The 3 kinds of Republicans that Bolton's testimony would reveal

Understanding the GOP's spectrum of relative Trumpification

John Bolton.
(Image credit: Illustrated | vovashevchuk/iStock, Dan Kitwood/Getty Images, DaddyBit/iStock, BirdHunter591/iStock, EvgVect/iStock)

With it looking increasingly likely that Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell won't be able to prevent a vote in favor of calling witnesses in the impeachment trial of President Trump, the GOP finds itself in a tight spot.

Everyone agrees that there's something close to a zero chance that 20 — and only a tiny chance that any — Republicans will join with 47 Democrats to vote in favor of convicting and removing the president from office, no matter what Trump's former National Security Adviser John Bolton says under oath. (Conviction and removal would require an affirmative vote of 67 senators.) Yet allowing Bolton to testify about what's apparently in his forthcoming book — namely, that in August 2019 the president understood himself to be withholding badly needed aid to Ukraine in order to get its president to announce he was opening an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden — would force Republicans to clearly reveal where they stand on the most important issue dividing the party.

That issue is, of course, Donald Trump himself.

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Senators may not be willing to convict and remove Trump from office, but that's where the unanimity stops. There is a spectrum of relative Trumpification in the GOP — and Bolton's testimony would compel Republican senators to make a definitive choice about where to place themselves on it, and then oblige them to defend it in public. It's understandable that many senators would prefer to avoid having to do this, but thanks to Bolton, the time for fudging is running out fast.

At the furthest extreme on the spectrum are the full-on reality-warping Trumpians. These are the Republicans who willingly give the president and his most rabid supporters exactly what they crave — a firm, absolute commitment to standing by the president in every respect, without question, no matter what he demands of them, no matter how absurd it is. They are willing to swallow Trump's farcical assertion that there was no quid pro quo with President Zelensky of Ukraine and that his July 25, 2019, call with him was "perfect."

But testimony from Bolton makes a whole new and more onerous set of demands on those in this camp. Bolton has spent his entire career as a hardline Republican. His reflective hawkishness has helped to define conservative thinking about foreign policy for decades. Until about half a minute ago he was among the most respected men in the party and conservative movement. Yet there was fawning Trump-enthusiast Lou Dobbs on Fox Business Monday night, indulging in Alex-Jones-level conspiracy-mongering, explaining with the help of crudely drawn visual aids that Bolton is a "tool of the left." With that performance, Dobbs has shown senate Republicans exactly what will be required of them if they want to demonstrate maximal, reality-warping fealty to the president in the wake of Bolton's testimony.

A few steps in from the rightward fringe of total derangement, we find the next stop on the spectrum: the moral-relativist Trumpians. Conservatives used to rail against relativism and set themselves up as the country's foremost defenders of moral absolutes. But that's ancient history for many of those (like South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham) who want to go along with the Trumpian program but aren't willing to take the full leap into Trumpian lunacy.

What we'll get from this group, instead, are polite and respectful responses to Bolton's testimony along with a concession that what he had to say is probably trustworthy. But this will be quickly followed by assurances that the presidential behavior he described is perfectly fine. Sure, there was a quid pro quo. Yes, the American president was trying to extort the leader of a foreign government into serving as an opposition researcher against his domestic political opponent. But really, what's so bad about that? Grow up, everybody does it.

For Republicans with stomachs too sensitive to tolerate even this level of dissimulation on behalf of the president, we arrive at the most respectable position on the spectrum — the one the coincides with good, old-fashioned partisan loyalty and hesitation about acting rashly to oust the president. These situational Trumpians — I'm looking at you, Mitt Romney — will lavish Bolton with praise, speak sternly about Trump making a mistake in his dealings with Ukraine, but then gravely explain that they aren't going to vote to convict and remove him from office.

In taking this position, the situational Trumpians will echo the statements of Democrats who conceded in 1999 that Bill Clinton shouldn't have perjured himself in a deposition about his affair with Monica Lewinsky but also refused to countenance the Republican drive to eject him from the White House. "What the president did was bad, but not bad enough to warrant removal from office" — that position will always anger those prosecuting an impeachment, but it's a respectable, cautious stance rooted in a non-pathological form of partisanship and a healthy restraint when faced with the prospect of removing the nation's top elected official.

It's important to keep in mind that conservatives had much less respect for this position when Democrats staked it out 21 years ago. Indeed, they claimed that it portended "the death of outrage." Yet back then it represented the outer limits of partisanship. No one would have contemplated trying to defend Clinton by making the argument that a president lying under oath is a positive good — let alone that the president had been railroaded by a prosecutor who doctored the transcript of his deposition (or whatever the loopy Clintonian analogue to today's reality-warping position would be).

That's why we should be grateful that Bolton's likely testimony will force at least some Republicans to affirm the situational position, since it will demonstrate that the thoroughgoing Trumpification of the party still hasn't been accomplished. As Ross Douthat recently pointed out, this holds out at least a little hope that the Watergate-era rules that aimed to fight presidential corruption, which Trump appears to have violated pretty flagrantly with his Ukraine shenanigans, might not fall completely by the wayside.

In an age marked by the widespread collapse in public morals, you need to take solace in any sign of elevation you can find.

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Damon Linker

Damon Linker is a senior correspondent at He is also a former contributing editor at The New Republic and the author of The Theocons and The Religious Test.