When I finished my honours year in English literature, I binged on Bob Woodward’s works. Starting with a gift of Obama’s Wars that Christmas, I worked through his back catalogue, feeling very tired of fiction, hungrily taking in all I could from the assured tones of the journalist. Reading Woodward’s latest, Fear: Trump in the White House, released only a month ago or so, I am reminded how it is possible to indulge so much in his writing: not only is it meticulously sourced, expertly researched, and presented with balance and perspective, it is also juicy stuff: pacy and enjoyable.
Pulling out the hardcover Fear from its Book Depository delivery packaging, you a confronted with quite the cover image of Trump’s face, scowling with a red overlay. After receiving it, I actually put the book aside for a week or two to prepare myself for the expected work, for spending time in the mind of Trump, for holding a book with his mug on it. But immediately, from the preface, it was a different experience to the one I had been anticipating: it reads almost like a thriller.
Woodward is telling the absolute insider story on the end of the Trump campaign and first couple of years of his presidency. The access is unbelievable and the detail is stunning. He works on the basis of ‘deep background’, verifying everything to the point where scenes and documents can be directly recreated through quotes. And it paints a vivid scene.
It is hard to give justice to the complete dysfunction of the Trump operation that Woodward relates. Two things are utterly astonishing to me: the absolute infantile psychological capabilities and behaviour of Trump – with policy driven by how he looks, regularly to the actual disadvantage to the country and his voters – and the fact that he deliberately cultivates a yes-men operation around him – one that is nice to look at pleasing to the ego, and utterly dysfunctional – and this is what is running the United States of America.
The man is a spoilt 10 year old grown up; a salesman, all bluster with nothing behind it. The little work in this administration that is being done is despite, not because, of the President; and the coming to the brink of nuclear war-stuff that is barely being avoided is only because some administrators take things off the desk of the tiny-minded President, whose attention span has moved onto the next pronouncement. It is amazing. And there is a battle going on, between those who are there for politics, and those who are there for the country.
“Trump heard about the conflicts. 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”
Power through fear is not real power; you can develop robust ideas through open dialogue, not just fighting. I find this cultivated antagonism the most existentially depressing part of the tale Woodward weaves: because irrespective of our ideological differences, this how, the deliberate hostility, is just anathema to me.
When reading, it is stunning how accustomed you become to the regularity with which Trump and his administration unthinkingly flirt with political decisions that are literally life and death. Again and again politics and look and ego battle against reason and knowledge. It’s terrifying. As a reader, I got to a point where some senior military man is quoted about the amount of lives a political decision would cost, just so Trump could pitch his precious ego against another world leader’s, and that cost was deemed in an instant to be acceptable. And I had to stop, and shake my head, and re-read the paragraph in disbelief. No one in that scene found it to be the pivotal moment, and neither did Woodward in his reportage of it. The acclimatisation to the disfunction and horror is appalling.
The back of the jacket sleeve for my edition is taken up from an image of Trump, standing behind a podium with an out-of-focus Presidential seal, arms bent at the elbows holding both fists up as if in celebration. Accompanying this is a quote: “‘Real power is – I don’t even want to use the word – fear’ – Donald Trump 31 March 2016, in an interview while running for president of the United States”. This is the best blurb I feel this book could have had: the drama of this book is not fictional, which makes it all the more transfixing. You don’t need to make this stuff up about Trump because he’s already doing it himself. And that’s what strikes fear in me.