Bookshelf

What’s Scarier than Trump?

With its people-centric narrative and saucy style, Bob Woodward’s Fear provides a masterclass in contemporary American politics.

Bob Woodward of Watergate fame is more than just one of the world’s best investigative journalists and writers. He is a consummate and credible story-teller with deep insights into US politics, intelligence and defence policy. A liberal and fearless advocate of all that has made America an enduring global power barring its futile and expensive military interventions, his recent million-copy bestseller Fear: Trump in the White House is more than just a book about the Trump presidency. It is about a country that is deeply divided and unsure about how to adapt to the rapid changes in geopolitics, demographic realities, trade and the nature of warfare. Most importantly, the book also reflects how the US sees itself in the existing world order.

It was interesting to dissect the publicity and public discourse in the US media prior to the release of the book. Clearly the selling point was the title, Fear: Trump in the White House, and the excited anticipation of how the book would reveal the chaos within the White House and the policy paralysis that ensued. The sleaze, ‘tweetonomics’ and in-fighting that Woodward was said to have captured in his inimitable racy style was to be the icing on the cake. When I flipped through the book, apart from all the above there is also a masterclass in contemporary US politics and its engagement with the rest of the world.

The title is a sales gimmick and does not do justice to the depth and authenticity that rings through the book. Make no mistake: the book is not an indictment of the Trump presidency, nor does it seem to be an attempt to discredit Donald Trump in the eyes of the American people, even though there is enough masala, and a liberal use of expletives. It is an honest attempt to offer a close insider’s view of President Trump’s attempts to come to grips with a job that almost all his predecessors were trained and mentored for years by the ‘system.’

Essentially structured along three chronological themes, the first part races through Trump’s meteoric rise as the Republican candidate for the 2016 presidential elections. The change in momentum in the race when Steve Bannon came in as his chief strategist and captured the restive mood of a large chunk of the electorate by reinforcing Trump’s hyper-nationalist ‘America First’ narrative is crisp and interesting. With three compelling right-wing Republican themes of cutting down immigration, bringing back manufacturing and getting out of pointless wars, Woodward portrays him as Trump’s knight in shining armour who outmanoeuvres and ambushes Hilary Clinton on the last lap of the presidential race.

In the second part of the book, Woodward trains his lens on the rather unconventional way Trump chose the heavyweights in his cabinet. He grudgingly argues that Trump chose capable and highly competent professionals like Tillerson (Secretary of State), Mattis (Secretary of Defence), Gary Cohn (Chief Economic Advisor) and key members of his White House Staff (Priebus and Porter). However, he is scathing in his indictment of the lack of synergy and consensus within the Trump administration as it went about its business of running the country, constrained as they were by the president’s unpredictability, disruptive strategies and penchant to be held hostage by the election promises he made.

Woodward writes much about the stabilising influence of Defence Secretary and retired four-star Marine Corps General Mattis, who he clearly admires for his intellectual acumen, steadfastness and ability to hold Trump’s attention on key issues. He also spends much time on the contribution of senior US military leadership (serving and retired) in reinforcing US commitment to its global responsibilities in the pursuit of a ‘rules-based’ world order. Their calming influence during turbulent times like the Charloteville riots speaks well of the military as a strong pillar of statecraft and comes out clearly in the narrative. In this respect, one could relate to the ethos of the Indian military, which is known for its inclusive and apolitical ethos. What is also commendable about the second part of the book is Woodward’s ability to embed key aspects of US foreign policy, economic and security challenges, the evolving crisis with North Korea and Iran, deteriorating relations with NATO, trade wars and much more. India, though, figures very scantily in the book with PM Modi being portrayed as among the few world leaders President Trump got along with.

The third part of the book, while continuing to paint a sweeping landscape of events in the second year of the Trump presidency, tends to gravitate excessively towards the personal travails, moods and outburst of the president as seen through the eyes of his constantly-changing staff in the White House. Woodward’s treatment of Bannon’s exit from Trump’s inner circle appears to point at a fair element of pragmatism that Trump displayed after realising that there was no way in which he could push a ‘far-right’ agenda. Though Woodward tries to be neutral about Trump’s second year and the incremental implementation of his election agenda, there is an exasperating tone that may reflect the mood of the intelligentsia and the globalists within policy circles and academia, but still rings true for large sections of those who supported him in 2016.

With his people-centric narrative and saucy style, Woodward will continue to appeal to a wide cross-section of readers. For the serious reader, put aside the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the principal protagonist, and what you have is a very real view of what it means to run the oldest democracy in the world in turbulent times. Who said Indian democracy was chaotic?

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About the author

Arjun Subramaniam

Arjun Subramaniam is a retired Air Vice Marshal from the IAF and is currently a Visiting Professor at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.