What most surprised me in this thorough, readable biography of the narcissistic, bullying charlatan who captured the White House and then held the nation hostage for four years is how surprising I found his political success at the time. Had I been paying attention, as Maggie Haberman had through most of her career as a reporter in New York City and then in Washington, D.C., I would have seen Donald Trump coming – and so might have enough others to thwart his rapacious intentions.
It seems almost redundant to use the word revelatory to describe any book about Trump because he himself is an open book. As Haberman writes, he treats everyone he knows as “a chance for him to vent or test reactions or gauge how his statements are playing or discover how he is feeling. He works things out in real time in front of all of us.” However, Confidence Man is filled with revelations, at least for those us who never saw an episode of “The Apprentice”:
The decades-long ties between Trump and the political puppeteers he employed as president such as Roger Stone and Paul Manafort (both convicted, both pardoned).
Trump’s lifelong habit of deliberately exploiting hate and controversy: “I bring out the worst in my enemies and that’s how I get them to defeat themselves.” And: “I want to hate these muggers and murderers. I want them to suffer.” Thus answering the question: Is he the way he is by choice? Yes, partly.
His instinct to simultaneously bloviate and obfuscate is purposeful: “Whatever complicates the world more, I do. It’s always good to do things nice and complicated so that nobody can figure it out.”
There are many books in print about Trump’s White House tenure, but of the few I’ve read – Bob Woodward’s Rage and Peril among them – Confidence Man tells the story of the craziness and immorality that characterized the period in the least breathless way, relying as it does on the solid reporting that won Haberman a Pulitzer, and, more importantly, wrapping all the self-serving shenanigans and the sideshow of characters in the context of Trump’s fundamental yearning to be recognized and rewarded.
In a post-presidency interview, Trump exposes this need, which Haberman describes as “for people to know who he was, and not merely to be rich.” He tells her: “The question I get asked more than any other question: If you had to do it again (run for president), would you have done it? The answer is, yeah, I think so. Because here’s the way I look at it. I have so many rich friends and nobody knows who they are.”
Sadly, the nation is not yet done with Trump. Even if he can’t rise out of the muck of Mar-a-Logo to despoil once more the Oval Office, he has sullied the American democracy with a stain that won’t be removed in the short term.
To Haberman’s credit, she acknowledges that despite her formidable reporting she cannot answer the question: Who, really, is Donald J. Trump? “I spent the four years of his presidency getting asked by people to decipher why he was doing what he was doing, but the truth is, ultimately, almost no one really knows him. Some know him better than others, but he is often simply, purely opaque, permitting people to read meaning and depth into every action, no matter how empty they may be.”
Circumstances have consequences. Take too many things for granted, lose an election. Turn over the White House to a family of thugs, grant the sycophants, the supremacists and the spineless control of the Congress. Gut the Senate of whatever honor remained in it, and convert the Supreme Court into bulldozer driven by retrograde theocrats determined to plow under the advances we’ve made in recent decades toward equalizing rights in our country – the right to vote, the right to be treated with justice, the right to control the fate of your own body.
These are sad days in the United States. As the virus marches forward, we do an about-face to the repressive days of the Eisenhower era (although even Ike couldn’t get elected as a Republican these days). With more than 226,000 Americans dead, killed as much by incompetency and indifference than by the actual lethality of Covid-19, more than 66 million of us have already voted, a flexing of the democratic muscle that only partly offsets the fear that Trump, with the aid of his newly-packed Court, will steal the victory that every poll declares will belong to Biden and Harris.
As a young man, the tide of protest swept me into movements against the war in Vietnam (which, by the way, killed 58,000 U.S. soldiers, a quarter of the number now dead from Covid) and in support of rights for women, Blacks and gays. I was against the policies of the government, but not the government itself. I believed a new president, a new Congress, a new mayor could provoke change. And it did.
As an adult, a professional, a journalist, I worked in an institution that saw itself as the watchdog of politicians and government. At times we watched with great vigilance; at other times we were unwittingly complicit in supporting traditional perspectives, both governmental and cultural, that oppressed the very groups I had championed as a long-haired rebel two decades earlier.
As whatever I am now, an over-read, under-educated, highly-opinionated, multi-lingual, more-or-less forcibly retired curmudgeon, I confess that for the first time in my life to having lost my faith in government – or are least what government on all levels has morphed into in these United States: a cage match of hate, distrust, greed, cowardice, and self-interest and self-dealing, a putrid buffet of humanity’s ugliest traits that were never more on display than in the last week during the shotgun wedding of Amy “The Crusader” Barrett to the Supremes.
I could say that we as a nation have lost our way, but it might be more accurate, given that Barrett and her the-Constitution-is-enough-for-me compadres on the court are such strict interpreters of the document’s 4,543 words, to say the nation has found its way back to its beginnings – when women couldn’t vote, when Blacks were not only permitted to be owned but were counted as only 60 percent of a human being, and when the fledgling nation was controlled by an oligarchy of wealthy “patriots” who were so distrustful of the judgment of their lesser countrymen that they created the Electoral College to ensure that a majority of the rabble couldn’t elect a fool or a criminal to the White House.
That worked out well.
To say I am nervous is an understatement. I felt more certain of Gore trouncing Bush II than I am of a Biden win, and we know how that went. I am not alone in my trembling. A Venezuelan fellow I know, an academic who fled his country’s chaos for Madrid, where he now offers $10-an-hour Spanish classes via Skype, says all of his more than 20 American students are popping tranquilizers and speed-chanting mantras trying to stay calm.
I am not a fan of Valium and my chakras are mis-aligned beyond repair. To pacify myself, I think of my short stint as a whitewater river guide. For a couple of summers during the ‘70s, after my profligacies had diminished enough to enable sufficient social functioning, I ferried rafts of people seeking thrills – but not danger – down rivers in Northern California. It was great fun, paid $50 a day and granted me opportunities with the opposite sex I had not previously imagined.
Guiding a fifteen-foot rubber raft through the bumps and waves and drops of medium-rough river is not too tough, but there are a few basic wisdoms that are best adhered to lest you, the guide, and the clients, who want thrills but not danger, find yourselves head down underwater stuck in a whirling, riparian rinse-cycle.
Here is the most important thing:
Just as the raft approaches the lip of the rapid, in the last few feet before the nose tips down into the froth, the water rises behind whatever rocks are the cause of the rapid. The higher water flattens and stills. For a moment, the forward progress of the raft stops. This is when the guide, even while staring at the turbulence ahead, even while anticipating the heart-thumping that is coming, must align the boat with the thin curl of water that slips, first gently and then with unfettered urgency, from the higher water through the barrier of rocks and into the rapid. If the raft is not lined up correctly, it slides into the rapid askew and risks being flipped over by the waves.
As much as I loved rafting, I was scared most of the time – except for one moment: When I poised the boat in the still water above the rapid and pointed its nose toward the slipstream. Once I felt I’d aligned us as best I could, a calm always came to me. And then I slid into the whitewater.
This is where we are now: Atop the rapid. It is a time to be steady, to line ourselves up, to see the turbulence ahead but, more importantly, to concentrate on the chore at hand. Get the boat ready, point the bow forward, put the oars in the water. Be calm. The whitewater is coming.
Trump has been good for the media, but bad for journalism. The electronic media-sphere reeks of all Trump all the time, from the partisan jousting of the knights of cable, CNN and Fox, to a cornucopia of websites and podcasts leaning left or right, to Trump’s social media lodestone, Twitter.
As always with the interwebs, there is more noise than substance. That is what legacy news organizations like the New York Times and the Washington Post are supposed to provide. And they do. For a hefty meal of hard-core investigative reporting, belly up to the hundreds of column inches filled by the Times just a week ago about Trump’s heretofore hidden tax returns – a high-calorie carbo-load of facts, truths and documents. The challenge for the big-boy newspapers is that Trump doesn’t stand still. He is a Rube Goldberg machine of perpetual news, outrage and scandal. What is Page One today is gone tomorrow (or even this evening). Look how Trump’s current Covid adventure relegated the Times’ blockbuster tax reporting to the morgue.
How then, in this gopher-on-a-wheel news cycle, does a staid, old-school, war-horse of a reporter like Bob Woodward, the inventor of a form of book-length journalism best described as anonymous-sources-meet-my-daily-diary-meet-the-telephone-book-meet-C-SPAN, write a recounting of the Trump presidency that has any currency?
In part, the answer is the short lag time between Woodward’s last conversation with Trump, which was on July 21, the day the manuscript for Rage was due, and date of the book’s publication, which was on September 15, only 59 days.
Much happened in that two-month gap, most importantly another 60,000 Americans died of Covid, so here’s another question that must be asked about Rage: Is the book relevant? Yes, I say, and that makes it worth reading.
First, let’s admit that no one reads a Woodward book – and I’ve read a half-dozen – for the writing. The text accompanying a statin prescription is more compelling. Woodward’s literary style is reminiscent of the joke about the bad restaurant with hefty servings – hey, the food is bad, but there is a lot of it. In Woodward’s defense, at least he keeps his portions small.
What gives Rage value is Woodward’s dedication to persistence (he did 17 lengthy interviews with Trump) and belief in one of journalism’s core practices, a tool often overlooked in these times of tweet reporting – the power of accumulation: adding one fact to the next, following the thread of evidence from interview to interview, and stacking truths next to falsehoods. The result is a powerful condemnation of Trump as president, Trump as a man, and Trump as the enabler of others of his ilk, such as his lamprey-like son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
It is Kushner, somewhat surprisingly because of his just-woken-from-the-tomb appearance, who provides the liveliest quotes in the book. Among them:
He borrows from the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland to explain Trump’s behavior: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will get you there.”
“Controversy elevates message.” Writes Woodward: “This was core understanding of communication strategy in the age of the internet and Trump. A controversy over the economy, Kushner argued – how good it is – only helps Trump because it reminds voters that the economy is good.”
Kushner on Trump and the media: “He’s just able to play the media like a fiddle, and the Democrats too. They run like dogs after a fire truck, chasing whatever he throws out there. … It’s like a buffet where they’ll always eat the worst thing you give them.”
“What I’ve learned in the world of Trump is news cycles don’t last very long.”
Rage opens with a tour of Trump’s earliest days in the White House, guiding the reader through the unease he created among his senior staff by his ignorance of the world and his unconventional, to say the least, manner of decision-making. The misgivings and the fretting of those like James Mattis, Rex Tillerson and Dan Coats (ex-Secretary of Defense, ex-Secretary of State and ex-Director of National Intelligence) have been well-reported, but even though Woodward is late to the tale he tells their stories in such simple, declarative sentences that what is no longer surprising still has the power to shock.
For me, the final third of the book is more compelling. It focuses on the rise of parallel contemporary traumas – the beginnings of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. and the elevation to the national consciousness of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the homicide of George Floyd.
Of these two, Trump’s antipathy to wage all-out war against the virus by mandating mask-wearing and other socially beneficial measures is the most reported (especially his early awareness of the danger of the disease and his reluctance to take action for fear of economic ruin). What Woodward adds is perspective on the tension within the White House between the need of the administration to oversee the public health battle and the desire to focus on the upcoming election. Kushner, as kin, holds the upper hand. “The goal” with Trump, Kushner said, “is to get his head from governing to campaigning.
Woodward describes himself as being “incredulous” upon hearing these words: “In the midst of the largest public health crisis in a century, Kushner thought it was time to return to campaigning.”
As craven as Kushner is about the coronavirus, Trump is even more obtuse toward the significance of the police killings of black men and women, and the resulting waves of protests by people of all shades. Woodward asks Trump multiple times in several interviews if he understands the outrage and feels any sense of white privilege, given the circumstances in which he was raised.
“No,” said Trump. “You really drank the Kool-Aid, didn’t you? Just listen to you,” he said, his voice mocking and incredulous. “Wow. No, I don’t feel that at all.”
Trump adds, repeating a common assertion of his, “I’ve don’t more for the Black community than any president in history with the possible exception of Lincoln.”
Woodward pursues the question several times, asking Trump if he understands what the protestors want and how he sees his role in responding to their demands, their fear and their pain. Trump answers in talking points and self-serving platitudes. As I said, not a single thing Trump says is surprising, but the cumulative impact of Woodward’s reporting is overwhelming. Normally, we see Trump in short-takes, yelling at reporters in soundbites or blurting out tweets. Rage is a full-length feature and like during the first (and maybe the last) Trump-Biden debate we see a long exposure of all of Trump’s ugliness – his hubris and insensitivity, his inability of see beyond himself, and, most of all, his profound ignorance.
Many times throughout the book, Trump tells Woodward he hopes the book will be positive, and just as many times says he doubts it will be. “I hope you treat me better than Bush,” he says at one point, “because you made him look like a stupid moron, which he was.”
Trump did not get his wish. Rage is a vivisection, a dismembering of Trump while he still breaths his foul breath on our nation. The book opens with an anecdote, told about the onset of the pandemic, that for the president there could be dynamite behind any door. Anything could explode. As he finishes the book, Woodward writes about Trump:
“I’ve come to the conclusion that the ‘dynamite behind the door’ was in plain sight. It was Trump himself. The oversized personality. The failure to organize. The lack of discipline. The lack of trust in others he had picked, in experts. The undermining or the attempted undermining of so many American institutions. The failure to be a calming, healing voice. The unwillingness to acknowledge error. The failure to do his homework. To extend the olive branch. To listen carefully to others. To craft a plan.”
Woodward, the one-man journalistic judge and jury of American presidents since the days when he and Carl Bernstein drove another petty, criminally-mind man from the Oval Office, interviewed the witnesses, examined the evidence, cross-examined the accused and reached a verdict about Donald J. Trump, the 45th president of our republic: Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty on all counts.