Why would President Trump coöperate with Bob Woodward—and not only coöperate but participate in eighteen interview sessions, one of which included his now infamous admission that he understood that the coronavirus was serious but intended to “play it down”? One possibility is that Trump simply enjoyed the prestige of the project. Woodward’s second book on Trump, “Rage,” is his eleventh work on the Presidency since the Clinton Administration, and a continuation of the genre that he and Carl Bernstein inaugurated with their account of the collapse of Nixon’s Presidency, “The Final Days.”
The books always reflect a remarkable level of access, contain a number of scoops that rarely depart from conventional wisdom but do frequently make headlines, and are written and published with a speed that insures their popularity. After two accounts of the George W. Bush Administration—one of which was so admiring that the Republican National Committee recommended it on its Web site—Woodward published “State of Denial,” in 2006, capturing and entrenching the burgeoning conventional wisdom that the Administration’s Iraq policy was a disaster. In response to Trump’s coronavirus blunder, Bush’s strategist Karl Rove said last week that “every Administration participates with Bob Woodward and lives to regret it.”
Another answer to the question of why a person might think that engaging with Woodward would be beneficial can be found in the prologue to his latest book, in which he introduces Robert O’Brien, Trump’s national-security adviser (who, according to a whistle-blower complaint, recently instructed the head of Homeland Security to stop providing intelligence assessments about election meddling by Russia; he has strongly denied the accusation). “O’Brien believed the national-security adviser had to try to see around corners, a duty to warn of an impending disaster,” Woodward writes, adding that, by late January, O’Brien was deeply concerned about the coronavirus and “felt passionate that the outbreak was a real threat.” Woodward also describes O’Brien as putting forward his opinions “deliberately” and “strongly.” We are only two pages in, which is usually about the moment in a Woodward book when you can guess whether a subject has coöperated: if he has, he almost certainly comes out looking well. Three pages later, a week has passed, and Woodward casually notes that O’Brien, appearing on CBS, has just said about the virus, “Right now, there’s no reason for Americans to panic. This is something that is a low risk, we think, in the U.S.” Another author might note the dissonance between O’Brien’s public and private statements; Woodward does not even allude to it. But this is typical of Woodward’s White House-centric narratives: inconsistencies pile up; narrative threads are dropped and then recovered without any notice of the ways in which they have altered in the interim. In a 1996 review of his books, Joan Didion wrote, “Those who talk to Mr. Woodward, in other words, can be confident that he will be civil (‘I too was growing tired, and it seemed time to stand up and thank him’), that he will not feel impelled to make connections between what he is told and what is already known, that he will treat even the most patently self-serving account as if untainted by hindsight.”
“Rage” is really two books of about equal length. The first covers much of the same territory as Woodward’s first effort on the Trump Administration, “Fear,” offering another account of the “adults” around the President trying to manage and moderate him in 2017 and 2018. Trump’s former aide Rob Porter and his former economic adviser Gary Cohn were the central figures in that effort. (Remember Cohn removing papers from Trump’s desk in a valiant attempt to prevent Trump from withdrawing from a trade agreement with South Korea?) In “Fear,” former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and former director of National Intelligence Dan Coats are the lodestars. We follow each of them from their first meetings with Trump, during the transition period, to their inevitable firings or resignations, in narratives that track their disillusionment in serving the country under Trump. What is so hard to decipher about these early sections is to what extent Mattis, Tillerson, and Coats were as naïve as Woodward portrays them, to what extent they feigned cluelessness in order to justify their willingness to work for Trump, and to what extent their depictions are Woodward’s own infantilizing spin, intended to create bildungsromans out of the lives of men in their sixties and seventies.
In the second book, which covers the White House’s response to the coronavirus, Woodward himself comes face to face with Trump in their long interview sessions and begins offering up many of the same fears and concerns as Mattis, Tillerson, and Coats. “After I finished reporting for this book on President Trump, I felt weariness,” he writes. And yet Woodward appears as unequipped to grapple with Trump as the erstwhile members of his Cabinet were. Whether Woodward and his sources are aware or disengaged, cynical or naïve, takes on extra importance because of the unique challenges and outrages of our era, in which a willingness to abide Trump has sat side by side with an inability to understand his malignancy.
Of Woodward’s three main characters, Coats’s journey is the most pathos-filled. A lifelong Republican and devout Christian from Indiana, he accepts the job despite the reservations that he and his wife, Marsha, have about Trump’s character. After an early briefing with Trump, Coats tells Trump that he intends to speak the truth, even if the President does not like it. Several months later, the kindly Marsha is “stunned”—despite a psychology degree—“at her husband’s reports about the president’s arrogance” and asks, “‘Who could go into this office of being president and not realize how inadequate they are?” After Trump wanted to pull troops from Afghanistan and South Korea, Woodward writes that Coats felt “troubled by the absence of a plan or consideration of the human dimension—the impact on the troops, the allies, the world—or a sense of the weight of the office.” Fortunately, Coats finds comfort in a remark that Eisenhower once made, about the White House being “the loneliest house I’ve ever been in.” Maybe that’s the problem: Trump just needs a little company, although this would not be entirely consistent with Coats’s initial moral hesitations about Trump. Regardless, Woodward seems to have granted Coats a degree of credulousness unfitting in a director of National Intelligence.
Credulousness is not a quality one associates with men who run multinational oil companies, and, indeed, Tillerson, previously the C.E.O. of ExxonMobil, had spent time with a number of world leaders, including Vladimir Putin, before his first meeting with Trump. In Woodward’s recounting, Tillerson talked through most of that session, in December, 2016, presenting rather clichéd views about world affairs. “If you want to understand Russia, they haven’t changed much culturally in 1,000 years,” he tells Trump. “They are the most fatalistic people on the face of the earth.” (After this cascade of stereotypes, he goes on to attribute Putin’s dislike of Barack Obama to Putin being a racist, adding, “All Russians are, generally.”) A little later, Tillerson and Mattis are talking about Russia, and Tillerson pipes up to say that “the new president would have an opening with Putin and could perhaps even develop a constructive relationship.” Tillerson attributes this idea to the geopolitical situation, not to the fact that Russia had just helped Trump get elected or that Trump had shown admiration for dictators the world over, especially Putin. Woodward, in turn, does the same, by mentioning none of this context, and the principals go on having conversations about Russia and Putin and Trump as if they had been asleep for the previous year. It is pretty clear that these men all talked to Woodward, in other words, but it is less obvious that he challenged these almost absurdly guileless versions of events.
Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general and Trump’s first Secretary of Defense, is the biggest name of the book’s early sections, but his journey to a realization about Trump’s character is arguably the farthest-fetched. Similarly, Mattis’s role in an operation in Falluja that left an estimated thousand civilians dead goes unmentioned and does not cloud any judgments the reader might make about Mattis’s dedication to the Marine Corps ethos and his love of democracy and our allies. “He wanted to persuade Trump to question his positions on nato and torture,” Woodward explains, as Mattis—whose “bright, open and inviting smile softened his presence”—prepares to meet with the President in late 2016. The problem that immediately suggests itself here is that both Woodward and Mattis, in Woodward’s telling, view Trump’s opinions about torture as being a “policy” matter. Trump is pro-torture because he is a bigot with authoritarian leanings and because he sensed that some elements of the Republican electorate would be gratified by tough talk about roughing up Muslims. Woodward solemnly explains that Mattis follows the Marine code and believes in actions that preserve America’s “moral authority,” which might as well be a phrase from a different language as far as Trump is concerned.
The first hints that Woodward, too, thinks that Trump’s Presidency might be somehow salvageable occur on the first page, when Woodward suggests that Trump might be too “consumed” by impeachment to pay attention to his job. (In classic Woodward fashion, he contradicts himself—or perhaps lets slip the absurdity of the entire formulation—when he mentions, four pages later, that the Super Bowl was also consuming Trump’s attention.) Many of these scenes—and this attitude toward Trump—will be familiar to readers of “Fear,” but the second half of the narrative is distinct because of the presence of Woodward himself. He has never been shy about using himself as a character in his books, whether in some memorable tête-à-têtes with Donald Rumsfeld or his famous account of a deathbed conversation with William Casey, in which the former C.I.A. director admitted having known that money from Iranian arms sales was being funnelled to the Nicaraguan Contras. (Others have questioned the story.)
But Woodward has never written about such sustained engagement with a President—which takes the form of formal sessions and impromptu phone calls from Trump. The combined effect of these interviews is definitive proof that there is such a thing as too much access: chapter after chapter shows Trump ignoring questions and ranting about the media, Obama, and his poll numbers. Woodward recounts one rambling conversation with Trump at the end of 2019 and then tells the reader, “I was struck by the vague, directionless nature of Trump’s comments. He had been president for just under three years, but couldn’t seem to articulate a strategy or plan for the country. I was surprised he would go into 2020, the year he hoped to win reelection, without more clarity to his message.” Opinions may vary about whether Woodward was truly surprised, just as opinions may vary about whether one would prefer the most famous journalist in Washington to be wide-eyed or disingenuous.
The reductio ad absurdum of these scenes comes in a brief discussion between Woodward and Trump on racial justice, amid interviews that are ostensibly about the coronavirus. (Woodward understandably has trouble keeping them on track.) “There is a spiritual dimension to this,” Woodward tells Trump about leading the country on race. “I think people want somebody to get up and say hey, I get it. I really am moving forward getting my feet in your shoes. I know you wouldn’t like this, but remember Hillary Clinton went on a listening tour? Do you need to go on a listening tour and listen to people?” Trump responds by talking about his “great economy,” and the conversation continues without much progress. In fairness to the President, there are probably few questions that would unite fanatical Trump supporters and Black Lives Matter activists more than whether Donald Trump should go on a “listening tour” to hear from Black people across America about their experiences.
One of the issues that marred Woodward’s Bush books, despite their interest, was his willingness to believe less-than-honest people. That is an even bigger problem in the Trump era, which has outdone the Bush years in dishonesty and features an outrageous number of people whose only motive for serving in government seems to be personal glory or wealth. If this is not enough to make anyone pine for Dick Cheney, the lying at least makes it even more vital that journalists doubt what they hear and think carefully about what to weed out or explain. I somehow have trouble believing that Lindsey Graham is, as Woodward recounts, worried that the judiciary is becoming “too partisan” or that much can be gleaned from Jared Kushner’s endless monologues on leadership. The problem goes beyond the details. In one conversation, Mattis and Tillerson discuss the importance of State and Defense working together and beefing up the diplomatic corps; a reader who did not follow the news in 2017 would be surprised to learn that Tillerson was simultaneously embarking on gutting the State Department.
There is, however, a revealing scene early in Woodward’s interviews with Trump, in which the journalist tells the President, “I want to do policy. Because having done nine presidents, the policy is what matters. It’s the spine and definition.” Trump says he agrees and then adds, “Policy can change, also, though, you know? I like flexibility.” In the moment, Woodward doesn’t respond, but in the epilogue, he makes the confession that all of his central characters have made. Woodward writes, “But now, I’ve come to the conclusion that the ‘dynamite behind the door’ was in plain sight. It was Trump himself.
- The oversized personality.
- The failure to organize.
- The lack of discipline.
- The lack of trust in others he had picked, in experts.
- The undermining or attempted undermining of so many American institutions.
- The failure to be a calming, healing voice.
- The unwillingness to acknowledge error.
- The failure to do his homework.
- To extend the olive branch.
- To listen carefully to others.
- To craft a plan.”
Woodward has never been great with character—he calls it a “paradox” that Trump can be both “friendly” and “savage”—but character, even he must admit, is the whole story here. Most of this Administration’s greatest disasters have been policy-related—but policy of this sort was inevitable with a person like Trump. What his racism did not infect, his corruption most certainly did; we are left with nothing except Trump himself and the political party that was broken enough to nominate such a man.
Even Woodward’s worst books contain an astonishing number of fascinating details, but those who have lamented the failure of our institutions to stand up to Trump are unlikely to be surprised by the mind-set of the people who populated them. Acceptance of how far we have fallen would have meant not only reappraising the country many of them loved but also the Party many of them belonged to. But the alternative explanation for their behavior is no better: they knew what was coming and—whether out of a sense of decorum or partisanship or cowardice—refused to say so. Those who read “Rage” now will get some sense of the hectic and turbulent nature of decision-making within the White House. But, years from now, the book is less likely to serve as a reminder of what it felt like to experience our age and more a sign of why it came about.
The problem with a fraud as big as this president is that once you start collaborating with him, it’s impossible to get out.
Too Much and Never Enough, Mary Trump’s devastating indictment of how the Trump family created, as her subtitle characterizes him, “the world’s most dangerous man,” hits bookstores this week. Its publication coincides with—as she predicted—record-shattering COVID-19 cases, a fragile economy, and a half-formed government plan to open schools this fall at any cost. By now you have doubtless ingested the greatest hits of her family gossip: Donald Trump
- ogled his own niece in a bathing suit and
- sought to fill one of his books with hit lists of “ugly” women who had rebuffed him; Donald Trump
- paid someone to take his SATs;
- Maryanne Trump Barry, a retired federal appeals court judge, once described her brother as a “clown” with no principles; Donald Trump
- was a vicious bully even as a child;
- Freddy Trump—the author’s father—died alone in a hospital while Donald went to a movie.
The details are new, and graphic, yes, but very little about it is surprising: The president is a lifelong liar and cheater, propped up by a father who was as relentless in his need for success as Donald Trump was to earn his approval. Check please.
But not quite. What is new and surprising is also that Mary Trump, who has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, has given us a granular portrait of Trump’s profound impairment: She says that her uncle has all nine clinical criteria for narcissism, although she insists that this diagnosis is only the tip of the psychological iceberg—he may also suffer from antisocial personality disorder, sociopathy, and/or dependent personality disorder, along with an undiagnosed learning disability that likely interferes with his ability to process information. I leave it to the mental health experts to determine whether some or all of that is accurate. But what Mary Trump surely adds to the growing canon of the “Trump is unwell” book club is not limited to family gossip or mental health diagnostics: At bottom, Too Much and Never Enough may be the first book that stipulates, in its first pages, that the president is irreparably damaged, and then turns a clinician’s lens on the rest of us, the voters, the enablers, the flatterers, the hangers-on, and the worshippers. It is here that Mary Trump’s book makes perhaps the most enduring contribution to the teetering piles of books that have offered too little too late, even while telling us that which we already knew. Because Mary Trump begins from the assumption that other analysis tends to end with: Donald Trump is lethally dangerous, stunningly incoherent, and pathologically incapable of caring about anyone but himself. So, what Mary Trump wants to know is: What the hell is wrong with everyone around him? As she writes in her prologue, “there’s been very little effort to understand not only why he became what he is but how he’s consistently failed up despite his glaring lack of fitness.”
The book is thus actually styled as an indictment not of Donald Trump but of Trump’s enablers. The epigraph is from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, and it’s emphatically not about Donald John Trump at all: “If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but the one who causes the darkness.” Mary Trump
- blames Fred Trump for Donald Trump’s pathology, although she doesn’t claim that her uncle is a tragic victim of abuse. She blames
- his family that propped him up (also her family, it should be noted), and then in concentric and expanding circles,
- the media that failed to scrutinize him,
- the banks that pretended he was the financial genius he was not,
- the Republican Party, and
- the “claque of loyalists” in the White House who continue to lie for him and to him in order to feed his insatiable ego and self-delusion. Even the phrase “too much and never enough” is perhaps deliberately borrowed from the language of addiction, and what Mary Trump describes here is not just her uncle’s addiction to adulation, fame, money, and success, but a nation’s—or some part of a nation’s—unfathomable addiction to him.
The bulk of the book focuses on the tale of Mary and her brother Fritz’s abandonment by the rest of the Trump clan. Her father, Freddy, the scion and namesake, failed to be the storybook heir to her grandfather’s real estate empire, instead collapsing into a tragic black hole of alcoholism, illness, and despair. Donald Trump, Freddy’s younger brother, not only helped push Freddy down but also stepped on his sinking shoulders on his way into the empty, Freddy-shaped space to become his father’s successor. And as Freddy’s parents and three other siblings altered their lives and priorities in order to orbit around Donald, Mary and her brother were eventually written out of the wills, the empire, and the family story, as payback for their father’s perceived weakness and failures. This is all tragic in its own right, but it also makes Mary, who has been let down by the so-called adults in the room almost since her infancy, perfectly positioned to explain and translate what happens to otherwise high-functioning adults—
- her aunt Maryanne, a competent federal judge;
- the lawyers and accountants tasked with fulfilling Donald’s whims and hiding his failings;
- the sycophants and Republicans and evangelical Christians who support his campaign unquestioningly; and
- the officials who now populate the Senate, the Cabinet, and the Oval Office.
All of them appear to be reasonably mentally sound. Yet they all cover for Donald, at the expense of real suffering and genuine human loss, just as the Trump clan ignored Freddy’s disintegration and death. Mary Trump’s childhood trauma has become America’s trauma, and she really wants to know how that came to be. Again.
The section of the book that has garnered the most attention is likely Mary’s claim that Trump cannot be evaluated for pathologies because he is “in the West Wing, essentially institutionalized” and that he has in fact “been institutionalized for most of his adult life. So there is no way to know how he would thrive, or even survive, on his own in the real world.” We are not used to seeing entities like the White House described in this way—a “very expensive and well-guarded padded cell”—as a means of protection for the broken man inside rather than as a platform from which a leader can change the world. And her ultimate point is that even a shattered psyche, buffered from the real world, can still do irreparable damage to it. But the most interesting assessments she offers are reserved for those inside the “institutions,” the people who might have saved us and certainly have not, from
- the nuclear family, to
- the Trump businesses, to
- New York’s bankers and powerful elites, to
- Bill Barr, Mike Pompeo, and Jared Kushner.
They all knew and know that the emperor has no clothes, even as they devote their last shreds of dignity to effusive praise of his ermine trim and jaunty crown.
Mary Trump seems to answer the question of why they do this in a section late in the book about Donald Trump’s father, Fred Trump. In describing Fred’s growing realizing that his fair-haired boy, Donald, was a fraud, Mary explains that, yes, Fred himself was a master at fattening his wallet with taxpayer funds, committing tax fraud to benefit his children. (Mary admits she was the one who leaked the family tax information to the New York Times in 2018 for its blockbuster story.) But as it became clear that Donald had no real business acumen—as his Atlantic City casinos cratered and his father unlawfully poured secret funds into saving them—Mary realized that Fred also depended on the glittery tabloid success at which Donald excelled. Fred continued to prop up his son’s smoke-and-mirrors empire because, as Mary writes, “Fred had become so invested in the fantasy of Donald’s success that he and Donald were inextricably linked. Facing reality would have required acknowledging his own responsibility, which he would never do. He had gone all in, and although any rational person would have folded, Fred was determined to double down.”
Mary Trump’s words there could just as easily be true for
- John Kelly,
- Kellyanne Conway,
- John Bolton,
- Mitch McConnell,
- Susan Collins, or
- Melania Trump.
And as Mary Trump is quick to observe, the sheer stuck-ness of his enablers means that Trump never, ever learns his lesson. Being cosseted, lied to, defended, and puffed up means that Donald Trump knows that, “no matter what happens, no matter how much damage he leaves in his wake, he will be OK.” He fails up, in other words, because everyone around him, psychologically normal beings all, ends up so enmeshed with his delusions that they must do anything necessary to protect them. Trump’s superpower isn’t great vision or great leadership but rather that he is so tiny. Taking him on for transactional purposes may seem like not that big a deal at first, but the moment you put him in your pocket, you become his slave. It is impossible to escape his orbit without having to admit a spectacular failure in moral and strategic judgment, which almost no one can stomach. Donald Trump’s emptiness is simply a mirror of the emptiness of everyone who propped him up. It’s that reflection that becomes unendurable. This pattern, as Mary writes, “guaranteed a cascade of increasingly consequential failures that would ultimately render all of us collateral damage.” Nobody, not even Mary, who signed on briefly to ghostwrite one of his books, ends up just a little bit beholden to Donald Trump and that includes his rapturous supporters who still queue up, maskless, to look upon his greatness. As she concludes, his sociopathy “reminds me that Donald isn’t really the problem at all.” That makes hers something other than the 15th book about the fathoms-deep pathologies of Donald Trump: It is the first real reckoning with all those who “caused the darkness.”
Mary Trump is, among other things, a brisk and gifted writer, and she is a fact witness to, and also a victim of, a family that elevated a mediocre and vicious man, at the expense of justice, fairness, and truth. Her real beef is not with her uncle Donald, who has always been exactly as we have long known him to be; that’s why a smattering of new details about his business failures and meanness were never really the point of this book. We’ve read that book before. The perspective of this book is made possible exactly because Mary Trump was one of the first children to be written out of the will, cast out of the family, and denied the support and love that should have been hers, as a result of her father’s perceived failures. It is this—because she was ousted rather than being forced to remove herself—that allows her to see clearly why everyone else stuck around. And what she reveals is a devastating indictment of all the alleged adults who stick around Donald Trump, who came together to fail America, to leave vulnerable populations to fend for themselves, and who continue to lie and spin to pacify his ego. They do it because they can’t admit the payoff is never coming, and to save themselves from the embarrassment of having to admit they were catastrophically wrong.
Bill Barr has been involved in a game of Three-Card Monte with US Attorney assignments. First, he pulled DC US Attorney Jessie Liu out of her position as top prosecutor in DC, installed a lackey, Tim Shea, who then started doing favors for Donald Trump’s criminal associates, reducing Roger Stone’s sentencing recommendation and trying to tank the Mike Flynn case altogether. Barr then tried to do the same thing to Southern District of New York US Attorney Geoffrey Berman, trying to install Jay Clayton, a non-prosecutor as the top prosecutor in SDNY. Berman had the last laugh as he both exposed Barr as lying about the claim that Berman had resigned (he hadn’t) and securing the appointment of his Deputy Audrey Strauss as SDNY Acting US Attorney. Now, Barr is at his shell game again, trying to swap a high-ranking DOJ official, Seth DuCharme, for the US Attorney at the Eastern District of New York US Attorney’s Office, Richard Donoghue. Will Barr get away with this latest game of musical chairs . . or musical US Attorneys?
Those are some of the views Republicans endorse by uncritically embracing and supporting President Trump. He is leading his party down a sewer of unabashed racism and willful ignorance, and all who follow him — and I mean all — deserve to feel the mighty wrath of voters in November.
I’m talking to you, Sen.
- Susan Collins of Maine. And you, Sen.
- Cory Gardner of Colorado. And you, Sens.
- Thom Tillis of North Carolina,
- Martha McSally of Arizona,
- Joni Ernst of Iowa,
- Steve Daines of Montana,
- Kelly Loeffler of Georgia and
- John Cornyn of Texas.
And while those of you in deep-red states whose reelection ordinarily would be seen as a mere formality may not see the giant millstones you’ve hung around your necks as a real risk, think again. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina and even Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, you should look at the numbers and realize you are putting your Senate seats — and the slim GOP majority — in dire jeopardy.
You can run and hide from reporters asking you about Trump’s latest statements or tweets. You can pretend not to hear shouted questions as you hurry down Capitol hallways. You can take out your cellphones and feign being engrossed in a terribly important call. Ultimately, you’re going to have to answer to voters — and in the meantime you have decided to let Trump speak for you. Best of luck with that.
It is not really surprising that Trump, with his poll numbers falling and his reelection in serious jeopardy, would decide to use race and public health as wedge issues to inflame his loyal base. That’s all he knows how to do.
Most politicians would see plunging poll numbers as a warning to try a different approach; Trump takes them as a sign to do more of the same — more race-baiting, more authoritarian “law and order” posturing, more see-no-evil denial of a raging pandemic that has cost more than 120,000 American lives.
Racism is a feature of the Trump shtick, not a bug. He sees the nationwide protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd as an opportunity not for healing and reform, but to stir anger and resentment among his overwhelmingly white voting base. Trump wants no part of the reckoning with history the country seems to crave.
This week, city officials in Charleston, S.C. — the place where the Civil War began — took down a statue of John C. Calhoun, a leading 19th-century politician and fierce defender of slavery, from its 115-foot column in Marion Square and hauled it away to a warehouse. Also this week, Trump reportedly demanded that the District’s monument to Confederate Gen. Albert Pike, toppled last week by protesters, be cleaned up and reinstalled exactly as it was.
Trump went to Arizona not just to falsely claim great progress on building his promised border wall, intended to keep out the “hombres,” but also to delight fervent young supporters by referring to covid-19 as “kung flu.” Weeks ago, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway said that racist term was clearly offensive and unacceptable. But since Trump has made it into a red-meat applause line, Conway now apparently thinks it’s a perfectly legitimate way to identify the virus’s country of origin.
All the other Republicans who fail to speak up while Trump runs the most nakedly racist presidential campaign since George Wallace in 1968 shouldn’t kid themselves. Their silence amounts to agreement. Perhaps there’s enough white bitterness out there to carry the Republican Party to another narrow win. But that’s not what the polls say.
Trump’s antics are self-defeating. He’ll put on a racist show for a shrinking audience, but he won’t wear the masks that could allow the economic reopening he desperately wants. He may be able to avoid reality, but the Republican governors — including Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida — scrambling desperately to contain new outbreaks cannot.
It’s almost as though Trump is determined to destroy the Republican Party. Let’s give him his wish.
He — and his party — are much, much worse.
On May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard opened fire on student protesters, killing four. The 50th anniversary of the Kent State massacre passed with little notice in a nation preoccupied with Covid-19 — but now, suddenly, echoes of the Nixon era are everywhere. And Donald Trump seems to be deliberately invoking Nixon’s legacy, tweeting out “LAW & ORDER!” in the apparent hope that it will magically rescue his political fortunes.
And given Trump’s determination to put troops in the streets of America’s cities, it’s quite likely that innocent civilians will be shot at some point.
But Donald Trump isn’t Richard Nixon — he’s much, much worse. And America 2020 isn’t America 1970: We’re a better nation in many ways, but our democracy is far more fragile thanks to the utter corruption of the Republican Party.
The Trump-Nixon comparisons are obvious. Like Nixon, Trump has exploited white backlash for political gain. Like Nixon, Trump evidently believes that laws apply only to the little people.
Nixon, however, doesn’t seem to have been a coward. Amid mass demonstrations, he didn’t cower in the MAGAbunker, venturing out only after his minions had gassed peaceful protesters and driven them out of Lafayette Park. Instead, he went out to talk to protesters at the Lincoln Memorial. His behavior was a bit weird, but it wasn’t craven.
And while his political strategy was cynical and ruthless, Nixon was a smart, hard-working man who took the job of being president seriously.
His policy legacy was surprisingly positive — in particular, he did more than any other president, before or since, to protect the environment. Before Watergate took him down he was working on a plan to expand health insurance coverage that in many ways anticipated Obamacare.
Trump, by contrast, appears to spend his days tweeting and watching Fox News. His administration’s only major policy achievement so far has been the 2017 tax cut, which was supposed to lead to surging business investment, but didn’t.
He responded to the Covid-19 threat first with denial, then with frantic efforts, not to control the pandemic, but to shift the blame for shambolic, ineffective policies to other people.
So Trump is no Nixon. And the country he’s trying to dominate — his favorite word — is very different, too.
The good news is that America is a far less racist, far more tolerant nation today than it was in 1970. Remarkably, multiple polls show a majority of Americans approving of the protests inspired by George Floyd’s death, and strong disapproval of Trump’s response.
This doesn’t mean that systemic racism is gone — far from it. But a majority of Americans are willing to acknowledge that racism is real and see it as a problem, which represents huge moral progress. Nixon’s “silent majority” is now a noisy minority.
But it’s a very dangerous minority. While we are, as I said, in many ways a better nation than we were, we’re also a nation in which the rule of law and democratic values are very much under siege.
At this point it’s alarmingly easy to see how the United States could follow the path already taken by Hungary, becoming a democracy on paper but an authoritarian one-party state in practice. And I’m not talking about the distant future: It could happen this year, if Trump wins re-election — or even, potentially, if he loses but refuses to accept the results.
And the reason democracy is threatened in a way it never was under Nixon is not simply that Trump is a worse human being than Nixon ever was; it is the fact that he has so many enablers.
Trump’s authoritarian instincts, his admiration for and envy of foreign strongmen, his desire to militarize law enforcement have long been obvious. These things wouldn’t matter so much, however, if the Republican Party were still the institution it was in the 1970s — a big tent with room for a variety of views, represented in the Senate by many people with real principles. These were people willing to remove a president, even if he was a Republican, when he betrayed his oath of office.
The modern G.O.P., however, is nothing like that. Many of its leading figures — people like Senator Tom Cotton — are every bit as authoritarian and anti-democratic as Trump himself.
The rest, with hardly any exceptions, are loyal apparatchiks, intimidated into obedience by an angry base. This base gets its information from Fox and Facebook and basically lives in an alternate reality, in which protesters demonstrating peacefully against police brutality are actually a radical horde that will begin a violent insurrection any minute now.
The point is that today’s Republican Party wouldn’t object to a Trumpian power grab, even if it amounted to a military coup. On the contrary, the party would cheer it on.
The bottom line is that while parallels with the Nixon era are very real, there are important differences between now and then — and the differences aren’t reassuring. In many ways we’re a better country than we used to be, but we’re in dire political straits, because one of our two major parties no longer believes in the American idea.
One journalist remarked to me, “How in the world can these senators walk around here upright when they have no backbone?”
Not guilty. Not guilty.
In the United States Senate, like in many spheres of life, fear does the business.
Think back to the fall of 2002, just a few weeks before that year’s crucial midterm elections, when the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq was up for a vote. A year after the 9/11 attacks, hundreds of members of the House and the Senate were about to face the voters of a country still traumatized by terrorism.
Senator Patty Murray, a thoughtful Democrat from Washington State, still remembers “the fear that dominated the Senate leading up to the Iraq war.”
“You could feel it then,” she told me, “and you can feel that fear now” — chiefly among Senate Republicans.
For those of us who, from the start, questioned the wisdom of the Iraq war, our sense of isolation surely wasn’t much different from the loneliness felt in the 1950s by Senator Herbert Lehman of New York, who confronted Joe McCarthy’s demagogy only to be abandoned by so many of his colleagues. Nor was it so different from what Senator George McGovern must have felt when he announced his early opposition to the Vietnam War and was then labeled a traitor by many inside and outside of Congress.
History has indeed taught us that when it comes to the instincts that drive us, fear has no rival. As the lead House impeachment manager, Representative Adam Schiff, has noted, Robert Kennedy spoke of how “moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle.”
Playing on that fear, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, sought a quick impeachment trial for President Trump with as little attention to it as possible. Reporters, who usually roam the Capitol freely, have been cordoned off like cattle in select areas. Mr. McConnell ordered limited camera views in the Senate chamber so only presenters — not absent senators — could be spotted.
And barely a peep from Republican lawmakers.
One journalist remarked to me, “How in the world can these senators walk around here upright when they have no backbone?”
Fear has a way of bending us.
Late in the evening on day four of the trial I saw it, just 10 feet across the aisle from my seat at Desk 88, when Mr. Schiff told the Senate: “CBS News reported last night that a Trump confidant said that Republican senators were warned, ‘Vote against the president and your head will be on a pike.’” The response from Republicans was immediate and furious. Several groaned and protested and muttered, “Not true.” But pike or no pike, Mr. Schiff had clearly struck a nerve. (In the words of Lizzo: truth hurts.)
Of course, the Republican senators who have covered for Mr. Trump love what he delivers for them. But Vice President Mike Pence would give them the same judges, the same tax cuts, the same attacks on workers’ rights and the environment. So that’s not really the reason for their united chorus of “not guilty.”
For the stay-in-office-at-all-cost representatives and senators, fear is the motivator. They are afraid that Mr. Trump might give them a nickname like “Low Energy Jeb” and “Lyin’ Ted,” or that he might tweet about their disloyalty. Or — worst of all — that he might come to their state to campaign against them in the Republican primary. They worry:
“Will the hosts on Fox attack me?”
“Will the mouthpieces on talk radio go after me?”
“Will the Twitter trolls turn their followers against me?”
My colleagues know they all just might. There’s an old Russian proverb: The tallest blade of grass is the first cut by the scythe. In private, many of my colleagues agree that
- the president is reckless and unfit. They
- admit his lies. And they
- acknowledge what he did was wrong. They know
- this president has done things Richard Nixon never did. And they know that
- more damning evidence is likely to come out.
So watching the mental contortions they perform to justify their votes is painful to behold: They claim that calling witnesses would have meant a never-ending trial. They tell us they’ve made up their minds, so why would we need new evidence? They say to convict this president now would lead to the impeachment of every future president — as if every president will try to sell our national security to the highest bidder.
I have asked some of them, “If the Senate votes to acquit, what will you do to keep this president from getting worse?” Their responses have been shrugs and sheepish looks.
They stop short of explicitly saying that they are afraid. We all want to think that we always stand up for right and fight against wrong. But history does not look kindly on politicians who cannot fathom a fate worse than losing an upcoming election. They might claim fealty to their cause — those tax cuts — but often it’s a simple attachment to power that keeps them captured.
As Senator Murray said on the Senate floor in 2002, “We can act out of fear” or “we can stick to our principles.” Unfortunately, in this Senate, fear has had its way. In November, the American people will have theirs.
The South Carolina senator once put a lot of effort into cultivating an image of a reasonable, sober, sensible, moderate Republican, willing to reach out across the aisle, willing to stick up for his principles, willing to denounce Donald Trump. But today, there is no position he won’t abandon, no U-turn he won’t perform, no lie he will not tell.