John Bolton and the Normalization of Fringe Conservatism

Donald Trump’s incoming national-security adviser has provided support for anti-Muslim voices on the right.

John Bolton speaks at a microphone.
John Bolton speaks during the Freedom Summit on January 24, 2015. (Charlie Neibergall / AP)

Since President Trump chose John Bolton as national-security adviser, the media has focused largely on Bolton’s calls for war with North Korea and Iran. And for good reason. But there’s another element of Bolton’s record that’s received less scrutiny but may also illuminate how he’ll approach his new role, and the compromises he may be prepared to make.

In 2016, Bolton played a crucial role in Frank Gaffney’s rehabilitation inside the conservative movement. For close to two decades, Gaffney has been Washington’s most dogged peddler of anti-Muslim conspiracy theories. He’s traveled the country testifying against the construction of mosques, arguing that since Islam is a totalitarian political ideology, not a religion, American Muslims don’t deserve the protections of the First Amendment. Bolton’s intervention on his behalf is particularly intriguing because, in his own writing and remarks, he’s largely avoided anti-Muslim bigotry. But in today’s conservative movement, anti-Muslim activists are a legitimate constituency group, like people who support gun rights or oppose abortion. And Bolton has proved, in this case and others, all too willing to empower them.

Gaffney believes in the existence of a vast, secret network, run by the Muslim Brotherhood, to infiltrate the United States government and replace it with Sharia law. At various times, he’s suggested that figures as mainstream as former CIA Director John Brennan, former Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper, and former Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano are dupes of—if not active agents in—this plot. And in the late Bush and early Obama years, Gaffney repeatedly insisted that the conspiracy had infiltrated the conservative movement via two men: anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and former Bush administration official Suhail Khan, both board members of the American Conservative Union (ACU). Norquist and Khan, Gaffney claimed in 2011, were running “an influence operation [that] is contributing materially to the defeat of our country, supporting a stealthy effort to bring Shariah here.”

But in 2011, anti-Muslim sentiment was less mainstream on the American right than it is now. And where Gaffney saw secret agents of jihad, the leaders of the ACU saw longtime conservative activists who simply wanted to bring Muslims into the GOP. So that year, the ACU’s board publicly repudiated Gaffney’s charges. It declared his claims that Norquist and Khan “harbor sympathy with Islamic extremists” to be “false and unfounded” and said the ACU “profoundly regrets and rejects as unwarranted the past and ongoing attacks upon their patriotism and character.” Four people who then served on the board told me that the ACU’s then-chairman, David Keene, also made an informal decision to bar Gaffney from speaking on the main stage at the ACU’s signature event, the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). In both 2011 and 2012, the Pledge of Allegiance at CPAC was delivered by Suhail Khan.

But by early 2016, the climate in the conservative movement had changed. Donald Trump—having already called for banning Muslims from entering the U.S.—was leading the Republican presidential field. The ACU had a new chairman, Matt Schlapp. And in this more permissive climate, John Bolton moved to overturn the Gaffney ban. At a February 3, 2016, ACU board meeting, according to notes shared with me by someone in the room—the substance of which has been confirmed by someone else in attendance—“Bolton proposed a motion to rescind and repeal the 2011 resolution, and put the decision of whether to allow Gaffney to speak at CPAC back in the hands of ACU management.” After a contentious debate, Bolton prevailed. The board voted to declare that, “No one has been banned from speaking at CPAC.” (When I asked the ACU about Bolton’s role, the organization emailed a statement from its executive director, Dan Schneider, that said: “It is unfortunate that there has been a breach of board protocol about disclosing confidential discussions. But there was no difference of opinion on the board. All agreed that Frank Gaffney and other conservative voices are allowed to speak at CPAC.”)

A month after the board meeting, CPAC rolled around and, sure enough, Gaffney was on the agenda. He moderated a panel that included the Danish activist Lars Hedegaard, who has claimed that Muslims “rape their own children” and that “as a totalitarian system of thought, Islam has remained unchanged for at least 1,200 years.” Gaffney spoke again at CPAC in 2017. In 2018, he began his remarks at the conference by joking that, “everybody says it’s great to be back at CPAC. But nobody means it like I do.”

The striking thing about Bolton’s push for Gaffney’s reinstatement is that Bolton hasn’t generally echoed Gaffney’s conspiracy theories. In fact, Bolton has largely avoided anti-Muslim bigotry in his own public statements. He even publicly opposed Trump’s 2015 proposal to ban Muslim immigration.

What Bolton has done, again and again, is to elevate the anti-Muslim bigotry of others. In 2010, he wrote the foreword to Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer’s book, The Post-American Presidency: The Obama Administration’s War on America. Bolton’s foreword begins with the words, “Barack Obama is our first post-American president.” But he leaves the meaning of those words vague. It is Geller and Spencer who declare that “Barack Hussein Obama” is pursuing the “implementation of a soft sharia: the quiet and piecemeal implementation of Islamic laws that subjugate non-Muslims.”

In 2010 and 2011, Bolton spoke at rallies against the “Ground Zero” mosque sponsored by Geller and Spencer’s organization, Stop Islamization of America. But Bolton has not echoed Geller’s wilder and uglier theories: among them that Obama is Malcolm X’s love child or that Muslims practice bestiality. He’s never said, as Spencer has, that “there is no distinction in the American Muslim community between peaceful Muslims and jihadists.”

Similarly, Bolton in 2012 defended Michelle Bachmann’s inquiry into whether former Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin was an agent of the Muslim Brotherhood. “What is wrong with raising the question?” he declared on Gaffney’s radio show. (John McCain, by contrast, called Bachmann’s inquiries “specious and degrading.”) But, as far as I know, Bolton never questioned Abedin’s loyalty himself. As in his push for Gaffney’s reinstatement at CPAC, Bolton doesn’t preach hatred of Muslims. He just aids those who do.

Once upon a time, the American right made room for conservative Muslims. Now it makes room for people who want to deny them equal rights. And John Bolton, America’s next national-security adviser, is part of the reason why.