I teach seminars on democracy in an age of populism at a major university in the American Midwest. Bob Woodward has just made my job that little bit harder.
First published in September 2020.
If you haven’t followed the US news over the past few days – and who’d blame you? – Woodward, the famed Watergate reporter, has just released Rage, his latest book. At the heart of Rage is a series of interviews conducted with Donald Trump last winter and spring.
In the interviews, the US president expressed his worry that the coronavirus seemed much more deadly than the typical seasonal flu. This position was at odds with Trump’s public statements, which downplayed the threat of COVID-19 and dismissed the possibility that it could spread across the US.
The book is a damning indictment. But not of the US president. His duplicity is not a surprise. Rather, it indicts Woodward, the supposedly incorruptible doyen of US journalism.
Journalism should hold the powerful to account. It should give voice to the voiceless. Superman disguised himself as a mild-mannered reporter. In All The President’s Men, Robert Redford depicted Woodward diligently exposing the crimes of the Nixon administration. More recently, Spotlight celebrated the work of the Boston Globe in exposing a pedophilia ring inside the Catholic Church.
Unfortunately, journalism is also beset by another problem: enthrallment to access and power.
Rage symbolizes this problem. Woodward kept from the public the truth about the president’s opinions about coronavirus for almost seven months. He did so at a moment when the United States was failing to prepare properly for COVID-19 and during a period when too many in this country failed to take the threat of coronavirus seriously. At a time when the practice of social distancing and mask-wearing were becoming partisan issues, Woodward could have offered clarification – backed up by taped recordings – of what the US president truly believed.
Why Woodward chose this course or action is unclear. Pressed by Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post, he explained that more context was needed for the claims than was available in February. But it’s hard to escape the conclusion that he simply prioritized book sales. After all, the revelations are all the American chattering classes have been talking about this week.
Woodward’s decision also fits into a pattern: White House officials reserve for tell-all memoirs their disquiet about decisions made by Donald Trump and continue to serve a president they believe to be unfit for office until it is convenient for them to resign.
Two recent examples illustrate this process. In The Room Where It Happened, John Bolton, a former National Security Advisor, revealed evidence about the refusal of military aid to Ukraine that could have helped Democratic senators in their impeachment of Trump earlier this year. In A Warning, an anonymous senior aide outlined efforts to limit the damage caused by Trump’s decisions and explained that officials were covering-up an apparent decline in the president’s mental acuity. In both cases, the authors have elevated their own interests far above those of the nation.
According to institutions like Pew Research, Freedom House, and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University, the years since 2008 have seen accelerating disquiet with democratic governments across much of the globe. The roots of this discontent are varied but often encompass economic stagnation, alienation from traditional politics, and unease at the rapid pace of cultural and social change.
In my course, we study the ways in which authoritarian populism takes hold within a country. In What Is Populism, Jan Werner-Muller offers a compelling explanation of this process. Muller shows how nations are vulnerable to populist movements when people feel divorced from the decision-making apparatus of their country. Many begin to suspect that a conspiracy maintains a corrupt elite in power and gravitate towards figures like Trump who claim they can relieve this burden.
Books like Woodward’s only cement these beliefs.
The implicit agenda of my course is to buttress support for the institutions of liberal democracy that try, if imperfectly, to secure equality of opportunity and the potential for advancement. Actions like those of Woodward make this task harder. Rage is a tale of cozy cronyism that damages gestures towards social cohesion. If you don’t think a book matters, look at how support for social distancing guidelines withered in Britain when No. 10 advisor Dominic Cummings was revealed to have broken not once but twice coronavirus quarantine rules.
In a review in the New York Times, Jennifer Szalai argues that the real story of Rage is of the complicity of Trump-era officials who do nothing in public even as they denounce the US president in private. Perhaps professional courtesy prevented her from extending this j’accuse to Woodward. But as his books shows, he is just as guilty of complacency and entitlement as those he condemned in print almost half a century ago.🔷
Luke Reader, Teaching Fellow, Department of History, Case Western Reserve University.
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