Thursday, June 18, 2020

Ruminations 91: Very Brief Reflections on John Bolton's "Secret History" of Mr. Trump, and the Art of Political Burlesque

"Indeed, I have been forced to conceal the real causes of many of the events recounted in my former books. It will now be my duty, in this part of my history, to tell what has hitherto remained untold, and to state the real motives and origin of the actions which I have already recounted. But, when undertaking this new task, how painful and hard will it be, to be obliged to falter and contradict myself as to what I have said about the lives of Justinian and Theodora: and particularly so, when I reflect that what I am about to write will not appear to future generations either credible or probable, especially when a long lapse of years shall have made them old stories; for which reason I fear that I may be looked upon as a romancer, and reckoned among playwrights." (Procopius, The Secret History of the Court of Justinian (Project Gutenberg edition; originally Athens: Athenian Society, 1896); Introduction)

So begins the now well-known "Secret History" (Anecdota; Greek: Ἀπόκρυφη Ἱστορία, Apókryphe Historía; Latin: Historia Arcana) of Procopius of Caesaria (Προκόπιος ὁ Καισαρεύς; born 500- died c. 565)). It was a work known for a time when it was written and then lost until republication int he 17th century. Like others of its kind, it is the work of a disgruntled academic turned functionary, who having spent a lifetime getting into the good graces of the powerful in order to excise (or at least witness) power from the position of a servant, a trained tool of the imperial machinery, produced a scathing criticism--personal and professional--of his former masters after he was cast out by the ungrateful patrons he thought he had served so well. The imperial personages who for many years were portrayed so positively, now descend into caricature.  Their political depravity mirrored (as is common in Western literary tropes of this sort) by their sexual depravity and mental incapacity (on modern versions of this form of conflation for political ends, see, Emasculated Men, Effeminate Law in the United States, Zimbabwe and Malaysia (2005) Yale Journal of Law and Feminism)

But Procopius is not been the last to pen a "Secret History." John Bolton has now written his own "Secret History" describing his service--unappreciated--as a high functionary in the entourage of the President of the United States, cast aside by an ungrateful master.  Like Propocius, Mr. Bolton started as a cliente of Jesse Helms and worked his way through and around the bureaucracies of the American Republic, ultimately servicing various masters as US Ambassador the the United Nations (2005-2006) and then, in his (final?) performance as  National Security Advisor (2018-2019) before turning to the literary tasks that eventually birthed his Anecdota.  The Bolton "Secret History," salaciously (well, we all "Gotta Have a Gimmick") titled "The Room Where it Happened"will be published in late June 2020 by Simon and Schuster, subject of course, to legal action on the Trump Administration's claims that the work contains materials which may not be published (Trump administration sues Bolton over book dispute). Like the Procopius work, it is brimming with accusation and demonization.  His former master is not fit for office (ABC News video); and that he sacrificed national interest to further is own career.  There is more. Like Procopius, the material is meant to incite political maneuverings--in early Byzantine imperial politics centered on the Hippodrome factions (Blues and Greens); in the United States among political parties and disaffected but powerful elements of the elite shut out of office with the loss of the 2016 election.   All of this, of course, is fair play given the mores, the morally binding customs of a particular group (in this case of the high functionaries), of early 21st century America, And perhaps it augurs, like much of what is happening in 2020, the start of a new era, the character of which is still up for grabs. 

The brief Ruminations that follow take this symmetry as its starting point.  It is not focused on the "truth" of the allegations made--as saucy as many of them are. Instead it considers Mr. Bolton's "Secret History" in the context of the type to which it relates. It is an act of revenge, and betrayal as a payback for a perceived betrayal or thwarting of ambition, and is built on the believability of its demonizing revisionism  the most potent element of which is its power to scandalize.The power of Secret Histories lie in the invitation for the target's enemies to treat as fact the interpretations of the disloyal author.

The fundamental purpose of a Secret History is to present a revision of history. Its fundamental premise is that the official accounts of events--or of the person targeted--are false.  That falsity itself is dangerous and requires correction. The value of the Secret History lies in its disloyalty.  It is, at bottom, a great act of lèse majesté. It is the extent of that disloyalty by which the value of the work of revision is measured.

The authenticity of that revisionism also is usually a function of the extent of the betrayal. The betrayal of minor functionaries rarely merits more than a moment.  But the treachery of high functionaries are of a different order.  The greater the extent of the betrayal--the closer the betrayer is to the pinnacle of the authority he betrays--the more authentic the accusation and the more valuable the exercise of betrayal. But the act of publishing a "Secret History" is also substantially self serving.  Having been cast aside, the former high official may be in a precarious state.  He is reviled by the opponents of his master, and now discarded unlikely to be aided by the master's current retainers.  At a minimum, self-preservation suggests that a betrayal of suitable magnitude might provide entry into the former enemy camp (or at least suggest that it is in their interests to protect him), and make it that much harder for his former master to the disloyal official.  

Mr. Trump is hardly the first to invite a string of "Secret Histories" by former aides and officials.  The difference is that other presidents have been more popular with the press which reports on such things.  Thus, for example, by 2014, reporting from the Los Angeles Times noted, with respect to President Obama's former officials: "All presidents have had in-house critics. But rarely has a president faced the degree of public criticism from former senior Cabinet members that Obama has this year. The critiques are particularly notable because they have appeared while Obama is still in office, struggling with a world beset with crises. Panetta’s “Worthy Fights” has appeared as the midterm election approaches, when criticism of Obama could boost his Republican opposition." (Obama still in office, but ex-aides’ books and claws are already out).  Earlier, in 2008, Daniel Schorr, reporting for NPR noted with respect to the then ending Bush II administration: "Some call it kiss and tell; some call it whistleblowing, but over the years there's been an increasing tendency for aggrieved officials to strike back with books venting their anger at the Bush administration."  (Bush Administration Besieged by Critical Books).

Pix Credit HERE
The scope of betrayal, of course, varies with the access of the aggrieved and now vengeful official seeking some variation of "seeking the record straight" by attempting to manage the form of interpretation of fact (or to supply facts form which a necessary and strategic stet of interpretations may be made). Here the scope of the betrayal involved in the revised history is substantial. A valued underling--lifted to high office and trust by the ruler--betray of that trust over the course of a several hundred pages detailing of the depravity of his former master and his attendants. Procopius feared imprisonment, torture and death.  These were prominently noted at the start of his Anecdota, and for good reason. These sorts of works are only worth reading as a function of the danger that its writing places the author. The object is to elicit evidence of bravery; the effect is to titillate.

Like Procopius' recounting of the Empress Theodora's performances, which involved the strategic use of grain to which geese were invited to partake for the titillation of the audience (Secret history, supra, Chapter IX), the publishers have laid out a number of gains judiciously placed to provide the anticipation of substantial titillation.  Simon and Schuster provides the copy for this titillation, though the authorship of the words remains undisclosed.
As President Trump’s National Security Advisor, John Bolton spent many of his 453 days in the room where it happened, and the facts speak for themselves.

The result is a White House memoir that is the most comprehensive and substantial account of the Trump Administration, and one of the few to date by a top-level official. With almost daily access to the President, John Bolton has produced a precise rendering of his days in and around the Oval Office. What Bolton saw astonished him: a President for whom getting reelected was the only thing that mattered, even if it meant endangering or weakening the nation. “I am hard-pressed to identify any significant Trump decision during my tenure that wasn’t driven by reelection calculations,” he writes. In fact, he argues that the House committed impeachment malpractice by keeping their prosecution focused narrowly on Ukraine when Trump’s Ukraine-like transgressions existed across the full range of his foreign policy—and Bolton documents exactly what those were, and attempts by him and others in the Administration to raise alarms about them.

He shows a President addicted to chaos, who embraced our enemies and spurned our friends, and was deeply suspicious of his own government. In Bolton’s telling, all this helped put Trump on the bizarre road to impeachment. “The differences between this presidency and previous ones I had served were stunning,” writes Bolton, who worked for Reagan, Bush 41, and Bush 43. He discovered a President who thought foreign policy is like closing a real estate deal—about personal relationships, made-for-TV showmanship, and advancing his own interests. As a result, the US lost an opportunity to confront its deepening threats, and in cases like China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea ended up in a more vulnerable place.

Bolton’s account starts with his long march to the West Wing as Trump and others woo him for the National Security job. The minute he lands, he has to deal with Syria’s chemical attack on the city of Douma, and the crises after that never stop. As he writes in the opening pages, “If you don’t like turmoil, uncertainty, and risk—all the while being constantly overwhelmed with information, decisions to be made, and sheer amount of work—and enlivened by international and domestic personality and ego conflicts beyond description, try something else.”

The turmoil, conflicts, and egos are all there—from the upheaval in Venezuela, to the erratic and manipulative moves of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, to the showdowns at the G7 summits, the calculated warmongering by Iran, the crazy plan to bring the Taliban to Camp David, and the placating of an authoritarian China that ultimately exposed the world to its lethal lies. But this seasoned public servant also has a great eye for the Washington inside game, and his story is full of wit and wry humor about how he saw it played. 
This bit of burlesque might be revealing enough of content to make reading the entire work unnecessary--an over explanation that may cost the publisher sales.  But that is unlikely given the timing of its publication--months before a presidential election that (the international press and the elites they serve) see as a moment when the executive is weak enough to be overthrown (in US fashion through electoral defeat). The initial paragraph of the blurb provides an unintended reference to Anne Boleyn--Anne of a Thousand Days, counting Mr. Bolton's 453 "days in the room."

Interestingly, as for the rest, there is less here than may meet the eye (except of course to the extent it can be inflated during the course of electioneering). The second paragraph of the blurb is almost farce--a seasoned servant "astonished" at what he saw--a politician singularly focused on himself. That is hardly the stuff of revelation, even among those who view the vocation of the politician as something closer to an academic (God help us) or a religious divine.  "“I am hard-pressed to identify any significant Trump decision during my tenure that wasn’t driven by reelection calculations,” he writes"" might be written about many political figures, including some dear to hearts of Mr. Trump's opponents. But that is the nature of a Secret History.

The bit about chaos in the third paragraph of the blurb was truly Procopius worthy. "He shows a President addicted to chaos, who embraced our enemies and spurned our friends, and was deeply suspicious of his own government."  Marvelous--taken from the plot of Boris Gudonov. But of course, the devil is in the detail, a Mr. Bolton promises to supply a substantial amount of detail (e.g., Trump sought Chinese President Xi Jinping's help to win re-election, reveals Bolton’s book). And, indeed, the book appears to add fuel to the speculation that this is a very personal administration, one centered on the3 ego of the leader.  But this is nothing new--except perhaps for the extent to which ego drives decision making.  With respect to the governing style, there is nothing much there either that is not well known.  Many of both his friends and critics have long noted that Mr. Trump brings a merchant's perspective (his critics would suggest the exaggerated caricature of a persona of Mr. Trump's last television show) ("Let's Make a Deal" as Economic Policy: Thoughts on President Elect Trump's Intention to Abandon the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP)). And many have long shared a disagreement about the focus and thrust of American foreign policy in a number of respects. As well, the aroma of the sort of talk that was once fashionable about the Reagan presidency appears here at least in shadow form (Reagan Aides Once Raised the Possibility of Invoking the 25th Amendment).  This is old ground with a new demon.

But there is irony evident here as well.  The ego and self absorption of the President is matched, it appears by that of his once loyal advisor. Mr. Bolton's book appears to cast him in a somewhat heroic light. This is useful in a Secret History, but not essential.  Still it serves to help the reader assess the character of the disloyal official who is trying to set things right.Beyond that, there is a good story to be told in a time of great crisis.  In a way it is a pity that Mr. Bolton's tenure ended before COVID-19.

But to whom is all of this invective, all of these allegations, directed? Ultimately, the target of revision are those who were counted as enemies when the writer served his master (well). Where once he was despised by the enemies of his master; where once he was though a lair who could not be believed; where once he could not be trusted other than as a tool of his master; where once he was thought merely to serve his own ambition (and  (inflated?) sense of self); where once he was viewed as untrustworthy--all of this, by the act of betrayal, of fundamental disloyalty, represented in the Secret History, is meant to be undone.  

And, indeed, the most interesting aspect of the "The Room Where it Happened" touches on this reversal by Mr Bolton (and the resident's enemies).  Big political opposition players--like powerful news organs, and the opposition party--who used to make a sport of demonizing Mr. Bolton and his character, now appear to treat the accusations and innuendo of the book as if it were not merely true (as fact), but dispositive as a judgement of character (not necessarily of Mr. Bolton, but of his former master). 

At the end, Mr. Bolton's recollections work best as burlesque, "from French burlesque (16c.), from Italian burlesco "ludicrous," from burla "joke, fun, mockery," possibly ultimately from Late Latin burra "trifle, nonsense," literally "flock of wool" (a word of unknown origin)." (Etymology Online "burlesque") It is at its best--as one can be when casting a careful glance at virtually every member of the political class today--when it holds up the man against the office. That is a theatre that Mr. Bolton exploits here but one he did not create; though he was more than happy to play a supporting part in this burlesque as long as he was allowed a role.   That is also burlesque, one in which Mr. Bolton plays the leading role. Both the form, and the nature of Mr. Bolton's style was best described by Addison:
Burlesque is therefore of two kinds; the first represents mean Persons in the Accoutrements of Heroes, the other describes great Persons acting and speaking like the basest among the People. Don Quixote is an Instance of the first, and Lucian's Gods of the second. It is a Dispute among the Criticks, whether Burlesque Poetry runs best in Heroick Verse, like that of the Dispensary; or in Doggerel, like that of Hudibras. I think where the low Character is to be raised, the Heroick is the proper Measure; but when an Hero is to be pulled down and degraded, it is done best in Doggerel. (The Spectator, No 249 15 December 1711 (Vol 2 London 1891; Project Gutenberg edition).

One can supply analogies to suit one's taste; and politics.  But there is plenty of the heroic, high and low characters, and doggerel to suit all tastes. Why does burlesque work, especially in American "Secret Histories"? Because the object of the burla  (the joke) is himself thin skinned and likely to react in ways that appear to confirm the judgment at the heart of the burlesque. It is not to be read for its facts--that is the burra (the trifle, the fluff) of the opus.  It is instead to be read for its judgments, for its opinions--the essence of the burlesco (what makes for the ludicrous). But the joke is one the reader--especially the ones who would then take the joke, the opinion, the judgement--as fact.   Thus the essence of the burlesque is to incorporate the intended audience as an essential part of the joke.  The essence of the joke that is burlesque is the way it takes its audience in, only  (in its classic form) to bring them up short and cast a light of their own salaciousness. Mr. Bolton's burlesque--like all Secret Histories--works only to the extent that The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, the Democratic Party become as essential a part of the joke as Mr. Trump and the Republican establishment. The former for their willingness to treat ridicule as fact, the latter for making it possible to treat them as farce.

And at last we arrive at the heart of the indictment of a Secret History--whether that of Procopius or that of Mr. Bolton--the indictment of the politics of the times as comedy. This is a lesson that is well embedded in modern Western literary sensibilities from Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose (the effort to hide Aristotle's second book of poetics on the virtues of laughter) to the film V for Vendetta (2005) (the parody of the leader sketch).

It might follow, then, the impact of the book may have as much to do with the reaction of Mr. Trump, than with the opinions and facts paraded through the book's narrative. That is the mark of a successful "Secret History."  That alone will cast a very strong light on the character of all of the major players leading up to the November elections--both the high officials and their retainers in the Administration, and the opposition who see in works like this an opportunity that is really worth exploiting. . . .and it is. The work  provides a useful window on the cultures of administration, of politics, and of the presidency at an interesting moment in American history.  But it also provides substantial material to assess the character, motives, and integrity of all of those actors drawn to politics in this era. Beyond that, the Secret History adds flavor to what is likely to be a very long and vigorous debate about this presidency long after it is over. 

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