November 9, 2018
Bob Woodward’s latest book, Fear, essentially is a history of the late stages of the Trump campaign and the first year or so of his administration. It is packed with quotes, suggesting considerable access to the players, but its narrative is so unstructured that, as I read it, it seemed not to have any overriding theme. However, the author had suggested two.
One, set forth in the Prologue, is this: “The . . . United States in 2017 was tethered to the words and actions of an emotionally overwrought, mercurial and unpredictable leader. Members of the 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.” The story supports that summary; among other protective acts, aides surreptitiously removed papers from Trump’s desk to prevent his signing them. I suppose that I didn’t recognize that as a significant thread because the portraits of Trump, and to some degree of the chaos in the White House, were familiar.
The other theme, reflected in the title, appears on another introductory page. It is a comment by Trump in an interview with the author in March, 2016: “Real power is — I don’t even want to use the word — fear.” No context is given.
Possibly Trump avoids the phrase, but the author did not. In a passage referring to “private advice to a friend who had acknowledged some bad behavior toward women,” Trump is quoted: “You’ve got to deny, deny, deny and push back on these women. If you admit to anything and any culpability, then you’re dead. . . . You showed weakness, You’ve got to be strong. You’ve got to be aggressive. You’ve got to deny anything that’s said about you.”3 Woodward prefaced that quote with this anticipatory restatement: “Real power is fear. It’s all about strength. Never show weakness. You’ve always got to be strong. Don’t be bullied.” Presumably he was summarizing Trump’s attitude, but the reference to fear doesn’t fit. The quote is clear enough; the gloss wasn’t necessary, except to fit the story into the second theme.
That passage is part of a short, separate section which begins with a discussion of the relationship between Trump and his wife, and which is sandwiched between discussions of the Mueller investigation and tariffs. That is typical of the episodic nature of the narrative.
Mr. Woodward inserted “Real power is fear” at two later points, one referring to Trump’s threats, in business deals, to walk away, but applying it to NAFTA negotiations, the other concerning relations with North Korea. As with the reference to fear above, these are the author’s comments, not statements by Trump. Again, they don’t quite fit the context, so they seemed to me to be an overreach.
However, Trump’s behavior during the runup to the midterms demonstrates that Fear is Power indeed is his guiding motto. Facing a possible blue wave, he resorted to fearmongering about immigrants, hoping to frighten undecided voters into opting for safety.
In the process, he may have convinced the faithful that his bluster is a mark of strength, but the Trump quote in the “private advice” passage reveals that he is a weak man trying to look strong. Although on television he could shout “you’re fired,” he often cannot fire real people face to face. He scatters insults constantly, but whines about ill-treatment if criticized.
Rather than making America great again, in his meeting with Putin Trump was weak and made the country look weak. Most recently he has done both by appearing to be so frightened of a distant caravan of refugees that the Army must be called out.
Fear is an appropriate title in another way. From the beginning, Trump has been afraid of disclosure. That has become worse with the election of a Democratic House. Firing Jeff Sessions and replacing him with an apparently more pliable acting AG is a result of Trump’s fear of the Mueller investigation. Probably there will be more such signs.
<br>56. p. xxii
57. p. xiii per the index, actually unnumbered
58. p. 175
59. pp.274-75, 300