Fear: Your’s, Mine, and the World’s
Real power is —- I don’t even want to use the word —– fear.” Presidential candidate Donald J. Trump in an interview with Bob Woodward and Robert Costa on March 31, 2016, at the Old Post Office Pavilion, Trump International Hotel, Washington, D.C.
Thus begins Bob Woodward’s 19th book on American presidential administrations and his first on the Trump White House. By the time you read this post, you may well have read the book and certainly will have heard media accounts of its contents. It will come as no surprise to anyone following candidate and then President Trump that much of what is detailed in Woodward’s account is corroborated by real-time investigative journalists reporting in, among others, the Washington Post and New York Times, as well as earlier published accounts such as “Unhinged” and “Fire and Fury.” The common theme in every account? The White House is disorganized, chaotic, and in crisis mode – every day.
For those of us who follow politics, the Woodward book had been anticipated for months. We knew that it was to be published in the fall; I had started to see pre-order notifications for it in my browser this summer. Assuming that it was simply a higher quality version of the earlier tell-alls, I had concluded that my tolerance for “Trump Administration Chaos and ‘Oh My God, We Might All Die'” investigative journalism had reached its limit. Through all the pre-interviews and the early previews, I did not flinch. I was not going to buy it. I had too many other books to read and too many blogs to write. Besides, all the good parts have been published already, I thought. Just like the marketing of a mediocre movie, all the good scenes were in the previews. There was nothing else to see. I was not going to get sucked in.
And then I did.
The reason “Fear” is different
Rather than bore you with a standard review or worse, spoil the ending, I thought I’d discuss just a few reasons why I not only read Fear but think that when historians look for turning points in voter’s perception of the administration, Woodward’s account will be significant. It will not be the only turning point, nor will it be the most important. But I think history will judge Fear’s impact on political culture to be much more relevant than anything else we have seen to date. The following are a few reasons why.
It’s Bob Woodward.
In one respect, I should take the opportunity (given that this blog is about truth), to educate readers about Robert Woodward and the significant role he has played in political investigative journalism these last five decades. But on the other hand, I want to scream, “GOOGLE!!! It’s freaking Woodward of Woodward and Bernstein!!!” So I’ll meet readers in the middle with an emphasis on “GOOGLE!! You should know this!!”
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, through diligent and perseverant investigative reporting, broke open the Watergate coverup during the Nixon Administration. If you do not know the story or need a refresher, you can read their book, All the President’s Men, or watch the movie. Woodward is portrayed by Robert Redford; Dustin Hoffman as Carl Bernstein.
Watergate was their big break and what came after was a deluge of reporting. Woodward and Bernstein continued to investigate and report on political activities and in some cases corruption at the highest levels of our government. A simple scan of the books they have authored individually and in collaboration tells the tale. Woodward himself has written on every administration since Nixon. His sourcing is impeccable as are his network and reputation. He is known for his integrity. His colleagues and his foes (those he investigates and about whom he writes) alike admire him for the quality of his work and perhaps, more importantly, know that he does not risk his reputation for anything less than perfection. Everything is triple checked and then checked again.
What Bob Woodward publishes matters to voters, elected officials, and wait for it – Republican donors. So this book, Fear, is different from those that came before it, even though all it really does is confirm what Michael Wolff and Omarosa Manigault Newman wrote in earlier accounts. It is much more credible given that Bob Woodward is the author.
A transactional foreign policy
Why do we have troops in Germany? Why do we have troops in South Korea? Why do we spend so much money defending Germany and South Korea? What does the United States get for all that money? These are not bad questions to ask. They are, however, bad questions to ask over, and over, and over, again when you are President of the United States.
If you do not know the answers to these questions I would encourage you to seek out additional information. Because it is true, the United States and by extension, the American taxpayer, spends an incredible amount of money defending and spreading American interests abroad. These activities take many forms including troop deployments, military bases, foreign aid, grants, and humanitarian relief, just to name a few. Benefits are typically intangible, long-term, and hard to quantify especially when America exerts what diplomats call “soft power” (non-military forms of influence). Post World War II American foreign policy has been a long-term investment in global peace and security.
What Woodward’s account makes clear is that Trump sees the world and America’s responsibility to it much differently. In fact, he cannot be made to understand this type of long-term investment. He looks for the quick return – the pump and dump. For someone who prides himself on “relationships,” he is quick to dismiss the ones that he feels will not deliver any tangible benefits. Or, more appropriately, “tangible benefits that matter to Trump.” In one scene, Woodward describes a discussion (‘discussion’ is a kind description – more appropriate would be a ‘shit-show.’) between Trump, Bannon, Tillerson, McMaster, Matthis, and perhaps other national security advisors that I do not recall, in which they were arguing about the Iranian nuclear deal. Anyone paying attention to candidate Trump knows that the Iranian deal was the “worst deal ever made” (although I would hazard to bet that he had no clue as to what was actually in it) and that he intended to rip it up as soon as he could.
The problem, of course, was that Iran was in compliance with the agreement, as his advisors kept reminding the President. On this particular day, Trump became irate and demanded that the United States exit the agreement. Cooler heads once again explained that Tehran was in compliance and that the “allies would not agree and that exiting would damage NATO and other global alliances.” At Bannon’s instigation, Trump continued to demand sanctions against Iran and at the suggestion of damage to alliances, the President questioned their importance. Bannon egged him on asking, “Will the allies go along with the sanctions?” As the advisors shook their head no and again reminded Trump and Bannon that Iran was compliant with the nuclear agreement, both nationalists scoffed and said something to the effect of “to hell with allies!”
This theme is persistent throughout Woodward’s account. All policy is transactional. “What do we get for our money?” Each transaction is singular in nature; there are no dependencies – each one is its own deal. In this way, you can screw your allies by pulling out of the Iranian nuclear non-proliferation deal and then sanction your allies for doing business with Tehran. But then, according to Trump’s transactional foreign policy theory, we can work with those same sanctioned allies on other critical security issues including threats from ISIS, while at the same time levying 20% tariffs on steel imports.
I cannot speak to the real estate market, but the global political economy does not work this way and in fact, if pursued will cause massive disruption in the international world order.
“That’s now how trade works!”
This brings me to a theme that deserves its own section. For all his bluster and narcissism, President Trump is profoundly ignorant about important policy fundamentals, none more apparent than global trade. It is hard to understate the significance of his ignorance or to explain its source. Granted, the modern economy is complicated and hard to fully comprehend. But as a graduate of Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania, Trump has little excuse. Of course, this assumes that he actually attended class and learned something, a presumption without notable evidence.
From believing that trade deficits equal lost revenue to misstating trade agreements and their outcomes, Fear is peppered with examples of the President’s complete lack of intellect and understanding. Much of what Trump does not know would be part of any basic macroeconomics or international economics undergraduate course. In Woodward’s Fear, Gary Cohn, chief economic advisor repeatedly explained to Trump his misunderstandings, and why the changing economy (from manufacturing to services) invalidates some old assumptions. Those attempts fell on deaf ears. In one scene, Cohn recounts asking the President why he believes such arcane ideas about international trade. Trump’s response? “I do not know. I’ve just always believed it, so you are wrong.”
If only Trump’s mindlessness was simply entertaining. Unfortunately, his ineptness has consequences – dire consequences – as Woodward points out. Our economic security and that of future generations are dependent on the whims of a man with the no attention to detail and low intellect. Perhaps even worse is his refusal to listen to outside advisors or to learn from those smarter than he.
A lot of people in Fear think they are a hero. They aren’t.
At best, they are just doing the best they can. At worst, they are riding the coattails of a weak and corrupt administration as long as they can to get a piece of the action, like a blood-thirsty leach attached to sickly child weak from malaria.
It is not hard to discern Woodward’s primary sources. Gary Cohn, Rob Porter, Steve Bannon (yeah, he sure talks a lot), Lindsay Graham, John Dowd (Trump’s first attorney, and clearly the most gullible – he believed what Trump told him in the beginning), Reince Prebius, and potentially H.R McMaster seem credible guesses. But Fear includes a full cast of characters from the first 18 months of the administration; from Mike Flynn and Wilbur Ross to Anthony Scaramucci and Hope Hicks.
Most readers will know who the “worst” characters are in the administration saga. But one theme that Fear does not necessarily highlight but that I picked up, was the ever-present “hero” mentality of some Trump aides and how they used it to rationalize their participation and support for the administration. “I’m here to save the country from the President,” came through in multiple chapters and aides. There is no doubt that many believe in their altruism, but I wonder about their sincerity and the road not taken. What if General Mattis went before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and spoke the truth about conversations he had with the President? What if he shared the President’s intellectual vapidness for foreign policy despite multiple discussions and briefings? Would Republicans change their position?
We do not know because he has not tried. The same “what if” question goes to every other cabinet member and high ranking official.
Fear isn’t about being powerful. It’s about being powerless.
I did not read Fear, rather listened to the audiobook while working for hours in the yard. Woodward comes back to the title throughout, reminding the reader, or in my case – the listener, of Trump’s original assertion. One gets the feeling that he managed his businesses through threats and intimidation. Perhaps that style extended to his personal life and included his wives and children.
But we know, as educated and mature adults that fear typically results from feeling powerless. As we lose control of our surroundings, fear is just one of a series of emotions that we may feel. Perhaps Trump’s uncontrollable rage and unpresidential behavior are simply a front for the fear he feels inside the White House.
Regardless of the cause, the message of Fear is clear: the world has a big problem at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and only the voters can solve it. We get a big chance in November, but even then – that is just a first step. Voters need to stay engaged after the mid-terms. It has taken 44 years to go from All the President’s Men to Fear. It will take more than one election to steer America back on course. But God knows, we have to try because if you take anything away from Bob Woodward’s latest bestseller, it is fear got us into this mess. Only its opposite, trust and courage, will get us out of it.