When veteran right-wing hawk John R. Bolton was hired as Trump’s National Security Advisor in March 2018, most commentators anticipated, based on his past work as an undying vampire who can only survive by creating and then consuming pure human suffering, that the U.S. was on the brink of another spree of failed foreign wars and coup attempts. The New York Times editorial board wrote that month that “There are few people more likely than Mr. Bolton is to lead the country into war.” David Sanger, the Times’ national security correspondent, wrote that “The last time there was this conservative a clique around the president was 15 years ago, when Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld pressed President George W. Bush to invade Iraq.” Patrick Cockburn of The Independent wrote that “Armed conflict between the U.S. and Iran is becoming more probable by the day as super-hawks replace hawks in the Trump administration.” The conservative George Will wrote an op-ed in the Post calling Bolton “the second-most dangerous American.” Stephen Colbert called that week “the scariest of the Trump presidency.”
And so last week may have been the least scary of the Trump presidency, since Bolton was unceremoniously fired and humiliated by Trump before he even got the chance to start a single war.
Happy John Bolton Day. We're all going to die.— jeremy scahill (@jeremyscahill) April 9, 2018
The thing is, commentators were absolutely right to worry that Bolton’s influence could embroil us in any number of new and ongoing conflicts, from turning the standoff with North Korea into a nuclear war to launching a ground invasion of Iran for adhering to the nuclear agreement we signed with them. Based on his track record as the biggest, nastiest hawk in the Bush administration — which let him rack up half a million sacrifices to the Death God in Iraq and Afghanistan before even Bush tired of him — it was entirely reasonable to assume another stint in the White House would lead him to bring about mass death and destruction.
But, even though Bolton was Trump’s National Security Advisor for over a year, nothing close to the scale of the Bush administration’s atrocities took place. Trump hired him fully knowing that he wanted to start wars, gave him enough slack to engineer a few disputed attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, and then cut him loose for reasons that remain unknown but can likely be chalked up to the president being a reality star who is so far into dementia that he forgot who one of his sons was.
It wasn’t mass protest or the United Nations stepping in or the threat of abandonment by our allies that brought about Bolton’s firing; it was nothing. We were all saved from a nuclear holocaust by the wrong neuron firing in a 73-year-old’s sloshing soup brain. This is politics in America in 2019: however hot the soup brain is on a particular day determines who will and who won’t survive in it. We may find out some details in a self-serving tell-all a year later like with every other White House exile, but by then there will be a thousand new questions.
This has become a familiar narrative in the Trump administration: Trump hires evil lackey to make his inner circle seem scary and powerful; but the West Wing cosplay exhibited by his cronies is, well, messy, and also revealing — the emperor, and his close advisors, family members, donors, and support staff truly have no clothes on, and if there were a stray sweatshirt on the floor they would all stab each other in the back to get a piece of it. Such chaos is unproductive, leading the administration to frequently change ranks as to appear it is doing something.
This narrative is bittersweet. On one hand, not having a ground war with Iran, North Korea, or Venezuela is wonderful. It’s great to see Bolton embarrassed on the public stage, just as it was great when Trump forced out comically corrupt oil baron Rex Tillerson as secretary of state and Theranos dupe James Mattis as secretary of defense. Mattis, by the way, was confirmed 98-1 in the Senate based on the assumption he would calm Trump down. Did he? Unfortunately for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, the lone holdout, we have no way of knowing who stopped what or why. Having potential calamities happen or not happen at complete random is unbelievably exhausting. No one in power ever adheres to a narrative, and trying to craft a homemade narrative for events like Bolton’s brief time with Trump is all but impossible. I know, because I wrote about Trump’s airstrikes on Syria and the accompanying praise from the media in April 2017, none of which led anywhere at all.
At the time, the best possible guess for what would happen next, given that everyone who backed the Iraq invasion was piling in to give Trump credit for being serious and presidential for launching missiles at the Middle East, was a war. Why not? We have plenty of wars going on already. But it never happened. Like with Bolton’s ambitions, it disappeared from reality without cause or reason because Trump swallowed a McDouble the wrong way and had a mini-stroke that accidentally deleted the necessary data from his brain.
At least the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Castro’s Cuba, as genuinely scary as it was for people at the time that the Cold War could turn hot, had causes and ideologies behind it. By the end of 1961, we knew how John F. Kennedy felt about the nation almost going to war, we knew it was ex-CIA head Allen Dulles behind it, we saw Dulles resign over Bay of Pigs, and we saw Kennedy openly pursue additional actions against Cuba as a response. The dubious “Kennedy vs. the Deep State” narrative that sprouted from these events and his assassination, best exemplified by Oliver Stone’s JFK, is alive and well with the QAnon people who think JFK Jr. faked his own death.
Superimposing Trump onto Kennedy and pretending his own hires from the private sector are part of the Deep State doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it’s easy to see why people reach for any possible narrative to explain why we keep almost starting disastrous wars and pulling back. JFK Jr. staging a plane crash in 1999 in order to save Donald Trump from Satanic pedophiles in the CIA two decades later makes about as much sense as this Ben Garrison cartoon, which shows Trump pulling a football marked “war” out from under John Bolton, whose suit bears the label “military-industrial complex,” as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo looks on with dismay. As if the idea of Trump battling two people he personally hired for his administration and has veto power over isn’t absurd enough, Trump claimed last Thursday that Bolton, the War Guy, had actually been holding him back from starting wars. Nothing ever makes more sense with time; it only makes less.
The total unsuitability of current events to any kind of cogent narrative calls into question what, if anything, political analysts can do to understand the machinations of the federal government. Can anything be predicted if events have so little to do with the past, and everything to do with one man’s Mad Cow Disease? Maybe not. To compound the problem, it is still a possibility that Trump could start a war with North Korea, Syria, Iran, Venezuela or Cuba, with or without John Bolton.
As of this writing, the top headline on both CNN and The Washington Post is that strikes on Saudi Arabian oil infrastructure by Yemeni rebels may have been aided by Iran, and that Trump tweeted that the US is “locked and loaded depending on verification.” This could amount to nothing, like the airstrikes on Syria or the flaccid attempt at a coup in Venezuela. It would be very nice if it were possible to predict what will happen next, based on some kind of pattern or dominant ideology, since it could potentially turn into Iraq War Part 2, but it is not.
It would be nice to be able to tune out Trump’s overtures toward foreign intervention entirely, based on what seems like a pattern of belligerent language and clumsy walkbacks, but the only real patterns with Trump are that he thinks everyone is very, very unfair to him and that he hates famous women that aren’t his daughter. The media, until some random event that can never be adequately explained ends the Trump era, will have to stay attentive and exhausted lest our senile, easily impressionable leader destroy the house like a dog unsupervised for too long.