Fear: Trump in the White House
Geoffrey W. Sutton
After reading Woodward’s Fear, I am wondering about the contribution of this book to its cover-stated category, Political Science. Like behavioral scientists who analyze interviews, the anonymity of the participants is protected. Like readers of behavioral science interviews, we are dependent on the author and his team for accuracy. Unfortunately, like readers of scientific journals, we do not know the accuracy of the memories of those who provided the interview content to Woodward. Neither do we know how well Woodward was able to detect lies and biases in those who provided the content on which this book was based.
Woodward’s purpose is summarized at the end of the prologue.
The reality was that the United States in 2017 was tethered to the words and actions of an emotionally overwrought, mercurial, and unpredictable leader. Members of his staff had joined to purposefully block some of what they believed were the president’s most dangerous impulses. It was a nervous breakdown of the executive power of the most powerful country in the world.
What follows is that story.
Bob Woodward, Prologue
For the most part, Woodward takes us on a chronological tour of the interactions among members of Trump’s White House team—sometimes with, and sometimes without Trump present. It’s no surprise to learn that strongly opinionated people—mostly men—would fight amongst themselves to persuade a president to do their bidding or form alliances to defeat opponents. What is surprising is the extent to which Trump’s team members go to interfere with his decisions or control his unscripted public speeches and prolific tweets. Woodward makes a repeated point that Trump demands loyalty. The demand for loyalty is nothing new in leaders. The ways team members undermine Trump’s authority and display conflicting loyalties makes for an interesting read. Accurate descriptions of human behavior in political arenas certainly fall in the realm of political science. But we are not treated to comparisons with other teams or a guiding theory that might explain what’s unique about this team.
What is different about the Trump White House is Trump himself. Trump's made a point. He’s not like Obama, either Bush, or either Clinton. Woodward’s words in the prologue describe Trump’s personality traits as “emotionally overwrought, mercurial, and unpredictable.” We do get various scenarios revealing intense emotional displays and changes in mood; however, it seems staff close to Trump have learned to predict his behavior to a degree that they act to distract him, influence his language, control his schedule, and team with others to prevent predictable actions. My point is, after hearing Trump’s repeated rhetoric, seeing his tweets, and reading this book, Trump’s actions seem to take on a degree of predictability. Criticize Trump and you will get a torrent of personalized criticism in return, display disloyalty and you will be fired. Take a position opposed to Trump and your intelligence or strength will be challenged in the language coarse men use everywhere.
On the final page, Woodward tells the story of Dowd’s (Trump’s lawyer) resignation. We learn Dowd’s view of Trump’s tragic flaw. And we are left to wonder what the storyteller believes about his president.
But in the man and his presidency Dowd had seen the tragic flaw. In the political back-and-forth, the evasions, the denials, the tweeting, the obscuring, crying “Fake news,” the indignation, Trump had one overriding problem that Dowd knew but could not bring himself to say to the president: “You’re a fucking liar.” (page 357)
As with any careful analysis, the author has provided copious notes with the noteworthy absence of anonymity for some primary sources. In the end, we are left with an experienced reporter’s view of a president fighting battles on many fronts—his advisors, Congress, the mainstream media, attorneys, and foreign leaders. We don't know who will win. We can be sure that along the way, different opponents will declare themselves the winner. Meanwhile, American voters are left to battle for semi-control over who gets in the White House in 2020. Perhaps fear is the best lead title word for the book. But other emotions come to mind.
Woodward, B. (2018). Fear: Trump in the White House. New York: Simon & Schuster.