Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University, editor of “The Presidency of Barack Obama: A First Historical Assessment” and co-host of the “Politics & Polls” podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @julianzelizer. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Bob Woodward’s “Fear: Trump in the White House” is a runaway hit. The book has captured many of the Washington headlines since parts of it leaked out last week, and on Tuesday, its first day on sale, it sold more than 750,000 copies.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter offers juicy nuggets about what life is like in the Oval Office. Even with a President who shocks the nation in real time throughout the 24-hour news cycle, Woodward managed to discover some jaw-droppers, such as Gary Cohn, former director of the White House National Economic Council, literally stealing a document from Trump’s desk to protect the nation from what he viewed as potential danger.
But does Woodward’s book really capture what is so remarkable about this presidency? In some ways, for all of its detail and anonymous sources, the book is utterly predictable. Like Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury,” Woodward’s book, with much more precision, takes a deep dive into the parlor politics of Trump Land. But in doing so, he misses the big story.
Like so much of the news coverage that continually has its lens focused on political insiders, Woodward doesn’t really address why it is that a highly unstable President, whose agenda revolves around white nationalism and “America First,” can dominate US politics in 2018. Fifty years after the civil rights movement transformed the country by pushing it in a progressive direction on matters of social justice, we seem to have taken a massive step backward.
Why is this happening? The answers have less to do with the President than with everything that surrounds him. These are questions that demand the historian’s interest in context rather than the reporter’s thirst for detail. The questions need to start with the Republican Party, which has provided a safe home for the reactionary brand of politics that Donald Trump champions.
As has been well-documented, despite every offensive or false statement and tweet that comes from this White House, and shocking policies such as family separation at the border, Republicans in Congress essentially do nothing.
When serious questions have been raised about the ethical practices of the commander in chief or about how much he will do to protect our election processes, congressional Republicans haven’t acted to constrain Trump. Even as the President mounts an all-out assault on the free press, some Republicans on the Hill yell and scream but undertake no real oversight.
Partisan loyalty too often trumps political courage in an age of intense polarization. More and more Republicans have been willing and eager to have the President’s endorsement in the primaries. And so, the story of Trump has raised as many questions about the state of the GOP as it has about him.
The Trump presidency also raises serious questions about our cherished system of checks and balances. Just how much can we count on the checks to restrain an out-of-control president? Hollywood filmmakers have imagined scenarios where we end up with leaders willing to do dangerous things. But audiences tend to believe this couldn’t happen in real life.
If the most shocking stories in the Woodward book are true, and if the revelations in The New York Times anonymous op-ed about a two-track presidency are honest, then these screeds combined with everything else we have seen since January 2017 suggest there are big gaps in the mechanisms that we depend on to restrain the President.
The faith that somehow “the system” will save us in a dangerous situation might be misplaced. It is time to ask why doesn’t our constitutional system provide better safeguards? Why should we have to depend on White House officials hiding papers from the President? What has gone wrong that the stories in Woodward’s book can be true?
And what about the electorate? While it is true a large portion of the nation strongly disapproves of Trump and would rather have someone else in office, we have collectively allowed our democracy to deteriorate to the point where this kind of presidency was possible and where a leader such as him would not have to change course.
As Yoni Appelbaum argues in The Atlantic, Trump succeeded by capitalizing on the fact that American political participation and voluntary association has continued to decline since the 19th century, leaving people less experienced with democratic institutions and open to the disdain he loves to sell.
Fifty years after it seemed that George Wallace’s brand of politics was banished forever, his legacy lives on in the White House. Our political processes were so broken that a political novice with a checkered business history and claim to fame from reality television rode his way to the presidency.
While many people in the electorate were not happy with Trump or the system that produced him, and he actually lost the popular vote, the President was still able to win, thanks to the Electoral College. His victory was likely enabled by a combination of factors – including growing inequality and the uneven recovery from the Great Recession, the rot in our campaign finance system, the failure of Congress to govern effectively, the flaws of his opponent, the growth of conservative news media, the use of social media by Russian hackers and the continued popular strength of reactionary social ideas in certain parts of the nation.
Trump’s support among Republican voters is currently at 85%. The answer to the state of our electorate won’t be found in the portraits of the insiders who rule the roost in the White House.
So Woodward has once again offered a fascinating account of parlor politics, this time in the Trump White House, but he has not provided an understanding about why this all happened and why it is allowed to continue.
While this is not the story that Woodward intended to tell, it can’t be ignored since it is the only way to get to the bottom of what is going on in American politics today. We need to start looking more carefully at the big picture – understanding the trends and dynamics that created the toxic political environment that allows the presidency depicted in Woodward’s book to occur.
Until we have answers to these questions, we won’t be able to have any assurance this will turn out OK, or that after Trump’s presidency ends, his brand of politics won’t outlast him.