Friday, September 24, 2021

Peril (The Book)

There seems to be no limit to our appetite for Trump-related reporting. Different accounts have focused on different aspects of the Trump phenomenon, and in fact there has been no end of new revelations about aberrations and deviations from normal predictable presidential behavior and governance to keep more and more authors busy. To my mind, one of the best such accounts to date has been Carol Leoning and Philip Rucker's I Alone Can fix It: Donald Trump's Catastrophic Final Year, largely because of its focus on the pandemic, which may well be remembered as one of Trump's most disastrous (and deadly) departures from normal predictable presidential behavior and governance. 

Now we have the dean of such presidential reporting, Bob Woodward, teamed up now with reporter Robert Costa, whose presence on TV has been much missed since he bowed out of Washington Week on January 1. Woodward and Costa have given us Peril - completing Woodward's Trump trilogy of Fear (2018) and Rage (2020).

Much of their account is familiar. After all, we already know the story - not just from books but from having lived through it so recently ourselves. We are familiar with the ongoing threat Trump (and his willing collaborators in the Republican party) have posed to American constitutional governance through his demonstrated indifference to traditional norms of presidential behavior, his bizarre cult of strength (or at least the appearance thereof), his extreme divisiveness, and his unwillingness to respect dissent and the results of legal elections. This we already know, but the book is nonetheless filled with new revelations about just how bad it all really was. Hence, Woodward and Costa commence their account with the now famous (and in some quarters controversial) actions of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Mark Milley to mitigate the threat of Trump starting a war or otherwise employing military force overseas to help keep himself in power. Trump, Milley feared, might be looking for what he called a "Reichstag moment." 

Unsurprisingly, since these revelations have come out, Milley's actions have bizarrely been condemned by some in the name of "civilian control of the military." That ignores the historical precedents for Milley's actions, not to mention the inconvenient fact that the constitution never actually grants the President the power to make war on his own and that the civilian war making power is actually invested in congress, a power presidents have usurped since 1950. In fact, whenever the "checks and balances" become imbalanced (e.g., when Congress chronically failed to fulfill its responsibilities under the 14th and 25th amendments), other governmental actions step in to compensate (in the case of civil rights, it was the judiciary).

We also hear from Woodward and Costa about the successful resistance of others to some of Trump's more extreme maneuvers. Most dramatically, we learn how hard Trump tried in the run-up to January 6 to get Vice President Pence to overturn the election, how the perennially submissive Pence struggled to find his way, and how former Vice President Dan Quayle (who had to announce his own defeat on January 6, 1993) instructed Pence on his constitutional duty to do no more than open the votes and count them. 

But, in a sense, Woodward and Costa have written two books. There is the book about the dangerous goings on in the White House and the peril Trump posed to the country. Woodward's technique of cultivating inside sources serves him especially well here. But the authors also shift between alternative narratives and so also give us a second book within the book. That second book is an account of Joe Biden’s campaign, continuing the story beyond January 20 into the early months of the Biden Administration. Thus the book highlights how Biden successfully campaigned as the anti-Trump, how he was - as Congressman Jim Clyburn claimed - "the only person who can beat Donald Trump." The authors quote Mitch McConnell on how “Being Donald Trump” was enough for Trump to lose in November. “Trump’s personality was his biggest problem and from a personality point of view, Joe [Biden] was the opposite of Trump.” In this book, Biden appears as an ambitious president determined to heal the country not only from the pandemic and its multiple effects, but also from Trumpism.

The book thus highlights the contrast between these two ambitious men and their very different ambitions. Trump is all about himself. Biden has beliefs about the country and its history and about how to use politics to achieve actual ends. To the extent that those ends are more conventional, they invite more conventional critique. If Trump is Biden's alternative at a symbolic level, Senator Mtich McConnell is his practical political challenge. According to McConnell, Biden is "doing what every Democratic president wants to do, which is to push this country as far left as possible, as rapidly as possible. They all want to be the next FDR.”

But the two challenges are intertwined. If Biden is stymied in accomplishing anything in the practical political order in his effort to improve actual Americans' lives, I wonder what other alternative might there be other than the continuation of Trumpist grievance politics with all that that entails. What is "populism," after all but a response to the failure of democracy to deliver on its promises?

Meanwhile there is still Trump himself. Biden faces "Ford’s dilemma: How do you get the country to move on? How do you have your own presidency?" So the book concludes with a question and a warning: "Could Trump work his will again? Were there any limits to what he and his supporters might do to put him back in power? Peril remains."

No comments:

Post a Comment