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Bob Woodward's explosive new Trump book risks falling on deaf ears

US President Donald Trump. Photo/Getty Images

The torrent of revelations in Bob Woodward's book and from inside the White House carries the risk that Americans become desensitised to Donald Trump’s unpresidential behaviour. 

In a 2000 essay that appeared in the short-lived Talk magazine and resurfaced in his 2017 non-fiction collection The Rub of Time, British writer Martin Amis claimed that:
  • The average American spends four hours and 51 minutes a day watching porn.
  • The average non-homeowning American male spends more on porn than he does on rent.
  • Pornography accounts for 43.5% of the US gross domestic product.

Amis admitted that he’d made these “statistics” up. And he probably could have got away with it because “the true figures are similarly wild, similarly dizzying, similarly through the roof”. Although mindful of the frequently invoked caveat that the pornography industry exaggerates the size of everything, it does seem to be the case that porn is bigger than Hollywood and more profitable than America’s big three professional sports – baseball, basketball and football – combined.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

We’re entering similar territory with regard to “shock” revelations about Donald Trump’s conduct and the goings-on at the heart of his Administration, the latest of which are revealed in fabled reporter Bob Woodward’s book Fear: Trump in the White House and the New York Times op-ed piece written by a “senior figure” in the administration who understandably prefers to remain anonymous.

These dispatches from the front line contain some arresting detail, but they are essentially variations on a theme that emerged very early in Trump’s presidency. And just as pornography is so pervasive that no estimates of its footprint and financial clout, however improbable, can be dismissed out of hand, the madness of and around King Donald is now so apparent that we’re disposed to believe almost anything:

  • Whenever three or more White House staff members find themselves in a secure space, they spontaneously break into a song, “Do you know the way out of Crazytown?”, set to the tune of Dionne Warwick’s 1968 hit Do You Know the Way to San José?
  • White House aides steal documents off Trump’s desk to prevent him signing off on half-baked, ill-advised measures.
  • Attendees at Trump rallies who are caught on camera exhibiting scepticism or scorn are ushered out of frame.
  • Trump’s mental decline is such that he no longer remembers what the J in Donald J Trump stands for.

Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward. Photo/Getty Images

Two of the above are what Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway would call “alternative facts” – I made them up. The other two are true.

Former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson concluded her review of Woodward’s book with what she presumably felt was a telling quote: “Trump had one overriding problem that [his ex-lawyer John] Dowd knew but could not bring himself to say to the President: ‘You’re a f---ing liar.’”

The review ran in the Washington Post, where Woodward has worked since 1971. For some time now, the Post has kept a running tally of the President’s false or misleading statements; as of August 1, it stood at 4229, an average of 7.6 a day. As revelations go, “Trump is a liar” is on a par with “Vladimir Putin is a tricky customer” and “Madonna is an exhibitionist”.

Likewise, Trump’s reaction to the Woodward book and the NYT op-ed was entirely predictable. Fear, he said, is “total fiction” and presents “a picture of a person that is literally the exact opposite of the fact”. Actually, the real significance of Fear is that a vastly experienced and credible chronicler of the presidency has confirmed, at length and in detail, the disturbing portrayal of Trump as President in Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, Omarosa Manigault Newman’s Unhinged and countless reports generated by the White House press corps.

Role model: Louis XIV. Photo/Getty Images

Channelling Louis XIV

Trump’s demand for an investigation to identify “Anonymous”, with a view to charging him or her with treason, reflects his well-documented tendency to channel Louis XIV, the Sun King, who ruled France from 1643 to 1715 and declared “L’État, c’est moi” (I am the State) as he went about consolidating absolute monarchical rule.

Trump has engaged in so much unpresidential behaviour there’s a risk, looking ahead to the November mid-term elections, that reporting and criticism of it are falling on deaf ears. Or, as psychologist David Feldman put it, “habituation” is setting in: “One of the oldest and most predictable phenomena observed by psychologists is habituation: the tendency of almost all organisms, from amoebas to human beings, to cease to respond to a stimulus after it has been repeated over and over.”

In a similar, though more cynical, vein, Republican political strategist Alex Castellanos has argued that Trump is now virtually scandal-proof: “In an intensely polarised world, you can’t burn down the same house twice.”

But perhaps the opposite is true: rather than becoming comfortably numb, perhaps Americans are tiring of what 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney called “absurd third-grade theatrics” and the damage they do to the US’s self-image and international standing.

Asked what he made of Trump, whom he’s known for years, golfer Tiger Woods replied, “He’s the President of the United States and you have to respect the office. No matter who’s in office – you may like, dislike the personality or the politics, but we must all respect the office.” Well, Tiger didn’t get where he is today – an enormously rich black man in a predominantly white, quintessentially establishment sport – by courting political controversy. However, his attempt to adopt a position to which no fair-minded, non-partisan person could object highlights the dilemma confronting fair-minded, non-partisan people: on an almost daily basis Trump demonstrates that he has no respect for the office of President.

The battle lines are being drawn, as shown by former President Barack Obama re-entering the fray. The decision to ignore the convention that past presidents should stay out of electoral politics is not without risk: it helps the Republicans to cast the mid-terms as politics as usual, us against them, as opposed to a referendum on the crisis playing out in the White House. Obama obviously feels, though, that at this fraught moment in the republic’s history, decorous passivity is not an option.

This article was first published in the September 22, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.