The nation flirts with crisis. Donald Trump has upended conventional rules of politics. Normalcy is, at best, a blur on the political horizon. What happened? Where are we going?
In troubled times, exploring the past identifies new reference points where we anchor our thoughts and illuminate a future. Is there a guide?
In 1972, an apparently botched burglary attempt occurred at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, DC. Pursuing the story, a pair of Washington Post reporters exposed the Watergate scandal, resulting in the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
Bob Woodward’s new book “Fear: Trump in the White House” is important for understanding the currently polarized political crisis. Woodward is one of the two reporters (the other Carl Bernstein) who unraveled the Watergate story. He traveled this path before, and he and Bernstein wrote a book about it in 1974 called “All the President’s Men.”
Woodward’s latest book is important because, simply, he is who he is: a widely accepted truthful chronicler of events, not a fabricator of “fake news.” Much like “All the President’s Men,” Woodward’s first book, “Fear,” his 19th, has lessons for Democrats and Republicans alike.
The Electoral College
Democrats believe they lost the 2016 election by accident — a fluke known as the Electoral College. True, Democrat Hillary Clinton won the popular vote and lost the electoral vote. Was this an unanticipated accident? Woodward reports the Trump campaign understood this possibility at the very beginning. Trump insider Kellyanne Conway, who Democrats often dismiss for her embrace of “alternative facts,” advised Trump’s strategy team at the start that they should concentrate on the electoral vote and ignore the big states, Woodward reports. Trump made Conway his campaign manager.
Conway was right. The Democrats ran their 2016 campaign as a profit-making enterprise benefitting political consultants in the big states which had high-priced advertising markets. The analytic data told the Republicans they could get more bang for the buck in small states.
Scouting the Opposition
Woodward explains that the Trump campaign identified weakness in the Democrats and highlighted these negatives. Of Clinton, Conway tells Trump, “You are running against the most joyless candidate in presidential history.” Trump campaign CEO Steve Bannon adds, “Even when telling the truth, she sounded like she was lying to you.”
The Democrats countered in 2016 with a smooth, well-manicured corporate campaign managed by the Podesta brothers, John and Tony, and David Brock. Longtime Clinton insider James Carville lingered in the background. According to Woodward, the Trump campaign had the opposition well scoped out. At critical junctures in the campaign Trump’s people offset his tremendous weaknesses by claiming far greater weaknesses in their opposition.
Woodward takes us inside the Trump campaign as it addressed the infamous “Access Hollywood” tapes, where Trump bragged about groping women. The recordings were thought by many, including Trump’s running mate Mike Pence, to be a fatal blow to the Republican campaign.
However, Bannon and Conway deflected the problem to Trump’s opponent. At a presidential debate between Trump and Clinton, Bannon, with much fanfare, placed four women in the audience who had accused Mrs. Clinton’s husband Bill of far worse behavior. One said to the press, “Mr. Trump may have said some bad words but Bill Clinton raped me and Hillary Clinton threatened me.” This quote became a continuous loop on FOX news the next day.
Every tactical error of the Democrats was exploited. Woodward reports that the Trump campaign analytics team had found that the Obama family was Mrs. Clinton’s strongest asset — the public loved all four Obamas. Trump’s people were surprised that the Democrats did not use the Obamas more effectively on the campaign trail.
Out of Control
Since the election, the Trump Oval Office has been seen as a cabal of backstabbing, conniving ideologues. Woodward reports this is true. The Trump team is a thousand points of discordant right-wing light, finding a modicum of coherence in Trump’s persona.
When it comes to his own family, Trump views his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner as perfect expressions of the Democratic opposition. He refers to them as “moderate Democrats from New York,” according to Woodward. In Oval Office strategy discussions, he uses them as a barometer predicting how national Democrats would react.
Woodward presents Trump as an out-of-control, self-centered egomaniac, insulting to his closest loyal advisers. Chaos reigns in the confines of the Oval Office. There are no dampers on extreme behavior. Trump is dangerous.
Woodward, once again, has done his country the greatest service. Hope flickers faintly. The 2018 elections are less than a month away.n
Robert M. Nelson is a member of the California Democratic Party Central Committee.