For Republicans and many supporters of Israel, former National Security Advisor John Bolton went from hero to zero in the last year. For opponents of President Donald Trump, it’s different. They always intensely disliked the veteran policy wonk and deeply resent his refusal to help them impeach the president, but are now prepared to use the ammunition he’s given them to defeat Trump in November.
Bolton’s tell-all memoir, The Room Where It Happened, has put him at the center of the national conversation as his scathing denunciations of the president as unfit for office and a threat to the republic were more bad news for a Trump campaign that has already had more than its share of setbacks this year. But the interesting question to ask about Bolton’s broadside is not so much about the highly unflattering behind-the-scenes details that he relates about his former boss, egregious though some of them may be.
Rather, the importance of this episode rests on the way it answers a question that Trump’s detractors are continually asking of his supporters. They don’t understand how it is possible for anyone to support a man who would behave or speak the way Trump does.
Many Trump supporters do delight in the way he trolls opponents and his willingness to fight dirty against liberals in a way that more gentlemanly Republicans would never consider. But Trump’s 90 percent approval ratings from Republicans are a product of their affection for Trump’s policies and fear of what will happen if the Democrats win. As far as they are concerned, the importance of Trump’s foibles and sometimes-indefensible behavior pales in comparison to what he has accomplished and what he has prevented the Democrats from doing.
Bolton’s book reminds us that conservatives are now prioritizing policy over character. And there is no group about which that is truer than the pro-Israel conservatives who were fans of Bolton.
A foreign-policy hawk, Bolton served in the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush before his stormy 17 months with Trump. His prickly personality and outsized ego earned him many enemies. The same is true about his role in the U.S. decision to launch the Iraq war and his support for an aggressive stand against Iran.
But Bolton has always been a favorite of the pro-Israel crowd.
That dates back to his time in the administration of the first President Bush, when he led the successful U.S. effort to get the United Nations to rescind its infamous “Zionism is Racism” resolution. During his short tenure as U.N. ambassador, he also earned the affection of friends of the Jewish state.
That’s why pro-Israel conservatives openly campaigned to get Trump to name Bolton as either secretary of state or national security advisor, eventually getting their way when he was named to the latter post in April 2018. Some of Trump’s first appointees, such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, played the “adults” in the room seeking to prevent the president from keeping his pledges to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and to move the U.S. embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. But with Bolton as national security advisor and Mike Pompeo as secretary of state, Jewish conservatives had a “dream team” that enabled Trump to keep both promises.
Bolton, however, had neither the patience nor the political skill to get along with Trump. He also was far more hawkish than the president on a number of issues. Bolton was appalled by Trump’s callous attitude towards traditional allies, his contempt for human-rights concerns, his desire to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and his reluctance to use force to hit back against Iranian provocations.
Some of Bolton’s criticisms are on target, especially those about Trump’s attitude towards Chinese atrocities and the consequences of his indifference to the ongoing catastrophe in Syria. But Trump was right to resist Bolton’s desire to escalate the conflict with Iran since he correctly realized that doing so would serve Tehran’s interests more than that of America’s.
It was that difference that led to Bolton being forced out, and that grievance, coupled with his contempt for the president’s conduct, has led him now to insist that even someone like former Vice President Joe Biden would be preferable to Trump.
But even if the quarter of Jews who voted for Trump in 2016 and will do so again this year agreed with Bolton about the president’s defects, it’s clear that the overwhelming majority of them value policy over character.
They believe that having a president who stands solidly with Israel—rather than one that pressures it and seeks to “save it from itself,” and who has reversed Barack Obama’s appeasement of Iran—is more important than Trump’s flaws. The vast majority of Republicans and conservatives agree since they think Trump has kept other promises about conservative judges, deregulation and taxes, which outweigh his foibles and missteps.
While Democrats concur with Bolton that Trump is especially bad, they made the same calculation when they loyally supported Bill Clinton in spite of his character flaws and misbehavior. And they are making the same calculation by sticking with Biden in spite of his shortcomings and by the way they largely dismissed out of hand the sexual-misconduct accusation lodged against him by a former staffer. In both instances, they made it clear that ideology, as well as their belief that their party must take back control of the government, is more important than any other consideration. As one liberal columnist wrote in The Nation earlier this year, she would vote for Biden even if she learned that he “boiled babies and ate them.” That kind of thinking dominates both parties this year.
So while Bolton has added to the catalogue of Trump’s shortcomings, he won’t change many minds. Though Americans like to talk about public virtue, when push comes to shove, both pro-Israel Republicans and liberals Democrats prefer policy to character.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.