Whatever happened to the party of Reagan?

Early on in John Bolton’s tenure as Donald Trump’s national security adviser, the president stunned his staff by impulsively inviting Kim Yong Chol to the Oval Office for an exchange of pleasantries. Just a few months earlier, the White House believed, the top aide to North Korea’s dictator oversaw the torture and death of an American detainee.

As a disinvited Bolton cooled his heels with Mike Pence in the vice-president’s office, the White House’s top lawyer, Don McGahn, wandered by to note that the gifts Trump was about to exchange were almost certainly in violation of US sanctions against Pyongyang. “Not the Bush White House,” McGahn quipped balefully.

McGahn pops up throughout Bolton’s tell-all, The Room Where It Happened, to repeat the remark as something of a solo Greek chorus, underlining how chaotic and unprincipled foreign policymaking has become in Trumpland. But for Bolton, “the Bush White House” stands for more than just non-Trumpian discipline and integrity. It is also shorthand for a lost world: a Reaganite Republican party that has seemingly vanished overnight. 

Bolton’s memoirs have made headlines because of tales of cravenness and ineptitude by a self-absorbed president. Yet, taken as a whole, Bolton’s book is less a personal harangue against Trump than a highly detailed account of the multiple betrayals of what Republicans until recently held dear: eager backing of pro-American insurgents, be they Kurdish or Venezuelan; unwavering support of democratic allies in Berlin, Tokyo and Seoul; ruthless hostility towards authoritarians and Islamists. 

Trump and many in his inner circle, Bolton argues, betrayed almost all those principles for a photo-ready summit or a legacy-affirming agreement — an accusation he has lobbed at Democratic administrations for decades. By the book’s end, some of Bolton’s bitterest venom is directed at those in his own party who have failed to realise that Trump’s “deal at any cost” foreign policy more closely resembles his predecessor, Barack Obama, than what was once considered Republican orthodoxy.

“Conservatives and Republicans should worry about the removal of the political guardrail of Trump having to face re-election,” Bolton writes. “The irony could well be that Democrats will find themselves far more pleased substantively with a ‘legacy’-seeking Trump in his second term than conservatives and Republicans.”

It is one of the strangest legacies of the Trump era: a political party that transformed the modern US electoral landscape by its embrace of Reaganism — anti-authoritarianism abroad, fiscal discipline at home, free markets in both — has disappeared, almost without a fight. In its place has risen, virtually unchallenged, the idiosyncratic cult of personality that is Trumpism.

There was a brief early flurry of “Never-Trumpers” when an eclectic mix of the Republican establishment vowed never to work for a man they held in contempt. But when it became clear that Trump could weaponise his angry base against such apostates, the Never-Trumpers were quietly sidelined by party stalwarts. 

Could Bolton’s book be the cri de coeur needed to get decent-thinking Republicans out of hiding? It certainly comes at a fortuitous time, with establishment party types beginning to put their heads back above the parapet and forming groups like the Lincoln Project to make the case that real Republicans should not vote for the incumbent. 

And while Bolton’s tome has garnered the most attention, it is not the only recent book by a Bush-era Republican to exhort partisan siblings to rediscover their roots. David Frum, a speech writer for George W Bush who coined the phrase “axis of evil”, has followed his 2018 best-selling Trumpocracy with Trumpocalypse, an attempt to envision a conservative way forward from the wreckage of Trump’s Republican party.

Frum could not be more different from Bolton. An original “Never-Trumper”, he has angrily and articulately denounced the Manhattan real estate developer since the presidential starting gate, and has never contemplated working for the Trump administration. As he recounts in the new book, one of the first things Frum did after Trump’s 2016 victory was to call his daughter and apologise on behalf of middle-aged conservatives: “We failed you,” he told her.

But Frum is different from Bolton in another, perhaps more important way. If Bolton represents the Reaganite paleo-conservative wing of the party, Frum sees himself as a full-throated moderniser, desperate to expand the Republican party beyond Trump’s “white ethnic chauvinism”. In other words, in Bolton and Frum, Trump is facing a united front of the factions that once battled for the soul of the party.

Bolton’s cure for Trumpism will not surprise observers of the foreign policy debates of the past half century: regime change for American enemies, fervent support for democratically minded revolutionaries, rejection of multilateralism. Agree with him or not, Bolton’s principles are refreshingly consistent and familiar, like reconnecting with the cantankerous uncle you enjoyed arguing with at family gatherings, made all the more pleasant because you’ve spent every evening for the last four years fending off a loopy cousin’s nonsensical conspiracy theories.

Frum’s prescriptions are more quirky and contrarian, an attempt to bridge the chasm that has emerged between right and left. He embraces immigration controls, but mainly as a way to convince Americans to be more supportive of social safety nets, which have become more unpopular as US borders have become more porous.

He also calls for Republicans to take climate change seriously, arguing that free-market solutions such as a carbon tax could put the party on the right side of both history and the policy debate, particularly when Democratic solutions involve massive state intervention. “A carbon-reversing economy can still be a free-enterprise economy,” Frum argues.

Still, both writers are circumspect about the chances of the Republican party reviving its internationalist, free-market heritage. Bolton, who admits he took the national security adviser job in the misguided belief he could “handle” Trump, now seems alarmed that his clarion call may be too late, that none of his fellow travellers are up for the fight. “No conservative who has read the Constitution could be anything but astonished by these assertions,” Bolton writes of Trump’s attempt to subvert legal restraints on the presidency, revealing an astonishment that conservatives are not more astonished. 

Frum is similarly nonplussed about those now counted as Trump acolytes, including at least two onetime Reaganites — Dinesh D’Souza and Grover Norquist — who provided dust-jacket endorsements for his first book in 1994. But even as he denounces these Trump “enablers” as “contemptible”, he urges “honest patriots” to resist the urge to treat Trump’s everyday supporters with similar scorn.

Unless they can be lured back into the fold, he insists, Trump and other quasi-Trumps will be impossible to turn out of office. “Trump’s voters are our compatriots,” Frum writes. “Their fate will determine ours.”

The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir, by John Bolton, Simon & Schuster, RRP$32.50/£25, 592 pages

Trumpocalypse: Restoring American Democracy, by David Frum, Harper, RRP$28.99/£25, 272 pages

Peter Spiegel is the FT’s US managing editor

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