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Rage: Bob Woodward hammers another nail into Trump’s political coffin

Rage: Bob Woodward hammers another nail into Trump’s political coffin

Bob Woodward, now the dean of US political reporters and recorders of presidential behaviour, has delivered a page-turner of an inside look into the Trump presidency in his newest book, Rage. Through an unrelenting marshalling of evidence of the president’s primary goal – re-election, rather than guiding a nation – he demonstrates the fundamental unsuitability of Donald Trump as a national leader.

Maybe we have all been so beaten down by Donald Trump’s destructive language and behaviour that almost nothing will bruise us much further. His cheap, tawdry, vulgar, boorish use of language; his brutal, divisive, ignorant, chaotic style of governing (if you can even call it that); his crude, cruel, bullying treatment of staff, colleagues, domestic political opponents, international allies and associates; and his toadying, obsequiousness to an unsavoury collection of foreign authoritarians have, collectively, become so painful that, now, in his fourth year as president we are immune to further wounding. 

Or, perhaps, we have just given up on the fairy tale of his ever changing even one iota from his past trajectory. As a result, even those mythic atheists in foxholes are now praying for deliverance. (Except, of course, all those unnecessary deaths due to the mishandling of the federal response to Covid-19 it’s been too late for them.)

Maybe we now just hope he and his grasping, rapacious, looting tribe will vanish suddenly like the Australopithecines, the passenger pigeon, the dodo, the mastodon and woolly mammoth have done in the past. We almost surely live at a time when virtually nothing new anyone can say about him and his mafioso-style mob will startle us further.

And then along comes veteran journalist Bob Woodward – the man who has written in tandem with Carl Bernstein or by himself about the political lives (and the spectacular downfalls, in some cases) of nine successive presidents, beginning with Richard Nixon. In Woodward’s newest volume, Rage, the Trump administration comes into tragic focus as the shambles it has been and still is, and as the man in the centre of it all proves by word and deed, beyond any shadow of doubt, to be unworthy of the job – and incapable of grasping its core responsibilities. 

This book, like the others before it by him, is based on Woodward’s seemingly inexhaustible urge for deep-dive research, some 18 interviews with the central subject of this story, and some significant time with other current (and some now former) key figures in this administration. In the resulting narrative, Woodward describes a presidency devoid of anything approaching a moral centre; one that has no core of guiding ideas and principles; and one with no motivating conception of governance beyond the transactional ethos of a mob boss. 

In fact, the prime subject of this book would make a wonderful opera villain in the manner of the Duke of Mantua in Verdi’s Rigoletto. And some day, maybe someone will do it, too, just as Nixon became the subject of John Adams’ Nixon in China.   

True, the behaviour of a few of the now former members of the administration, such as James Mattis as defence secretary and Dan Coats as chief of the office of national intelligence, come across as honourable men and women (perhaps they were the ones who were Woodward’s best informants). But for the rest, the portrayal Woodward constructs is a troupe of dramatis personae who would seem eerily familiar to the reader of a novel on the fortunes of a Mafia family, the amoral political manipulations of the Borgia clan in the Italian Renaissance, or the grandiose but dissolute carryings-on in the courts of certain Roman emperors – much more than it serves as a serious chronicle of a US presidency. Still, Woodward’s book is compelling reading, sort of like the way The Godfather or I, Claudius are. (And at least the Borgias commissioned some excellent art, something we will not see from this administration.)

By now, the broad sweep of Trumpian mischief will be well known to most readers of his book. In telling this story, Woodward spends much time focusing on emblematic topics such as the grand catastrophe of the administration’s mishandling of (and then the constant dissembling about) the Covid-19 pandemic, the White House’s response to the Russia investigation/impeachment and trial, the shambolic federal response to the ongoing racial tumult that has followed the death of George Floyd, and his flawed handling of a relationship with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. These topics become lenses to help one interpret the bigger landscape of the disaster that has been the Trump presidency.

Wisely, the author of Rage avoids any kind of deep psychological analysis of Trump and his decision-making processes, leaving that aspect of the Trump presidency largely to Trump’s niece Mary Trump, who has already done that through her own recent book. Concurrently, Woodward’s book also avoids the more problematic aspects of John Bolton’s memoir, one in which the former national security adviser attempted to provide a “tick-tock” of minute by minute, diary entry by diary entry documentation of Trumpian missteps in order to bolster his case that the president was unsuited for the office he had won.

Instead, Woodward allows his case to emerge from the direct testimony by the president, senior aides and former Cabinet members – along with that familiar Woodward device of detailing the inner dialogues of his major protagonists as they wrestle with their inner demons and the temptations of their offices. Delivered like the lines of a novel, they are presumably based on their conversations with Woodward. 

In one case, clearly based on an interview with Dr Anthony Fauci, one of the chief members of the US’s medical team dealing with Covid, Woodward has written: 

After the president said once again that the virus would disappear, Fauci decided he had better be the skunk at the picnic at the next task force meeting, which was held in the Oval Office and was supposed to be confidential. 

“We need to be careful,” Fauci said, intentionally addressing not just Trump but the other task force members who were present. “This is not going to just disappear. It’s not going to go away by itself. It’s going to be up to us.” They had to continue to mitigate and find a vaccine. 

“I know a guy who got sick,” the president responded, repeating an anecdote they had all heard before, changing the subject and overpowering the session. 

“The president is on a separate channel,” Fauci later told others. Trump’s leadership was “rudderless.” 

Another time Fauci made an appeal to others in the Oval Office after the president had strayed from the facts in the press briefing. “We can’t let the president be out there being vulnerable,” Fauci said, “saying something that’s going to come back and bite him.” 

Pence, chief of staff Mark Meadows, Kushner and aide Stephen Miller tensed up at once. It was palpable to Fauci. It was as if they were saying you can’t be talking to the president that way. They were an unyielding fortress around the president. 

Often when Fauci challenged Trump on something he had said, Trump would jump in and change the subject. Fauci marveled at Trump, who would hopscotch from one topic to another. “His attention span is like a minus number,” Fauci said privately.

Trump seemed interested in one outcome. “His sole purpose is to get reelected,” Fauci told an associate. Fauci was particularly disappointed in Kushner, who talked like a cheerleader as if everything was great. 

In another truly terrifying section, Woodward follows then-Secretary of Defence Mattis, a former four-star Marine general, as he grapples with the possibility he will be forced to launch widespread – even nuclear – attacks on North Korea, as the war of threats between Trump and Kim continues to spiral downward into actual fighting. Woodward follows Mattis as he prays in a private chapel at the Washington National Cathedral to seek divine guidance on how he can cope with the possibility he may soon give the orders to annihilate a nation in order to back up his boss’s rhetorical excess.

As Woodward describes Mattis’ circumstances:

Mattis sat quietly in the candle-lit War Memorial alcove. He had been in enough fights to know what one on the Korean Peninsula would entail. Chaos, blood, death, uncertainty, the drive to live on. Yet the question he needed to ask himself was how to carry out his assigned role knowing his decisions might have epic consequences? If the country were in peril, he would have to stop an escalation by Kim. Nuclear weapons existed as a deterrent, not to be used. Use would be madness, he knew, but he really had to think the unthinkable to defend the United States. 

These awful thoughts had been in the back of his mind for months, and it was now time to bring them out front. 

He did not think that President Trump would launch a preemptive strike on North Korea, although plans for such a war were on the shelf. The Strategic Command in Omaha had carefully reviewed and studied OPLAN 5027 for regime change in North Korea–the U.S. response to an attack that could include the use of 80 nuclear weapons. A plan for a leadership strike, OPLAN 5015, had also been updated. 

Mattis stayed in the chapel for ten minutes, unburdening himself as much as possible. 

He returned to the National Cathedral several more times that year around the close of business, when few people were there. No one ever seemed to recognize him. Sometimes on these other visits he walked across the nave through tall iron gates to the Holy Spirit Chapel, a small, wood-paneled alcove with depictions of the Holy Spirit as a dove. 

A small sign said: Quiet Please. 

He considered his reactions and prayer deeply personal. With each visit, he’d spend just enough time to feel a little stronger. There was never a point of complete comfort. 

“This weighed heavily on me every day. I had to consider every day this could happen. This was not a theoretical concern.” Should there be a sudden military confrontation requiring a decision, he did not want, as he often said, to be Hamlet debating with himself, wringing his hands, indecisive and melancholic. He did not want to discover a hollow pit in his stomach saying, “Oh, my God, I’m not ready!” He had to find peace before the moment came. 

Reporting like this calls for a word about Woodward’s method of constructing a narrative like Rage. The relentlessness of his interviewing and research is well known, something he has honed since the early days of his writing on the Watergate scandal with Bernstein, but this time around, for this book, Woodward interviewed the president at least 18 times, and recorded them all. With the president’s agreement. Sometimes the president even initiated these interviews late in the evening such that Woodward felt compelled to keep a tape recorder always at the ready, next to the phone in his home, just in case the president suddenly had the urge to call the author to rant about the upcoming presidential election, his negative news coverage from the hated “mainstream media”, or the disloyal behaviour of an aide or an opponent’s perfidiousness. And sometimes such calls became a chance for Trump to wallow in a bath of self-pity, even though it was in conversation with a man the president believed he could be truthful with (or was trying to play him), even if Woodward’s first book about Trump had hardly been a complimentary one. One such conversation went like this:

“Oh, sure I’ve heard that [about the origins of Covid],” Trump said. “I’ve heard many theories. I’ve also heard that it was incompetence. I have heard that it was a mistake. I’ve heard mistake, I’ve heard incompetence, and I’ve heard, you know–” 

“Manipulation?” I asked. “And what’s the reality? Because that’s important.” 

“Well,” he said, “I think we may find the reality at some point. But right now, nobody knows for sure.” 

“If they engineered this and intentionally let it out into the world–” I said.

“Well how come they got hit so hard?” Trump asked. 

“They couldn’t control it. I think they didn’t realize what it was. And your experts can’t get the real numbers from them.”

“That’s right,” he said. “But the numbers are substantial. Very, very substantial.”

“We are at one of these pivot points in history,” I said. “And you are in charge.”

“I had the greatest economy that we’ve ever had,” Trump said mournfully. 

“Stock market hit all-time highs in history. I was riding so high, the market was riding so high.” 

The stock market had been climbing steadily since 2009–regularly hitting new highs–until the coronavirus-related shutdowns resulted in a historic crash in February 2020. At the time of our interview, the markets were showing signs of recovery. 

The question, he said, was, “Can we take this all the way to that very special date of November 3rd?” 

It seems every conversation somehow swung around to the stock market and Trump’s chances in the 2020 election. 

Ultimately, Woodward must address the question of Trump’s fitness for office, just as every other writer on this man and his presidency has been doing since he burst on to the stage in the 2016 campaign. As Woodward concludes his book:

Elsa [Woodward’s wife] suggested looking at a previous president who wanted to speak directly to the American people, unfiltered through the media, not just during troubling times but during a major crisis. The model was Franklin D. Roosevelt. Over his 12 years as president, FDR gave 30 fireside chats. His aides and the public often clamored for more. FDR said no. It was important to limit his talks to the major events and to make them exceptional. He also said they were hard work, often requiring him to prepare personally for days. 

The evening radio addresses concerned the toughest issues facing the country. In a calm and reassuring voice, he explained what the problem was, what the government was doing about it, and what was expected of the people. 

Often the message was grim. Two days after Japan’s December 7, 1941, surprise bombing attack on Pearl Harbor, FDR spoke to the nation. “We must share together the bad news and the good news, the defeats and the victories– the changing fortunes of war. So far, the news has been all bad. We have suffered a serious setback.” He added, “It will not only be a long war, it will be a hard war.” It was a question of survival. “We are now fighting to maintain our right to live among our world neighbors in freedom and common decency.” 

FDR invited the American people in. “We are all in it–all the way. Every single man, woman and child is a partner in the most tremendous undertaking of our American history.” Japan had inflicted serious damage and the casualty lists would be long. Seven-day weeks in every war industry would be required. 

“On the road ahead there lies hard work–grueling work–day and night, every hour and every minute.” And sacrifice, which was a “privilege”…. 

…For nearly 50 years, I have written about nine presidents from Nixon to Trump–20 percent of the 45 U.S. presidents. A president must be willing to share the worst with the people, the bad news with the good. All presidents have a large obligation to inform, warn, protect, to define goals and the true national interest. It should be a truth-telling response to the world, especially in crisis. Trump has, instead, enshrined personal impulse as a governing principle of his presidency. 

When his performance as president is taken in its entirety, I can only reach one conclusion: Trump is the wrong man for the job. 

For Americans – and for the rest of the world to watch in fascination and horror both – the time to participate in a great national referendum on Trump’s fitness for office is now virtually at hand. Will he be judged and found wanting over his self-serving political divisiveness, his inept response to a great pandemic that has already killed more than 200,000 people in the US, his unrelenting focus on stock market indices to the exclusion of nearly every other indicator of national success, his malicious, spiteful tin ear over the agonies stemming from the racial disparities in US life, and his constant argument that many voters opposed to him are eager to carry out a national election fraudulently? 

Or will he triumph in an election in which he has been instrumental in creating that national climate of divisiveness, fear and a kind of “now you see it, now you don’t” support for some of the worst elements in US society, eager to take advantage of that fear and anxiety with their own individual so-called law and order behaviour?

In less than six weeks, Americans will undertake the world’s oldest continuous civic ritual of voting, even as the incumbent president declines to say for certain he will uphold and accept the results. But even before that, next week, we will witness the first head-to-head debate between Trump and his challenger, Joe Biden. The results of that meeting may well be crucial in helping many to make up their minds about the president and his works. DM

Rage is published by Simon & Schuster.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Coen Gous says:

    Like Zuma, like Trump! Or is it: Like Trump, like Zuma?

  • Ralph Laing says:

    Trump comes across as an ignorant, bombastic, self-serving, spoilt brat. He shows no signs of any statesmanship or understanding of international affairs whatsoever.
    Just shows how flawed the ‘democratic’ system is in the States

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