Real power is fear.
That’s the mantra seeded throughout veteran political reporter and one-half of Woodward and Bernstein Bob Woodward’s diligently reported behind-the-scenes look at the Trump White House. What does Trump expect people to be afraid of? What we’re really afraid of, I’d say, is his instability, irrationality, inability or unwillingness to listen to other views or adjust his longtime set-in-stone standpoints on issues based on objective facts, all of which is highlighted here. At the root of this behavior: power and fear.
Despite almost daily reports of chaos and discord in the White House, the public did not know how bad the internal situation actually was. Trump was always shifting, rarely fixed, erratic. He would get in a bad mood, something large or small would infuriate him, and he would say about the KORUS trade agreement, “We’re withdrawing today.”
Well, I am afraid, not because of anything new or groundbreaking reported here, but because of what it all underscores. Woodward draws attention to Trump’s obsessive throwback mentality to a 1950s American ideal that didn’t even exist. This perception he clings to, despite any grounding in the reality of either that era or more recent decades, colors much of his decision-making. It’s like he formed an opinion one time long, long ago and won’t let anything like a fact penetrate it.
The relationship between Trump and the Republican party is interesting in how it’s addressed here. What a lot of the literature that’s emerged post-election has highlighted is that Trump wasn’t elected in a vacuum. Rather he was a long time coming, and he’s still only a cog in a powerful Republican machine – hamfistedly running the White House with warring factions, petty squabbles, and varying levels of cluelessness, which the GOP has pretty much accepted as long as they keep getting their wish list. A messy mess all around.
My favorite bits were those depicting Gary Cohn’s efforts to change Trump’s mind on trade, or not so much change his mind as just fundamentally explain it to him. The image of Cohn working around Trump’s refusal to read by exhaustively making whiteboards, presentations, basically everything short of interpretive dances to try and make Trump understand why trade is important, only to be shut down in the most basic, juvenile ways that make clear Trump wasn’t even listening, make the experience of dealing with him seem like a scream caught in a throat. It must feel like that all the time.
It was also interesting because I can’t pretend I understand all the ins and outs of international trade and its economic effects, (although sadly, it appears I, a dumb-dumb in economics in general, grasp it much better than the current leader of the free world) and even I learned something from Cohn’s examples and explanations.
Trump tells Cohn he doesn’t know why he holds certain antiquated viewpoints, he just does, and has “for thirty years.” That’s his reasoning. Trump’s mind is already made up and he’s only able to dedicate brief spurts of brainpower to the bottom line before his brain switches back to GOLF mode. He doesn’t care whether or not his beliefs are based in reality (he actually explained to several people that John McCain ACCEPTED early release from captivity in Vietnam and left other POWs behind until someone corrected him: “Oh, okay,” he said.) You know what he still thinks!
But I liked (“liked” is a strong word here, maybe “appreciated” is better) seeing how these efforts were made by the inner circle to educate him and correct some blatant falsehoods, as Sisyphean as that task ultimately is. And of course, the detail that’s made headlines, how they hurry to swipe certain disastrously-consequenced things off his desk before he can sign and unleash fresh hells. Our president is treated like a toddler who gets his cereal bowl snatched away when a tantrum’s looming. And we’re thankful. That’s the world right now.
Quotes I found particularly telling:
He attacked the mainstream media with relish, especially the Times – but despite the full-takedown language, he considered the Times the paper of record and largely believed its stories. (His psychology is kind of fascinating, if totally transparent.)
“You’ve got to deny, deny, deny and push back on these women,” he said. “If you admit to anything and any culpability, then you’re dead. That was a big mistake you made. You didn’t come out guns blazing and just challenge them. You showed weakness. You’ve got to be strong. You’ve got to be aggressive. You’ve got to push back hard. You’ve got to deny anything that’s said about you. Never admit.” (That was “private advice to a friend who had acknowledged some bad behavior toward women.” Pathetic.)
All presidencies are audience driven, but Trump’s central audience was often himself. He kept giving himself reviews. Most were passionately positive. (Naturally.)
Cohn tried to explain that during the Reagan era the U.S. economy had been very competitive and other countries had begun cutting their taxes. There was plenty of history and technical detail.
“I don’t give a shit about that,” Trump said.
It was quite a sight seeing the president of the United States fuming like some aggrieved Shakespearean king. (But a sadly not uncommon one; see his post-midterms news conference)
The writing was better than I expected since other reviews called it dry. It’s straightforward but well organized and readable. I also thought it was balanced, without hysterics or even overt criticism. Woodward lets Trump speak for himself through his words and reported actions, and although I’m sure his sources may have painted themselves in better lights, they come across as having made genuine efforts to do things right, or at least restrain him from making dangerous(ly stupid) mistakes.
A small complaint: it has a huge picture section of the primary players. I’m sure that’s for posterity, but it feels pointless in the present. Especially because I read this in ebook format (the best way to avoid too much exposure to the hideous cover – seriously, he’s not photogenic but that Carrie-looking one is especially hard to look at) and the file is massive thanks to pictures of all the old white men involved plus Ivanka, Jared, and Kim Jong Un. Is that really necessary? If we’re reading this we know who these people are or can easily google any of them to make sure it’s an old white man.
There’s not much new or shocking, but the behind-the-scenes perspective and detailed but clear narrative is valuable. It’s less gossipy and salacious than Fire and Fury, more about the mechanics of how the dumpster fire sausage is getting made. Not a particularly complicated process, we see, instead a disorganized, many-headed one where all of the heads hate each other. Scary but worth the read.
Fear: Trump in the White House
by Bob Woodward
published September 11, 2018 by Simon & Schuster