The Trump White House thinks of itself as a TV show. The president is in the habit of encouraging staffers to think in literally those terms; every day is an episode, with twists and turns following each other moment by moment. Bad news can be beaten by doing something even worse, each episode more ludicrous than the last.
This week, the show was stuffed even closer to bursting-point than usual. A playboy model luridly described her affair with the president of the United States; the next day, the president casually tweeted about physically beating up a former vice-president – but those stories barely broke onto the front pages, because the president also decided that this was the week to turn the nation’s foreign policy establishment upside-down.
Even sex and violence were mere sub-plots against the week’s main drama: the unceremonious firing of the president’s top military adviser, HR McMaster – which came just days after he axed his top diplomat, Rex Tillerson – and the subsequent lurch to the right that their replacements represent.
Of all the cynical opportunists who joined the ship of fools that is Donald Trump’s administration, HR McMaster replacing disgraced general Michael Flynn as Trump’s National Security Advisor was perhaps the most surprising.
McMaster had been a respected figure on both sides of the political spectrum. His PhD thesis, published as a widely-lauded book in 1997 under the title Dereliction of Duty, is a searing indictment of how lies, craven political opportunism, and an obsession with public perception, combined with an inexperience and blind arrogance on the part of the president and his senior staff, led to the debacle of the Vietnam War. That he would then join an administration characterised by a cartoonish extreme of everything he rallied against in his book was totally baffling.
Thus many thought – or at least hoped – that McMaster would be able to be one of the “grown-ups” in the administration, along with defence secretary James Mattis and chief of staff John Kelly. But the role turned out to be an unappealing one; a decorated general, reduced to playing schoolmaster to a squirming and uninterested president. By last July he was already sick of the job; according to a Buzzfeed report, McMaster was privately referring to Trump as a “dope”, a “kindergartener” and an “idiot” at a dinner with tech CEOs.
McMaster never quite fit in, and the thoughtful approach he championed in his book utterly failed to apply in the Trump White House. Who’d have thought that a president who flatly refuses to read would have trouble absorbing the complex lessons of Vietnam – a war in which, let’s not forget, Trump received five deferments from fighting due to “bone spurs” in his feet.
This is not good news because John Bolton, McMaster’s replacement as Trump’s chief advisor on matters of military and national security, looks likely to be a real problem.
Bolton’s preference for military over diplomatic solutions is not far short of fetishistic. As George W. Bush’s ambassador to the UN, he was one of the core neocon architects of the Iraq War, claiming at the time that Iraqis would “welcome” American soldiers as conquering heroes, and covertly briefing the press against anyone in the administration who advised caution. He has called for the bombing of Iran, falsely accused Cuba of developing biological weapons, and endorsed a book by Islamophobic troll Pamela Geller.
Earlier this year he wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal calling for a pre-emptive nuclear strike against North Korea. And, the New York Times revealed, Bolton’s Political Action Committee was an early beneficiary of materials appropriated from Facebook by the now-disgraced data firm Cambridge Analytica.
The McMaster news came hard on the heels of the abrupt firing of secretary of state Rex Tillerson last weekend. Between his replacement, CIA director Mike Pompeo, and Bolton, America’s foreign policy, in just a week, took a drastic jump towards a much more hawkish form of diplomacy, one in which military action is not a last resort but an eager first response. Both Pompeo and Bolton are rabid opponents of the Iran deal, and McMaster’s departure might represent the last nail in its coffin.
Therefore it is a testament to the car-wreck that this White House has become that Thursday’s lasciviously detailed television interview with former playboy model Karen McDougal, recounting a ten-month relationship with Trump, only barely broke through the news of the internal chaos among administration senior staff.
The affair allegedly occurred not long after he had married Melania. Many of the details echoed those which we’ve learned from Stormy Daniels, a porn star to whom Trump’s lawyer paid $130,000 in hush-money during the 2016 campaign; in particular, the detail that after their first sexual encounter Trump tried to hand McDougal an envelope filled with cash.
No-one seriously doubts the affair, or Stormy Daniels, and Trump’s farcical government is now playing out over the poignantly tragic backdrop of a marriage on the rocks, and denials from a government so famous for lying mean less than nothing at this point.
But sometimes, when you get so used to watching a government which thinks of itself as a television program that you fall into that mindset, news like Bolton’s appointment pulls you back to reality with a jolt. The nightmare scenario is that this stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid reality show will end with real bloodshed, and with Bolton’s appointment that got much more likely.