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Why is a white supremacist coming to Duke?

overcaffeinated convictions

John Bolton has yet to open his box of secrets surrounding what he knows about Trump’s collaboration with Ukraine, but he is still slated to speak at Page Auditorium on February 17. Despite declining to testify before the House in Trump’s impeachment inquiry, he still will address eager Duke students, per the invitation of the American Grand Strategy program. 

This event is remarkable given Bolton’s recent presence in the news. If you were to do a quick Google search of his name, articles from CNN, Politico, MSNBC and even Snopes would appear in your feed. The News & Observer wrote an article about Bolton when referencing his upcoming address to Duke, describing him as ‘Trump’s Nemesis.’ 

I’d argue, however, that Bolton is not Trump’s nemesis, but rather, his enabler. The former National Security Advisor to Trump and UN Ambassador for George W. Bush refused to sign an affidavit detailing his knowledge about the Ukraine scandal, preferring, instead, to expand on this information in his next book. He declared that he would testify before the Senate while fully aware that this branch is Republican-controlled and any deliberation would most likely result in acquittal. 

But Bolton’s worst moments do not involve his actions—or lack thereof—in the impeachment inquiry. John Bolton is, in all fundamental aspects of character, a white supremacist. 

In 2016, while speaking to the American Freedom Alliance—identified by Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-Muslim hate group—Bolton said the King of Jordan,  "is not simply a Muslim king of a Muslim country, unlike our president”—referring to former President Barack Obama. 

Bolton’s Islamophobic views were also actualized through his role, from 2013 to 2018, as the chairman of the Gatestone Institute, an alleged anti-Muslim thinktank spreading fears of a “Great White Death.” The Gatestone Institute’s President Nina Rosenwald inherited a fund that has contributed $2.8 million to anti Muslim media. 

When justifying American Grand Strategy’s decision to invite him to Duke, Professor Feaver, director of the program, discussed Bolton’s thoughtfulness and well-defined worldview. In the same article, Feaver raised a valid point in that an invitation to speak does not constitute an endorsement. (It is worth mentioning that Duke students on the American Grand Strategy Council do not have any control over the speaker selection process.) 

In an email, Feaver wrote: “The AGS program contributes to the intellectual diversity of Duke, helping create a civil space for learning about critical issues of global importance.” Professor Kaligotla, who teaches at the Sanford school for the Hart Leadership program, offers a more nuanced perspective: “My personal opinion is that John Bolton was a poor (if not a dangerous) choice for National Security Advisor. While I am not in agreement with many of the policy positions of Mr. Bolton, he is an experienced statesperson and one who can possibly offer students interesting perspective on US foreign policy.” 

Nonetheless, bringing a white supremacist and war criminal to campus as a part of a program that professes to “prepare the next generation of strategists” is, conservatively speaking, a pretty bold statement to make. 

Bolton’s foreign policy stances are sugar-coated as “hawkish.” In reality, they are terrifying. I interviewed Musa Saleem, an international student from Pakistan and a member of the Community Editorial Board, about his views on Bolton. “[I have spent my] entire life experiencing the impacts, in one way or another, of US intervention in my country,” Saleem said. “John Bolton is an advocate of aggressive intervention and regime change—none of what he says, however, discusses the horrifying impacts such language and the resulting actions have had on the people I’ve known.” In the final line of his op-ed column titled, “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran,” Bolton writes of Obama: “The president’s biggest legacy could be a thoroughly nuclear-weaponized Middle East.” Advocating for the former president to weaponize the ‘Middle East’ is in itself a backwards generalization of the region and dehumanization of its people. 

This extensive research has led me to one question: Why is John Bolton coming to Duke? 

This inquiry may be open-ended, but the answer, I believe, is quite simple. 

John Bolton was selected to speak at Duke because he is relevant in the news, not because his views are thoughtful or well-defined. We’re living in an era that is marked by the normalization of white supremacy, the far-rightward shift of mainstream political thought, the justification of hate. The band-aid we’ve used to mask centuries of genocide and slavery and mass incarceration is slowly peeling away, espouging a flood of historical trauma and internalized colonization and rampant racism. John Bolton, like Trump, is merely a byproduct of this phenomenon. He can simultaneously be labelled as an intellectual and an Islamophobe because, in our country, these two terms are not mutually exclusive. Many of the most historically praised scholars use inaccessible language and bogus science to attempt to indoctrinate others in their xenophobic theories.  

Feaver added that “all of the tickets made available for the Bolton visit were grabbed up shortly after we opened the window, suggesting that there is considerable interest among the Duke community to hear what he has to say." John Bolton is invited to elite universities like Duke to give addresses in well-funded sold-out auditoriums, because academia is driven by—and rooted in—people like him. 

And perhaps his views are exactly in line with what AGS stands for; perhaps the statement is not bold, but mundane, everyday, routine. According to Musa, “The department is premised on, quite literally, the aim of maintaining US hegemony throughout the world. For a vast majority of international students, this translates into maintaining US imperialism and playing with the lives of the brown people living in these countries.” 

So maybe we’ll never know what’s in John Bolton’s giant box of secrets. But those involved in selecting John Bolton are convinced that his past is nothing to hide. 

Lily Levin is a Trinity first-year. Her column, “overcaffeinated convictions,” runs on alternate Mondays.

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