Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Trump?

Fear: Trump in the White House
by Bob Woodward

Simon & Schuster, 2018, 448 pages, $45

Bob Woodward’s account of the Trump White House, provocatively titled Fear, is not a very interesting book. For one thing, the title is grandiose, and is predicated on the fallacious assumption that the best way to understand Donald Trump is to take him at his word. The back of the dust-jacket provides the quotation from which the title is drawn, a remark Trump made (one of a whirlwind of contradictory and context-pandering remarks) during the 2016 campaign: “Real power is—I don’t even want to use the word—fear.”

Naturally, the book’s marketers were probably trying to play up the image of Trump the authoritarian strongman, possibly even a fascist, a recurrent fantasy that those with little political acumen relish in peddling. As others have pointed out, such tough-guy talk from Trump actually springs from an adolescent desire to play the tough guy (his favourite film is reputedly The Godfather), and so he places a premium on words like respect and fear and—my favourite of his rare terms of adulation—tough cookie.

This review appears in the current edition of Quadrant.
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Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury had the first-in-best-dressed quality of confirming our worst fears about Trump—his inherent ridiculousness, his abnormal inattentiveness, and his propensity to take as most valuable the advice he received most recently. So Woodward has nothing new to offer here.

Woodward’s prose is clear but leaden. He’s less a writer than a conduit for information (which isn’t the worst thing in the world: boring and clear writing is often necessary, but it hardly makes for engrossing reading).

Fundamentally, there’s nothing I read in Fear that I felt I didn’t already know—with the exception of the information regarding Trump’s inability to grasp the linkage between trade policy and foreign policy. The book opens with a terrifying account of Trump’s near foreign-policy debacle in demanding to withdraw from the KORUS free-trade agreement between the United States and South Korea. As is so often the case in foreign affairs, economic relationships are part of the quid pro quo that goes into securing a profitable strategic military position in a country. Abandon KORUS and you risk compromising a key strategic foothold in the Korean peninsula—a foothold essential to the United States’ early detection of nuclear operations by the North.

But even here, my assumption before and throughout the Trump presidency is that his worst behaviour will be circumscribed by the often eminently sensible team of advisers he has around him, chiefly Jim Mattis (thankfully, Trump is more than usually deferential when it comes to men in uniform) but many others, too.

Trump’s chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, is an amusing character in the book, stealing documents off Trump’s desk when he thought it better that The Donald didn’t see them, as in the KORUS case, where Trump had a draft letter on his desk signalling withdrawal from the agreement: 

Cohn removed the letter draft from the Resolute Desk. He placed it in a blue folder marked “KEEP.”

“I stole it off his desk,” he later told an associate. “I wouldn’t let him see it. He’s never going to see that document. Got to protect the country.”

The book is sprinkled with a few amusing anecdotes like this, but nothing like the level of high-comedic episodes that Wolff achieved in his book. To be fair to Woodward, he occupies a rather different position in the journalistic landscape than the more gossipy, and writerly, Wolff. Wolff is not by trade a political journalist, and doesn’t make his living as a Washington reporter. Those stuck in the Beltway have to cultivate their sources for the long term, and must practise a level of journalistic good manners that means people will keep coming back to them. Wolff, on the other hand, could befriend sources, get the dirty gossip, stab them in the back if he pleased, and return his merry way to write for the more fashionable Condé Nast publications that are his primary home.

The result of this is that I felt that the major sources and contributors to Woodward’s book were simply feeding him their self-serving accounts of what went on in the Trump White House. Having been a seasoned Bannon-watcher when he was at the apex of his (seeming) influence in the White House and shortly thereafter, I developed the ability to know what he’d say, word for word, in pretty much any arena. This is unsurprising given he’s a highly self-conscious media operator (as well as self-created media phenomenon). So my eyes glazed over as I read quotes from Bannon that I’d heard him say time and time again over the past few years, pushing his spin on his role in the administration as well as his broader goals for a movement of “economic nationalism” beyond it.

Similarly, although I knew little of John Dowd’s role as Trump’s lawyer beforehand, every quote attributed to Dowd seemed to paint him in a manner in which he’d like to be painted. I think much the same probably holds true for the presentation of Cohn and former Chief-of-Staff Reince Preibus.

To that extent, Woodward is merely a conduit for the expression of the views of those who granted him ample interview time. He doesn’t analyse peculiarities of character that a writer might see even if their subject doesn’t. There is a defence for this kind of journalism: I’m just reporting what I see and hear. But that defence is less plausible when the actors are so little removed in time from the action of the book, and when the controversies documented are still being litigated—whether literally or in the domain of public discourse. Decades after the fact the political players may be more comfortable giving an unvarnished, un-self-serving account of events. But the seemingly objective history that Woodward offers will be inevitably skewed by the main sources’ proximity to continually unfolding events.

One striking finding, which Woodward was able to get and Wolff wasn’t, was a final admission—from the truest of the Trump’s true believers, Steve Bannon—that the presidency hasn’t led to anything like the monumental changes he’d so hoped for:

From his point of view, Bannon believed Trump had largely failed as a change agent. The old order in national security certainly won in Trump’s first year, Bannon believed. Perhaps the only exception was a toughening stance on China and an awareness that China was the true rival in international affairs.

And while the former Chief Strategist proved, in the end, an inefficient implementer of his economic nationalist agenda, as a savvy media operator he understands perfectly the propensity of Trumpian polarising politics to engender its ideological opposite:

Bannon felt he was not friends with Trump. Trump didn’t have genuine friends. He was a throwback to a different time—1950s America. He was a man’s man and a guy’s guy.

The #TimesUp and #MeToo movements of women and feminists would create an alternative to end the male-dominated patriarchy, Bannon believed.

“Trump is the perfect foil,” he summarized. “He’s the bad father, the terrible first husband, the boyfriend that f***ed you over and wasted all those years, and [you] gave up your youth for, and then dumped you. And the terrible boss that grabbed you by the pussy all the time and demeaned you.”

So after the Democrats’ victory in the mid-terms, and looking ahead to 2020, what can we expect?

The Democrats have basically two options: (1) they can work with the President to deliver on issues on which there is agreement between the two—most importantly large-scale infrastructure works, especially works geared towards streamlining the productivity of the American economy (roads, bridges, ports, high-speed rail); or (2) they can stonewall anything the President wishes to do, double-down on their anti-Trump rhetoric, and continue to treat him as the ultimate antagonist—preventing any potential success so as to give them the greatest shot of retaking the White House come 2020.

The problem with strategy (1)—and especially if they deliver with him a large-scale infrastructure program (which will play into Trump’s self-branding as a great “builder”)—is that they will likely guarantee him victory in 2020. Remember: the conservative opposition to Trump (the “Never Trumpers”) has largely fallen in line behind the President, and his first term in office has not shown him to be the apocalyptic danger many on the Republican side thought him. If the economy continues to grow, and if Trump is seen to be rebuilding America, then with the incumbent’s advantage he will be hard to unseat. The problem with strategy (2) is that it will only further contribute to congressional sclerosis, and entrench the ideological divide between Democrats and Republicans. This will likely pull the Democrats further in the direction of a loony-tunes melange of pseudo-leftism and identity politics. My view is that they will opt for strategy (2).

To my mind, if the Democrats want to win in 2020, they will need to select a candidate with the following attributes:

  • Someone photogenic
  • Someone seen to be strong
  • Someone who can plausibly claim to not be a “conventional politician”
  • Someone who triangulates with Trump’s rhetoric so as to offer real, bipartisan solutions to classic Trump issues (particularly immigration)
  • Someone who comes across as a bit of an ordinary Joe, who is nonetheless an energetic and charismatic entertainer (great leaders always have a good sense of humour)
  • Preferably a Southerner
  • Someone who wears out the boot leather in all the key swing states, and largely ignores places like California (they’ll get the votes there anyway)
  • Someone who doesn’t sneer at Trump or Republicans but rather appeals to every voter as “fellow Americans”
  • Someone who is, and is seen to be, business-friendly
  • Someone who lets Trump’s insults roll off their back (fighting back too aggressively against Trump’s insults will amplify Trump’s angry charisma, and generate him streams of free media coverage, as well as rile up his angry Twitter base)

That is to say, what the Democrats really need is a semi-conservative like Bill Clinton. The danger for them is they will instead opt for a self-congratulatory moral-grandstanding candidate who appeals to the coastal media but not to the key working-class constituencies that swing elections.

None of this should be particularly difficult to figure out. After all, should it be that hard to dethrone a president who is preternaturally narcissistic, abnormally ill-informed, a sexual predator, exceptionally insecure (just watch his body language), and furthermore not really a conservative at all? But he won in 2016, and he could easily do it again, unless the Democrats get their act together.

After the 2016 election result, which to me was at most a mild surprise, I realised that there was a fairly obvious reason Trump won. And that is that while some folks talk a big game about loving their principles, what they really prefer is someone socking it to their enemies. They may not have liked him, but Donald Trump could be relied on to punch every conceited political moraliser and mediocre pseudo-intellectual who attempted to stand in his way. Hillary Clinton was little more than a characterless political grinder, whose chief distinctions were riding the coattails of her far more charismatic husband and perfecting an oratorical style of near perfect monotony. With conservatives looking to bury the Clinton legacy once and for all, and radicals dismayed by the Clintonistas’ shabby tactics against Bernie Sanders, she was an unusually poor candidate—who nevertheless regarded the presidency as the destiny to which she was entitled.

The one salient question that the Democrats never seem to ask themselves of the 2016 debacle, and which would be immeasurably clarifying for them, is: “How bad a candidate did we have to choose to lose to Donald Trump?” 

While President Trump doubtless likes to think he strikes fear into the hearts of his political opponents, the threat this bare-faced charlatan presents to the Democrats come 2020 is as nothing compared with the more intractable danger posed by their own political incompetence.

Edward Cranswick, a Melbourne writer, tweets at @edwardthecran. He wrote on the businessman and author Peter Fenwick in the December issue.



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