Real power is fear according to Donald Trump, in a rather unsettling quote he gave in an interview with Bob Woodward, and which inspired the title of Woodward’s new book on the inner workings of the Trump White House, published just this past week. The book – three quarters of a million copies of which have been sold already – turned Washington on its ear with its revelation of a “soft” administrative coup d’état by Trump’s inner circle who appear to have taken over the running of the country from their Twitter- and TV-obsessed boss.
It is a startling claim – or revelation – which was given further impetus by an astonishing op-ed feature in the New York Times by an unnamed yet apparently very senior official in the White House who has claims to have been involved, hiding or stealing papers to prevent Trump from signing them, and slow-walking what they consider to be the President’s less desirable initiatives to ensure they never come to pass. And indeed in the opening scene of Fear – Woodward’s new book – Gary Cohn, then Trump’s top economic advisor, happens to see a paper on Trump’s desk in the Oval Office which outlined his plan to dump a vital trade agreement with South Korea – something which, by many a good opinion, would seriously jeopardise America’s national security. Alarmed by what he sees, Cohn surreptitiously removes the unsigned order before Trump can put his signature to it. The mercurial Commander-in-Chief never notices and forgets all about it anyway and the trade agreement is safe – for the time being.
The anecdote is a riveting one and sets the tone for what is to follow – a meticulously researched and highly readable account of the inner workings of the Trump White House. One of the things that is most surprising about the book – aside from its revelations – is the welcome fact that unlike the vast amount of copy that is written about this hugely polarising president, Woodward remains a scrupulously neutral voice throughout, adhering to the fast-vanishing journalistic principle of allowing facts to speak for themselves and for the reader to make of them what they will. Thus there is no authorial nudging or winking, no smugness, no patronising, no sense of an agenda being served other than that of good journalism: the straightforward telling of a fact-checked story. Although Trump does not come off looking terribly clever, mature or statesmanlike in this book, this is by no means a hatchet job. A great deal of wisdom and understanding of politics and human nature has gone into the writing of this book. The Trump that appears in its pages is clearly a deeply flawed character, but also a recognisably human one; he is not a caricature.
Neither are the Gris Eminences around him, who appear to have taken up their role of protectors-in-Chief reluctantly and with benign intentions, although the fact that such a soft administrative coup d’état has taken place at all is deeply unnerving. These senior staffers, cabinet officials and generals are, after all, elected by nobody, accountable to no one (except, possibly, to each other) and are able to make their remit as broad as they choose. And while in this case their actions may well have been done with the loftiest of motives and succeeded in steadying a rocky ship of state, the fact that this sort of thing has been done once raises questions for the future. The first time is always the hardest. It will be easier next time. Easier still the third time around. Who puts this genie back in the bottle?
Another other interesting sidelight from is how much Obama’s real legacy appears to be the orange-haired chap who is sitting behind the Resolute Desk right now. The disconnect and sense of privilege and anointed succession he and Hillary Clinton exuded in the run-up to the election seemed to have had a lot to do with how a rank outsider from Queens managed to get into the White House – a populist billionaire (or “popularist” as Trump pronounces it in book) swept into office by the votes of working class America who are tired of elites and believed he represents them.
The meat of the story is of course Trump himself and the dysfunctional White House he has created in his own image. Until it actually happened, the notion of a narcissist man-child in the Oval Office, with his petty tantrums, insecurities and obsequious staff – Nero on Twitter – would have seemed purely the stuff of Hollywood and perhaps a bit too far-fetched even there. That it is not fiction, that it is Reality TV in the most disturbing sense, is worrisome enough. The glimpse behind the scenes, provided by this highly readable, professionally presented and obviously well researched account, the banality of it all, is scarier still. The title could hardly be more appropriate.