John Bolton and the Anti-Muslim Bigotry of Mainstream Conservatism

Islamophobia is the disease of the conservative mind. Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

For a brief period last year, an African-American congressman — who had once been affiliated with the Nation of Islam — was a leading candidate for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee. At that time, Keith Ellison had not been involved with Louis Farrakhan’s organization for decades; had been a public critic of its anti-Semitism and bigotry for nearly 11 years; and had spent much of the preceding year trying to elect America’s first Jewish president. During his days as a Farrakhan fellow-traveler, Ellison had shamefully defended that hateful religious leader against credible accusations of anti-Semitism — but there was (and is) no evidence that Ellison ever made “any anti-Semitic comments himself.”

Bret Stephens took no comfort in these caveats.

The New York Times columnist — and #NeverTrump conservative — had too little tolerance for hate to accept Ellison’s contrition. Instead, Stephens suggested that the Democratic Party’s willingness to look past the lawmaker’s sordid associations had exposed the fickleness of its opposition to bigotry. Months later, Stephens’s colleague Bari Weiss cited Ellison’s nearly successful candidacy as evidence that the Democratic Party might soon “fall prey” to an anti-Semitic, populist movement analogous to the “alt-right.” Stephens heralded her column as “the most essential piece you’ll read in today’s Times.”

Now, a white former U.N. ambassador — who is currently affiliated with anti-Muslim hate groups — is about to become the most powerful foreign-policy adviser in the American government. Since 2013, John Bolton has served as chairman of the Gatestone Institute, a far-right think tank that claims Muslims have established hundreds of  “microstates governed by Islamic Sharia law” (a.k.a. “no-go zones”) throughout France; that Muslim refugees have brought “a rape epidemic” and “exotic diseases” with them to Germany; and that the United Kingdom is on the cusp of becoming an “Islamist colony.”

And the incoming national security adviser boasts informal ties to even-more virulent anti-Muslim bigots. Pamela Geller is one of the most notorious Islamophobes in the United States. After gaining national attention for organizing the campaign against the opening of an Islamic cultural center in Manhattan’s Financial District (a.k.a. “The Ground Zero Mega-Mosque”), Geller proceeded to lead the “Stop Islamization of America” organization, author multiple books decrying the Islamization of the West, and organize a “Draw the Prophet” cartoon contest in Garland, Texas. She has argued that President Obama was “a Muhammadan” who “wants jihad to win”; that when Muslims “pray five times” they’re “cursing Christians and Jews five times a day”; that there is no such thing as “moderate Islam.”

John Bolton spoke at Geller’s rallies against the “Ground Zero Mosque,” made numerous appearances on her video blog, and wrote the foreword to a book she co-authored in 2010 entitled The Post-American Presidency: The Obama Administration’s War on America. In that exposé, Geller claimed that Europe’s acceptance of Muslim immigrants constituted “slow cultural and demographic suicide” — and that “Barack Hussein Obama” was leading the United States toward “a soft sharia: the quiet and piecemeal implementation of Islamic laws that subjugate non-Muslims.” Not only has Bolton never disavowed his ties to Geller, he lent a laudatory blurb to a book she published in November of last year (Fatwa: Hunted in America).

Bolton’s coziness with Geller is no aberration. He enjoys a similarly warm relationship with Frank Gaffney, founder of the Center for Security Studies and a world-class Islamophobe in the purest sense of that term: Gaffney claims that the Muslim Brotherhood has infiltrated the highest levels of the American government; that Clinton aide Huma Abedin and anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist are among this secret cabal of “stealth jihadists”; that Saddam Hussein was behind the Oklahoma City bombing; that Obama incorporated the Islamic crescent into the logo of a new missile-defense group; and Chris Christie’s decision to appoint a Muslim-American to New Jersey’s state judiciary might well qualify as an act of treason.

Even the conservative movement couldn’t stomach bigotry this lurid and hallucinatory (or at least, not when it was directed against some of their own). In 2011, the American Conservative Union informally banned Gaffney from speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference; but they welcomed Gaffney back into the fold last year — after Bolton personally intervened on his friend’s behalf.

Bolton has, on occasion, disavowed anti-Muslim prejudice. When Donald Trump first unveiled his “Muslim ban” in late 2015, Bolton derided it as antithetical to American values. But in other moments, the soon-to-be national security adviser has echoed the hateful sentiments of his fringe associates.

At one of Geller’s protests of the “Ground Zero Mosque,” Bolton argued that those who insisted Muslims had a right to open a place of worship in lower Manhattan were the real intolerant bigots, since they were effectively saying, “We want to increase religious tolerance and understanding, and if you don’t agree with that, we’re going to increase religious tolerance and understanding whether you like it or not.” And in a 2009 interview with Geller, Bolton reasoned, “As the saying goes from the Franklin Roosevelt era … ‘Not all Democrats are horse thieves, but all horse thieves are Democrats.’ Taking that forward, the terrorists today are Islamic fundamentalists.” When Bolton made this claim, the vast majority of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil over the preceding eight years had been perpetrated by white, far-right extremists.

So, when Bret Stephens learned of Bolton’s appointment to a high-ranking White House position last week, he must have been apoplectic. After all, this standard-bearer of principled conservatism is so repelled by prejudice, he could not countenance the thought of the Democratic Party giving a leadership position to a man who had been affiliated with a bigoted organization decades ago. And unlike Ellison, Bolton had never broken off his ties with his hateful allies, or renounced their bigotry, much less campaigned for a presidential candidate who belonged to the religious community that his erstwhile friends had vilified. Ellison defended Farrakhan against charges of anti-Semitism in 1995; Bolton wrote the foreword to a book detailing Obama’s “soft sharia” agenda in 2010.

Alas, there is apparently some other, mysterious distinction between Bolton and Ellison that makes Stephens far more alarmed by the idea of the latter leading the DNC, than by that of the former commanding the National Security Council.

Far from decrying the ascension of a hatemonger to high office, Stephens responded to Bolton’s appointment by lauding the man’s criticism of the United Nations —- and dismissing the backlash to his hiring as “a collective freak-out.” Here is the closest the columnist came to criticizing the new national security adviser:

I agree with Bolton about some things and disagree about others. But on the U.N. he’s been right all along. If his presence in the White House helps to scare the organization into real reform, so much the better.

This response is difficult to reconcile with Stephens’s branding as a conservative whose allergy to hateful demagoguery has left him without a place in Donald Trump’s Republican Party. But it is quite easy to reconcile with the columnist’s avowed belief that Palestinian violence is not rooted in the experience of long-term subjugation to a foreign army, but rather to the “Palestinian blood fetish”; or that the “Arab world’s problems” are in no meaningful sense attributable to the arbitrary lines drawn by the Western powers in the Sykes-Picot agreement but rather are wholly the product of “the disease of the Arab mind”; or that African-Americans do not perceive the United States as racist because centuries of discriminatory policy have left the median white family with 86 times more wealth than the median black one, but rather, because the Black Lives Matter movement has propagated the “big lie” that America is a “land of the irredeemably racist”; or that the dysfunction in much of the postcolonial world today does not reflect the destructive legacy of Western imperialism but rather the politically incorrect fact that “colonialism, for which the West has spent the past five decades in nonstop atonement, was far from the worst thing to befall much of the colonized world” and thus that “some new version of colonialism may be the best thing that could happen to at least some countries in the postcolonial world.”

On Monday, the White House released a page of quotes from various Republican politicians and pundits praising John Bolton’s appointment, and pushing back on the national security adviser’s hysterical critics. Many of these endorsements were premised on the notion that wars of aggression against Iran and North Korea just might be the least reckless foreign policy options available to Donald Trump. But the most compelling argument against the popular portrayal of Bolton as a far-right madman came from the National Review’s #NeverTrump columnist David French:

He’s a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. He’s on the board of trustees of the National Review Institute. He’s a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He’s a conservative hawk, yes, but he’s squarely in the mainstream of conservative foreign-policy thought.

This is absolutely right. John Bolton is a promoter of anti-Muslim bigotry and squarely within the mainstream of conservative foreign-policy thought. There is no tension between these two facts; because the leading lights of American conservatism — from Donald Trump to Bret Stephens — all accept that Muslims have earned some degree of collective stigmatization. They may disagree about how much; and some may only endorse this premise on an unconscious level. But in their words and deeds, conservative intellectuals make it unmistakably clear that they believe anti-Muslim bigotry is excusable in a manner that anti-Semitism is not.

It is true that Bolton’s appointment has been met with a modicum of conservative criticism (though this has generally focused on his mania for war, not his complicity with Islamophobia). But Mike Pompeo’s nomination inspired virtually none — even though the incoming secretary of State defamed the entire American Muslim community less than five years ago. Speaking from the House floor, the then-congressman falsely claimed that Muslim leaders had refused to condemn the Boston marathon bombing, and contended that this silence “made these Islamic leaders across America potentially complicit in these acts,” while also casting “doubt upon the commitment to peace among adherents of the Muslim faith.”

In the summer of 2014, two Israeli settlers kidnapped a 16-year-old Palestinian boy, beat him, and burned him alive, because they suspected that someone of the boy’s ethnicity had recently murdered three Jewish teenagers. The act was roundly condemned by the leadership of the American Jewish community.

Imagine if Mike Pompeo had given a speech, weeks later, in which he not only held all American rabbis responsible for this act of hideous violence — but falsely accused them of refusing to condemn the act, and suggested that this (mythical) silence cast “doubt upon the commitment to peace among adherents of the Jewish faith.”

Would a Republican president have subsequently nominated him to run the Central Intelligence Agency? Would all but one member of the GOP’s Senate majority have voted to confirm him to that position? And would all of this have happened with little to no complaint from the conservative intelligentsia? Of course not; explicit Jew hatred has no place in the conservative mainstream.

But John Bolton and Mike Pompeo — and anti-Muslim bigots of all colors and creeds — absolutely do.

John Bolton and the Islamophobia of Mainstream Conservatism