John Bolton

John Bolton holding a shotgun

I HAVE LONG BEEN fascinated not by American politics—the most tedious of hobbies—but by one of its characters in particular: John Bolton. If you were an adult during the time of the leadup to the 2003 Iraq War you’ll remember him for his part in war-cheerleading, if you’re younger you’ll know him as the most foreign-policy aggressive of the current President’s constantly rotating staff, but if, like me, you’re a connoisseur of the worst people in the world, you’ll know Bolton simply as the most hawkish person ever to haunt Washington DC.

A logical process works in John Bolton’s head, and it’s extremely simple:

1. the whole point of policy is to advance interests (as argued by Clausewitz), therefore,
2. America, in the end, only advances its interests through force, or the threat of force. Multilateralism and cooperation are figleaves over power, and,
3. America has weapons that work, therefore,
4. We should use those weapons.

Bolton has never looked at a world map or globe without seeing little crosshairs. The list of the countries he’s advocated bombing is longer than your grocery list at the end of the holidays. He doesn’t seem to be driven by any of the sordid motives shared by the rest of the upper echelons of American politics: avarice, personal gain, self-promotion, hatred of a minority group, vanity, self-esteem, or any of the weirder psycho-sexual motives that seem to prevail in the world’s oldest democracy. There are no sleazy trails to follow, and no obscure files marked with code words or dollar signs. He’s obviously intelligent, honest and ethical, well-read, sincere in his beliefs, and has a capacity for self-reflection. He is a being of pure, disinterested, incorruptible malevolence, and in any situation only wants what is worst for everyone.

The urge to do the worst isn’t just a politics thing. Every field of human endeavour has its beings of pure ill-will, in every situation in every era. Australia soccer fans know Kevin Muscat for one of these rare people, the dirtiest professional footballer in Australia, and possibly the world. Muscat’s wikipedia page, which includes an extensive (and hilarious) section on ‘Reputation’, is evidence that Boltonian urges operate on the football field, at the expense of other people’s tibias and fibias.

You’ve probably met people like it, you’ve probably had a boss or a client like that. Maybe you’ve even heard John Bolton’s or Kevin Muscat’s voice urging you, in your ear, when making a decision, to go in hard, slide in studs-up, make that tackle. Break that leg. Withdraw from that treaty. What are Tomahawk missiles for, if not for launching?

Graham Wood who wrote this Atlantic profile on Bolton, from shortly before he began his term as National Security Adviser, also wrote this shorter wryer article on Bolton’s potential testimony in the US Senate:

My colleague David Frum appealed to Bolton’s patriotism a few months ago, asking him to speak freely about Trump. Frum is Bolton’s former colleague at the American Enterprise Institute, so I suspect he knew that appealing to Bolton’s selfless, wholly unremunerated goodwill is about as likely to be successful as asking him for a foot massage.

I suggest that’s not quite right. If there is an inverse altruism, a sense of doing a bad turn for no other reason than the ill virtue of the act itself, that is Bolton. Don’t appeal to his patriotism. Don’t offer him cash. Don’t suggest a mutually advantageous arrangement; there is no deal that will satisfy him. If you want to motivate John Bolton, suggest a way in which he can be, as Wood says, ‘an asshole’, that, by itself, will do fine. I fully expect Boltonian testimony at the impeachment hearing to be hilarious, and devastating.

This is what fascinates me about John Bolton, this part of human nature that we all have—the H.L. Mencken urge, in any situation, to spit on your hands, hoist the black flag, and start slitting throats—unrestrained, unmitigated, and unapologetic.

[The image at the top of this post is a detail of Crossing The Swamp, by the profoundly weird right-wing American painter Jon McNaughton.]

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