sat 24/10/2020

Bob Woodward: Rage review - terror and tyranny in the White House | reviews, news & interviews

Bob Woodward: Rage review - terror and tyranny in the White House

Bob Woodward: Rage review - terror and tyranny in the White House

Tales from Crazytown

Down the rabbit hole with Bob Woodward

“Build the wall!” exhorted Trump, at rally after rally back in the days when we’d all acknowledged his moral repugnancy but still believed he could never attain the presidency. And Trump has indeed built a wall, one that divides Republicans from Democrats in ways unimaginable even during the psychodrama of the Nixon years; a wall that has divided America in ways that will take a generation or more to heal – as Boris Johnson and his Brexit project has done in Britain.

“Build the wall!” exhorted Trump, at rally after rally back in the days when we’d all acknowledged his moral repugnancy but still believed he could never attain the presidency. And Trump has indeed built a wall, one that divides Republicans from Democrats in ways unimaginable even during the psychodrama of the Nixon years; a wall that has divided America in ways that will take a generation or more to heal – as Boris Johnson and his Brexit project has done in Britain.

Even though no one I knew personally ever wanted Brexit, I always felt that if ever there was a referendum we would be out, and so it proved. And I’ve always felt that Brexit played a part in the election of Donald Trump: legitimised his MAGA rallying calls, the racism, derision and hatred that was visited upon anyone who didn’t agree with him. Trump and Johnson share many obvious traits, not least a contempt for experts – and a disdain for accepted norms of governance.

RageNevertheless, I never imagined that America – more puritanical in many ways than Britain, its people more generous and open-hearted – would elect Trump. I was in New York when the TV news relayed his descent down the golden staircase in his golden tower to announce his candidacy and I watched his “speech” with strange fascination before joining local friends for lunch. “He won’t last five minutes” was our agreed verdict. Even after his inaugural, seasoned commentators predicted he wouldn’t last. As it turns out, singer and political activist Joan Baez was right when she told me: “I’m not sure anything necessarily is going to get him because he’s got everyone around him supporting him and they’re all such yellow, spineless people that even though they know he’s defective – seriously defective – and causes tremendous damage, it doesn’t matter to them. The whole conservative agenda has nothing to do with much except self-service.”

Rage reads like a thriller, and perhaps that’s what Woodward intended. The prose is pacey, the chapters short. There are 17 on-the-record interviews with Trump – bragging, bile-filled, stream-of-consciousness affairs in which he’s obsessed that Kim Jong-Un reserves his smiles for him alone and is quite unable, three years in to the job, to articulate anything amounting to a vision. A handy addition would have been a list of dramatis personae, because the doors to the great departments of state revolve at such speed that even the most assiduous observer can’t possibly remember every name.

As the civilised world adjusted to the shock and horror of Trump’s election, the widespread assumption was that he would be like President Reagan, a chairman of the board, putting a sane and solid team in place who would do the daily graft while he played golf and attended to the PR aspects of the job. “The old acting president”, as Gore Vidal always referred to Reagan, at least managed to carry out such duties with dignity, even if he did occasionally require Nancy to answer a question about nuclear arms negotiations.

It appears that’s what Rex Tillerson thought when he reluctantly accepted the role of Secretary of State. The Exxon Mobile Chairman and CEO had been summoned by Mike Pence to give the President-elect a tour d’horizon. He told him that he’d been “dealt a really difficult hand in foreign affairs”, pointing out that there were significant opportunities in Russia: “You can deal with Putin.” Tillerson told Trump he came with the political baggage of big oil and might not be confirmed. But if he were confirmed, he needed to know that he would have the freedom to pick his own team and that there would be no public disputes. Trump assured him they would get along splendidly.

Retired General James Mattis was also uneasy at the summons to Defence. He’d been enjoying life as a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where George Shultz, an old DC hand, advised him that, “To do the job well you can’t want it too much.” He met early with Tillerson: both men had come from nothing, each wedded for 40 years to their jobs – the Marines in Mattis’ case. In many ways, their different international experiences intersected and, while they didn’t agree on everything, over dinner at Washington’s Jefferson Hotel they did agree that foreign policy had been “militarized over the last twenty years”. Mattis proposed that Tillerson lead: “I’ll tell you what we can do, what I can’t do. I’ll tell you the risks”. They would talk often and meet weekly, Mattis proposed, and “When we walk in the White House. We’re joined at the hip.”

Their working agreement didn’t last long, but not for want of trying: 13 months in, Tillerson was touring African nations when Chief of Staff John Kelly called to say, “The president’s going to fire you.” The trigger was probably Tillerson’s reported remark that Trump was a “fucking moron”. Mattis – who recently denounced Trump as a threat to the constitution – managed two years, resigning when Trump announced by tweet that American troops would be withdrawn from Syria just two weeks after an Ottawa summit of defence chiefs at which Mattis had reaffirmed America’s commitment to the fight.

Neither was a much-liked figure, but it’s clear that both answered the call with the best of intentions, recognising from the outset that Trump would be an unconventional president who needed reining in if Americans were to sleep safe in their beds – which Mattis did not, fearing a nuclear cataclysm on his watch. He paid regular visits to Washington’s National Cathedral, hoping for guidance and some kind of inner peace.

Woodward’s book is littered with such stories, and with endless damning verdicts on the Trump White House – “Crazytown”, according to Kelly. Dan Coates, National Intelligence Director, who was prevailed upon to withdraw his resignation only to be publicly fired while playing golf, observed that anyone who tried to stand up to Trump got “tarred and feathered”.

Rage is a compelling read and while Woodward yomps through set-piece events with which we are all too familiar it is a fascinating assembling of the entire Trump horror show. After Attorney General William Barr’s parsing of Robert Mueller’s equivocal report, Trump exclaims to Lindsey Graham: “Can you believe we’re doing this shit? Can you believe I’m here, president of the United States, and you’re here? Can you believe this shit? Isn’t it the greatest thing in the world?” He calls himself “a student of history” yet had to be briefed on Pearl Harbour, nevertheless telling Woodward: “I like learning from the past. Much better than learning from yourself and mistakes.” As Covid rages, Woodward asked if he had ever sat down with Dr Fauci for a scientific briefing: “…honestly, there’s not a lot of time for that, Bob. This is a busy White House.”

Trump: a man with neither knowledge or self-knowledge. Woodward concludes understatedly that “Trump is the wrong man for the job.” We’d better hope that sense prevails in November because if he’s returned it’s no exaggeration to say it’s the end of western civilisation as we know it. 

Liz Thomson's website

 

Add comment

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters