The Morning Jolt


A Relationship Doomed to Fail

President Donald Trump listens as his national security adviser John Bolton speaks during a presidential memorandum signing in the Oval Office, February 7, 2019. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

On the menu today: contemplating the relationship between Donald Trump and John Bolton and whether it was destined to end this way; how the mandatory social distancing of the pandemic quarantines set the stage for the hunger for connection met by the George Floyd protests; and data suggests an exodus from America’s biggest cities started before the coronavirus and the protests.

How Did Trump and Bolton Think Their Working Relationship Was Going to End?

In 1987, the infamously temperamental New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner hired Billy Martin to manage the team . . . for the fifth time in just over a decade. From 1973 to 1990, Steinbrenner made 20 changes of manager, and perhaps no relationship in baseball was ever as perfectly toxic, dysfunctional, and volatile as that of Steinbrenner and Martin. While both had achieved a significant level of success in life and the sport, their passions ran hot and neither man was inclined to back down or compromise. What made the on-again off-again working relationship so bizarrely funny was how frequently the two were willing to give it another try, no matter how badly their previous encounter had ended. But the fifth time wasn’t the charm; Martin lasted less than half a season in his final stint as Yankees manager.

With that in mind . . . just how did Donald Trump and John Bolton think their working relationship was going to end?

Donald Trump is a quasi-isolationist nationalist critic of the Iraq War and George W. Bush’s foreign policy in general. He has no interest in democracy promotion and minimal interest in human rights, sees American foreign policy almost exclusively in economic terms, and is a frequent critic of U.S. alliances who is convinced he personally can reach good deals with hostile states like Russia and North Korea. John Bolton is the walking definition of a hawk. He regularly endorses regime change and military action against states hostile to the United States, is a fierce critic of Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un, and is inclined to believe that negotiations with leaders of hostile states are simply opportunities for American leaders to get taken to the cleaners by con artists.

Sure, you can find agreements here and there — both men criticized the Iran nuclear deal, Bolton has his own skepticism of “the international community” and multilateralism, and both men see themselves as strong friends of Israel. But the two men’s worldviews and values were so different — on precisely the sorts of matters that a president and national-security adviser need to work on! — that not only was conflict inevitable, the pairing was all but guaranteed to conclude with an explosive clash of two adamant personalities. Both men exhibited some hubris in the decision to work together. Trump was unrealistically certain Bolton would stay in line and play good soldier as the administration pursued policies Bolton deemed egregiously consequential mistakes. Bolton unrealistically believed he could steer Trump away from his own lifelong instincts and towards the foreign policy direction he preferred.

Bolton was approaching 70 years old when he took the job as Trump’s national-security adviser. Bolton didn’t need to stay on good terms with anyone for future career prospects.

Four things can be simultaneously true:

One: The anecdotes from Bolton, describing Trump as erratic, uninterested in details, easily flattered by foreign leaders, and far too credulous when listening to their pledges and explanations, are disturbing. Of course, the Trump that Bolton describes is not all that different from what we have seen and heard from him in public. The president has colossal confidence in his own persuasiveness and ability to make a deal, and once negotiations start, Trump always wants to believe that any agreement reached represents a grand step in the right direction.

Two: Bolton’s steadfast refusal or reluctance to testify during the impeachment hearing does not reflect well on him. Bolton apparently believes that what the president says behind closed doors, when the cameras aren’t watching, in negotiations with foreign leaders is vital and shocking information of utmost importance to the future of the country that the American people need to know . . . after they’ve paid $32.50 hardcover.

Three: Bolton’s refusal to testify probably had little or no impact on the outcome of the trial in the Senate. People who believe his testimony would have convinced 19 Republican senators to remove Donald Trump from the presidency are fooling themselves.

Four: A White House national-security adviser writing a denunciatory tell-all book and releasing it the summer before a presidential election, as payback for policy and personal disagreements, sets a terrible precedent for future presidents. Whether or not you think Donald Trump deserves loyalty from his staff, the President of the United States deserves to have his conversations within the White House about policy and decisions — and his conversations and negotiations with foreign leaders! — not blasted out for the whole world to evaluate.

Now the president is predictably furiously denouncing Bolton on Twitter — once again ignoring the fact that he himself chose to hire him — and the worse Bolton is, the worse Trump must be for hiring him. And for Bolton, the more he insists, as he did this morning on ABC News, that Trump is “not fit for office . . . doesn’t have the competence to carry out the job . . . erratic, foolish, irrational, a conspiracy theorist who is stunningly uninformed . . . unable to distinguish between the country’s interest and his personal interest . . .” we are left to ask . . . why did John Bolton agree to work for him?

The Pandemic, the Protests, and Our Much-Needed Human Sense of Connection

For all that’s wrong in this country, and how frustrating the daily news cycle can be, I still believe that most Americans are good people who want to help others, and many are extraordinary.

A new report finds Americans gave nearly $450 billion to charities in 2019, a 2.4 percent uptick from the previous year when adjusted for inflation. And that’s not all big foundations, charitable trusts, and corporations — 70 percent of that sum was from individuals. When faced with a crisis — 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Harvey — Americans want to help.

One of the great frustrations of the coronavirus pandemic was what we as Americans were asked to do, and how insignificant it felt compared to scale of the problem. A contagious virus that could kill someone, particularly if that person was elderly or immunocompromised, had invaded our shores, and we as Americans were asked . . . to wash our hands and stay home. (Everything was canceled anyway.) It was one of the most high-risk moments in modern history, and we were asked to sit on our couches, watch Netflix, and order take-out.

Perhaps some Americans chafed against the lockdowns out of selfishness or shortsightedness, but I suspect a big ingredient is that when a crisis hits, many Americans want to mobilize. They want to do something, to feel useful. Many of us hate sitting around and waiting; for some of us, there is no emotion more painful than feeling helpless.

Also, during and in the aftermath of a crisis, almost all of us experience that human instinct of wanting to come together in groups. This is why every culture on earth has some sort of funeral or ritual for gathering after death. We know we are not meant to go through hardship alone. And we were instructed to social distance when we needed social connection the most.

Unfortunately, the average American can’t research treatments and potential vaccines.

If doing baking-soda-and-vinegar volcano science projects in our kitchens would have helped find a cure faster, finding baking soda and vinegar would become as hard as finding toilet paper earlier this year.

No doubt, the tens of thousands who marched in the streets were genuinely outraged by the police role in the death of George Floyd and widespread lasting tensions between police forces and minority communities. But the protests also represented the lone officially sanctioned or blessed gatherings of large groups since the second week of March. No wonder those protests, demonstrations, marches, and rallies occurred in more than 2,000 cities and towns. They were the only game in town, so to speak. People who had felt helpless in the face of a microscopic virus for months suddenly had an opportunity to do something that they believed, and were told, would create a better world.

Are they creating a better world? Some police forces are altering their policies and methods of subduing suspects, Congress is contemplating legislation, and President Trump signed an executive order that urges police departments to adopt stricter use-of-force standards and create databases to track officer misconduct. Without the protests, it is unlikely any of those changes would have happened.

But along the way, malcontents torched buildings, looted stores, and left graffiti and wreckage all over the downtowns of America’s cities. The National Park Service is still trying to get the graffiti off the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. Destroyed police squad cars, broken glass everywhere, boarded-up storefront windows, the smoldering embers of fast-food joints . . . enraged by the Trump administration and response to the coronavirus, George Packer declared in The Atlantic that the United States was a failed state. Certain protesters seemed determined to ensure that the country looked like one.

Speaking of America’s Cities . . .

Daniel Henninger calls attention to this eye-opening Brookings report by William Frey about population shifts in America’s cities. That exodus from the cities that people, including myself, thought the pandemic would trigger? It many places it started before the coronavirus arrived: “Among the 68 urban core counties with populations exceeding 500,000 people, 30 registered a population loss in 2018 to 2019, and 60 grew less or lost more population than in 2014 to 2015.”

ADDENDA: Kevin Williamson: “The class war in our country is business class vs. first class; in automotive terms, it’s E-Class vs. S-Class. Everybody’s comfortable. And that produces some odd outcomes: Nobody’s going to do one g**damned thing about how they conduct business in Philadelphia or Chicago or any other corrupt, Democrat-dominated city, but there are going to be some “new representation and inclusion standards for Oscars eligibility,” and we are going to be treated to — joy of joys! — a deep national discussion on whether some Broadway stars don’t have it quite as good as other Broadway stars. The bloody-snouted hyenas have looked up from the kill just long enough to announce the creation of the Goldman Sachs Fund for Racial Equity.”


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