Republican Party died that day, and the Confederacy was reborn.
No one dares call it treason, but we should.
John Stoehr is a journalist and a fellow at the Yale University Journalism Initiative.