This post is adapted from my original Goodreads review.When the first sensational excerpts of Bob Woodward’s Trump book came out, I knew that I had to read it as quickly as I could. But I also wanted to have some perspective, given how controversial Trump is, and so first I read All the President’s Men and Obama’s Wars to calibrate my response. So, in the past few days, I’ve gone through all of these books, and here are my thoughts.
First–strictly speaking about the book as a book and ignoring the politics for a second–Fear is much better All the President’s Men or Obama’s Wars, both of which were basically nothing-burgers. In contrast, Fear was much more interesting and I felt like I really had learned a lot at the end of it.
OK, so now let’s switch to the politics. What did Fear teach me about Trump? In a nutshell, it taught me that the anti-Trump case is pretty weak, he’s probably not going to be impeached, and there isn’t anything worthy of impeaching him for. I’m not happy with any of those conclusions. I consider Trump unqualified by moral character to be President, and on the few issues where he has a genuine conviction I disagree vehemently with those positions. But I can’t avoid the conclusion that Woodward himself uses to close the book1:
Dowd remained convinced that Mueller never had a Russian case or an obstruction case. He was looking for the perjury trap. And in a brutally honest self-evaluation, he believed that Mueller had played him and the President for suckers in order to get their cooperation on witnesses and documents. Dowd was disappointed in Mueller pulling such a sleight of hand… Dowd believed that the President had not colluded with Russia or obstructed justice. But, in the man in the and his Presidency, Dowd had seen the tragic flaw. In the political back and forth, the evasions, the denials, the Tweeting, the obscuring, crying “fake news”, the indignation Trump had one overriding problem that Dowd knew but could not bring himself to say to the President: “You’re a f—ing liar.”2Fear by Bob Woodward
Although it’s hardly flattering, calling a politician a liar is not even newsworthy and if that’s the worst accusation you can throw at Trump, then we might as well settle in for his second term. That’s not to say that Trump’s dishonesty isn’t on a new level compared to other politicians, but Americans are too jaded from past accommodations with immoral behavior for an accusation of dishonesty to have any real traction, no matter how pathological. If you’re hoping for a smoking gun or something that will bring down the Trump presidency, this book not only isn’t it; it throws water on the whole prospect.
In fact, my overall impression of the book–especially in contrast to the early excerpts everyone talked about before the book was released–is that it humanizes and explains Trump. It doesn’t make me like him any more, but I do feel like I understand him more and that understanding isn’t always bad. For example:
Afterward, when Trump had phone calls with others from the military who had been killed, the White House staff noticed how hard and tough it seemed for him. “He’s not that guy,” Bannon said. “He’s never really been around the military. He’s never been around military family. Never been around death.” The deaths of parents of small kids struck him particularly hard. “That had a big impact on him, and it’s seen throughout everything.”
A staffer who sat in on several calls made to gold star families was struck by how much time and emotional energy devoted to them. He had a copy of material from the deceased service member’s personnel file. “I’m looking at his picture. Such a beautiful boy,” said in one call to family members. “Where did he grow up? Where did he grow to school? Why did he join the service?”
“I’ve got the record here. There are reports here that say how much he was loved. He was a great leader.”
Some in the Oval Office had copies of the service records. None of what Trump cited was there. He was just making it up. He knew what the families wanted to hear.Fear by Bob Woodward
That’s definitely not a description of a great president, but it’s not really a description of a monster, either. Woodward also finds some reason for the chaos in his administration:
Trump heard about the conflicts [among his staff]. He liked aggressive disagreements. They smoked out a wide variety of opinions. Harmony could lead to groupthink. He embraced the chaos and churn beneath him.Fear by Bob Woodward
He also recounts Trump graciously thanking attorney John Dowd after Dowd had given Trump some really harsh criticism and advice Trump didn’t want to hear, recounting that “in a lifetime of law, Dowd maybe had only five clients who had so graciously expressed their thanks.”
Finally, Woodward revealed that Trump reads newspapers “more thoroughly than the public generally [knows],” which you have to contrast with allegations that Trump is only semi-literate. Sample3:
This is what happens when you are functionally illiterate: Trump can read in theory but chooses not to, and therefore he is incapable of sustained learning.“What on earth is Trump saying?” by Max Boot
This kind of reckless exaggeration from the press explains, to a great extent, why Trump seems invincible. As White House Communications Director Hope Hicks put it, “the media had ‘Oppositional Defiance Syndrome’,”:
Oppositional Defiance Syndrome is characterized by excessive anger against authority, vindictiveness, and temper-tantrums. As far as she was concerned, that described the press.Fear by Bob Woodward
She’s not wrong, and Woodward deserves credit for avoiding that pitfall. I wish more journalists did, because if they hadn’t been so hysterical maybe they could have stopped him. The saddest part of the whole book for me was the revelation that–at the height of the Access Hollywood scandal–the plan was to have Trump step down and Pence run instead with Condoleeza Rice as VP. I don’t love Pence, necessarily, but I <3 Condi Rice.
The whole Access Hollywood thing is also a tragically ironic example of Trump’s resilience and the media’s complicity–intentionally or not–with that resilience. Here’s what happened:
By fall, the intelligence reports showed that Moscow, like almost every one else, believed that Clinton was likely to win. Russian President Vladmir Putin’s influence campaign shifted strategy to focus on undermining her coming presidency. Clapper and Secretary of Homeland Security Jay Johnson were the most anxious to alert the public to the Russian interference. At 3pm, on Friday October 7th, the released a joint statement officially accusing Russia of trying to interfere in the US election, although they didn’t name Putin in the public release.
“The US intelligence community is confident the Russian government directed the recent compromise of emails from US persons and institutions. These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the US election process. Russia’s senior most officials are the only ones who could have authorized the activities.”
Clapper, Johnson and the Clinton campaign expected this to be the big news of the weekend, as did the reporters who began working on the story. But one hour later, at 4:05pm, David Farenthold at the Washington Post released a story headlined, “Trump recorded having extremely lewd conversation about women in 2005.”Fear by Bob Woodward
So, instead of a major headline about Russian meddling before the election we got the Access Hollywood story. I’m not saying it shouldn’t have been a story, but I do think it’s less important than the Russian story for the simple reason that nothing in the Access Hollywood story was actually news. We all knew Trump was a pretty awful misogynist. Just one more example of that didn’t actually change anything, but it sure distracted people from the Russia story, which actually would have been news to the American public at that time. The press went with the sensational over the important, and here we are.4
Oh, and one more thing: in addition to the dim view of Mueller, Woodward recounted a pretty devious play by the FBI that explains a lot Trump’s animosity. After an NYT article about Trump aids having contact with Russian intelligence officials, Andrew McCabe came to Reince Priebus to tell him the story was wrong. He even promised that the FBI would publicly reveal the info, a huge win for the White House. But then… he didn’t. Preibus called and tried to get McCabe to reveal the info he had and that he’d said they would reveal, but he refused. And then CNN reported an exclusive story with the headline: “FBI refused White House request to knock down recent Trump-Russia story.”
So not only did the FBI not come through like they said they would, but they setup the Trump administration to make it look like they were trying to pressure the FBI dishonestly, when all they were doing was asking the FBI to reveal facts the FBI had first come to the Trump administration with. Only months later did the truth come out–far after everyone quit paying attention–when Comey public testified under oath that the original NYT story was “in the main… not true.” I’m not sure exactly what happened there–and Woodward doesn’t explain it either–but if the FBI did that to me, I’d be furious and suspicious, too.
What I’m saying is that, at the end of the day, this book made me–a committed #NeverTrumper–dislike Trump less than before I read it. This is mostly just a question of expectations. My opinion of Trump was so low that even a really damning, negative book is actually not as bad as my worst suspicions. Yeah, there’s a lot of pretty negative quotes from Trump officials, like Mattis saying Trump had the intellectual capacity of “a 5th or 6th grader” or Bannon saying adult logic didn’t work on Trump, and you had to use teenage logic instead, but (1) that’s not news and (2) these are insults hurled immediately after angry confrontations.
Understanding someone doesn’t necessarily mean liking them. I still think President Trump has no business being President, and I’m disappointed that so many Americans voted for him (especially primary voters!). But understanding does make it harder to casually hate a person.
There’s still a lot left to understand, of course. The book isn’t a comprehensive biography of Trump, and so there’s still a lot left that I don’t get. Mostly: W=why did he run in the first place? Was it just outright egoism? Just an opportunistic grab for the biggest spotlight he could find? That’s my best theory, but it’s outside the scope of this book and so I don’t know.
I will say that the most interesting person in the book is Steve Bannon. He understands Trumpism better than Trump ever did, and I’m surprised he got the boot. Then again, that might be the problem. Trump seems to be a basically empty vessel that happens to be anti-trade, anti-immigration, and isolationist without any discernible foundation of principle that would explain these views. Steve Bannon has the same views, but he also has a brain and conviction. It’s like Trump is a cardboard cutout and Bannon is the 3d version. From that perspective, it makes sense that Trump wouldn’t want him around forever.
Here’s how Bannon outlined Trumpism before coming on board to lead the campaign to victory:
The elites in the country are comfortable with managing the decline, right?… And the working people in the country are not. They do want to make America great again. We’re going to simplify this campaign. She is the tribune of a corrupt and incompetent status quo of elites who are comfortable managing the decline. You are the tribune of the forgotten man who wants to make America great again, and we’re just going to do it in a couple of themes. Number one… we’re going to stop mass illegal immigration and start to limit legal immigration to get our sovereignty back. Number two, we are going to bring manufacturing jobs back to the country, and number three, we’re going to get out of these pointless foreign wars.Fear by Bob Woodward
I disagree with all of that, but at least it’s comprehensible. And for the first time, the expression “make America great again” made sense to me. It’s not about restoring America’s place in the world or in the eyes of others, it’s a reaction to decades of America’s elites–with liberal academics as the point of this particular spear–deliberately attacking the myth of America and leaving nothing in its place. And yeah, America as a virtuous country is a myth, but it’s an important myth and (I would argue) one that is worth keeping in a conditional and aspirational sense. And maybe that’s what liberal academics intended, but that message got lost in translation and all everyday Americans heard was a constant, sneering repudiation of everything they loved. They’ve had enough. And now the pendulum is swinging too far the other direction.
My last thoughts are about the folks in the Trump administration who are actively working to thwart Trump’s plans, like the infamous anonymous staffer who wrote that NYT op-ed piece: I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration.
I think they thought that America would be grateful for all they do, but the response has been pretty negative, with many accusing the resistance within the Trump administration of basically committing a soft-coup. It’s a tough decision. What do you do, allow Trump to do absolutely asinine and genuinely dangerous things like try to kill NATO or unilaterally end a trade deal with South Korea that is vital to our national security? Or actively undermine the democratic process by preventing the President from doing the very things that he campaigned and was elected to do, like pull out of free-trade deals? I don’t think there’s an easy answer. Some of what Trump wants to do is flat-out illegal. The Administration has a right and a responsibility to thwart that. But, on top of the coup-argument, I also feel like a lot of ignorant people in America voted for a President who shared their ignorance, and to the extent that we prevent Trump from getting us into ruinous trade wars we’re effectively enabling the people who voted for him to maintain their sense of grievance without paying the very real and very high cost for the idiotic policies they love so dearly.
I’m conflicted, because I’m angry enough that it’s hard to separate arguments about democratic accountability from a desire to have people reap what they sow. Free trade deals like NAFTA and mutual defense pacts like NATO are a bedrock part of American and even global prosperity. I’d dearly, dearly like to see them preserved and–when it comes to the free-trade deals–expanded. We depend on immigrants to bring in fresh ideas and fresh patriotism and contribute to ensuring America stays true to its legacy as a country defined by ideas and principles and not by ethnicities or tribes. Being white should never be relevant to being an American. Supporting ideals like freedom should always be relevant. But if we’re going to have a large section of the American public repudiate things like free-trade and immigration and pluralism, then a part of me wants to see them get exactly what they’re asking for rather than be protected from the consequences of their actions. The electorate may have behaved like children, but that doesn’t mean they should be treated like children. That paternalism is probably counter-productive in the long-run, not to mention corrosive to the very idea of democracy. On the other hand, nuclear war…
At the end of the day, I don’t really see any good options and I don’t really see any good guys. Thwarting Trump is vital to national security, but also further strains the very legitimacy of our system of government. Trump and his most fervent supporters are a dysfunctional, amoral disaster and his harshest critics aren’t opposing him, they’re codependent with him. Welcome to America in the 21st century.
Hey, at least we had a good run.