Why ‘Fear’ is the perfect title for a book about Donald Trump’s first year in the White House

Posted at 1:57 PM, Sep 12, 2018
and last updated 2018-09-12 17:55:30-04

Carlos Lozada is one of the best-read people in the country. It is, after all, his job. He’s the nonfiction book critic at The Washington Post and, over the past few years, has emerged as one of the most astute, thoughtful and insightful writers on the people who write and think about politics. (His piece on the self-referential nature of Barack Obama is the best piece I have read on the former president in the past several years.) Carlos has read and written extensively about the slew of books written on President Donald Trump — those that attack him and those that pledge unflagging loyalty to him.

With Bob Woodward’s “Fear: Trump in the White House” setting the political and literary world afire, I reached out to Carlos to help me situate the Woodward tome in the broader universe of Trump tomes. Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.

Cillizza: Situate the Woodward book in the broader spectrum of Trump books we have seen published since he became a candidate.

Lozada: I think we’ve seen three broad categories of Trump-in-the-White-House books so far.

First you have the books by horrified outside observers who fear that Trump is an existential threat to democracy or truth or the American experiment. (These are books like Michiko Kakutani’s The Death of Truth or Amy Siskind’s The List.)

Second, you have sycophantic books by hard-core Trump supporters, stuff like Let Trump be Trump by Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie, or Liars, Leakers, and Liberals by Jeanine Pirro of Fox News. Newt Gingrich is a prolific contributor to this second category; his books Understanding Trump (2017) and Trump’s America (2018) are classics of the cozying, suck-up genre. (Omarosa is a rare hybrid of these two categories, the sycophant-turned-critic.) [Cillizza: Carlos’ piece on six sycophantic Trump books — and Omarosa’s Unhinged — is a great read.]

Woodward belongs in the third and most immediately useful category — journalistic efforts to explore particular aspects of the Trump presidency. Some of these books are more specific, such as Russian Roulette by David Corn and Michael Isikoff, who explore the Trump-Russia scandal, or the forthcoming book The Apprentice: Trump, Russia and the Subversion of American Democracy by my Washington Post colleague Greg Miller, who examines the full arc of that story, from the hacking of the Democrats to the Robert Mueller investigation. Woodward is different in that he doesn’t focus solely on the Russia story, trying instead offer a sense of the mood and process inside the White House across a range of issues, including trade policy, national security, and of course the Mueller investigation, too. And he brings infinitely more credibility to that inside-the-room approach than, say, Michael Wolff with Fire and Fury.

Cillizza: Woodward has done this sort of thing before with presidents. Does his approach to the Trump White House (and the book it produced) differ in any meaningful ways from the books he wrote on Bush and Obama?

Lozada: Well, he wrote two books on Obama and four books on Bush, so it might be a little early to compare his Trump book to his work on both those presidents.

A couple of contrasts: He grew more critical of Bush over the course of the four books, whereas the picture he paints of Trump is dire from the start. And his Obama books each had a central focus: policy decisions over the war in Afghanistan in Obama’s Wars and budget negotiations with the Republicans in The Price of Politics. In Fear, however, he spans lots of different battles and policy arenas. It’s more expansive, less targeted.

That said, the book that Fear really reminded me of is The Final Days, the second Nixon book by Woodward and Carl Bernstein. The depth of dysfunction inside the White House. The President’s unpredictability and moodiness. The White House’s inability to focus on the business of the nation because of the scandal of the moment. Also, some of Nixon’s lawyers are significant, recurring voices and presences in the book, just as John Dowd is in Fear.

The Final Days doesn’t get as much attention as All the President’s Men, but it’s a great read. The difference, of course, is that the Nixon presidency got there over time, whereas the Trump presidency was basically born in scandal and suspicion.

Cillizza: What did you learn from Fear? Or was it more an affirmation of what you already knew?

Lozada: A lot of the material in Fear is shocking, yet somehow not entirely surprising. We’ve gotten used to the horror stories of how this White House and this President seem to operate thanks to the ongoing reporting at The Washington Post, New York Times, CNN and others. Woodward both deepens and widens this narrative.

Where I find it especially useful is in identifying some of the recurring tendencies and preoccupations of this President. We all know, for instance, how obsessed he seems with the notion that other countries are taking advantage of the United States, but throughout this book he sees that tension purely in dollars and cents, not in larger national interests. For instance, Trump hates paying for troops and security for South Korea because he thinks it costs a lot, and it is hard for his advisers to get him to think about how the United States benefits from maintaining peace in that part of the world.

Everything is transactional to him. So you have the extraordinary scene in Fear of Defense Secretary Mattis having to explain to him that the United States cares about not just protecting its own territory and citizens, but about, you know, avoiding World War III.

Cillizza: This book is already a massive success. Books about Trump are all over best-sellers lists. Is the President saving the book publishing industry?

Lozada: It is one of the great ironies of this era that a President who proudly disdains books — and instead endlessly watches cable news — has propelled an explosion of books about the conduct and meaning of his presidency. It has gotten to the point that publishers and authors actually hope that Trump will tweet about their books, whether to praise them or, far better for sales, to criticize them.

When I became a book critic at the Post in 2015, I never imagined I’d be writing so much about Donald J. Trump. The nice thing about it, though, is that reading and writing about the Trump era doesn’t always have to mean reading and writing about Trump himself. I’m also reading about democracy and truth and identity and immigration and protest and so much more — and these are all ways about exploring the Trump era without having to focus on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. I’ve found that the best books about the Trump era are not really about Trump at all.

Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “The lingering effect of Fear on Washington will be ___________.” Now, explain.

Lozada: “The lingering effect of Fear on Washington will be confirmation of the worst fears about Trump.”

We already had the broad contours of the picture. Woodward painstakingly fills in the details and gives it an extra coat of credibility, of history and heft. In this sense, Fear is the right title for the book, maybe the only possible title. Though with another author — maybe Mark Leibovich? — I would have replaced that title with a line that Woodward attributes to Chief of Staff John Kelly, a line that captures the message, the whole thing: Crazytown.