“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.” So concludes the prologue of “Fear: Trump in the White House,” Bob Woodward’s nearly in-real-time document of the run-up to and first year-plus of Donald J. Trump’s presidency.
Woodward is not a sensationalist, and this is not a 357-page op-ed column damning the Trump presidency. On the contrary, drawn from hundreds of hours of interviews with firsthand participants and witnesses, nearly all of whom allowed themselves to be tape-recorded, “Fear” is long on facts, short on hyperbole, and is as sobering as it is terrifying. To paraphrase CNN editor-at-large Chris Cillizza when speaking about what “Fear” and other 2018 books and mainstream reporting reveal is that the Trump White House is “chaotic, dysfunctional, and ill-prepared” and is led by “a man hopelessly out of his depth in the job, but entirely incapable of understanding how desperately out of his depth he actually is.”
That is unless you’re a Trump supporter. Then perhaps you believe that Woodward, despite his impeccable credentials as one of our country’s most methodical reporters (dating back to Nixon and Watergate), is just another cog in the fake news wheel out to trash Trump. Or maybe you’re a Bannonite, thrilled by the prospect of blowing up the Old World Order. Or it could be one of a dozen or a hundred or a million other reasons, any of which seem sensible to you, all of which are mind-boggling, disturbing, and dangerous to me. Depending on the lens through which you read “Fear,” you will either see someone who has no business being president, or you’ll think there’s no way any of it could be true. In 2019, it seems impossible that we’ll ever again bridge the gap between those two extremes.
Three stars, then, seem like scant praise for a book that feels both important and necessary. If you, like me, have largely tuned out the news because, well, Trump, “Fear” may add detail or shading to events you’re already familiar with, but it won’t, in large part, tell you anything new. In that way, this book feels like something meant for future reference — after memories have faded, documents and notes destroyed, tweets deleted. In 20 years how will we look back on the 45th president of the United States? Will Trump have ushered in a new wave of American politics, one driven more by cult of personality and force of will than policy and diplomacy? Or will his presidency be an anomaly, a failed experiment in what happens when you hire someone wholly unqualified for, arguably, the most important job in America?
If the events in “Fear” have anything to portend, the former will certainly have disastrous and far-reaching consequences long after this administration from which it may be difficult if not impossible to claw our way back from. The latter, while keeping many of us, and much of the world, on pins and needles, will at least have been a temporary madness, a hiccup in the time-space continuum when the country, or at least enough of its citizens, was driven by a myriad of unsavory forces — backlash against our first black president and fear of its first female one, the jingoistic sentimentality of regressive politics, the meddling and malfeasance of social media — to make a counterintuitive, counterproductive, and potentially catastrophic choice at the ballot box. What will we choose next time: hope or fear?