Now I understand why Trump refuses to have a dog in the White House. There’s no need: he is his own fawning poodle and envenomed cur.
“I love this guy,” says Trump when granting access to Bob Woodward. “Even though he writes shit about me. That’s OK.” It’s the creed of a grovelling lap dog, and Trump follows up with flattering licks and whiny appeals to have his belly scratched. “Honey, I’m talking to Bob Woodward!” he proudly announces when Melania interrupts one of their phone calls, and he even imparts whispered nuclear secrets in the hope that this upright, fanatically factual journalist – who began his career by exposing the Watergate burglary and thus scuttled Nixon’s presidency – will relax into an obsequious court reporter. Yet when closeted with his harried aides or beleaguered cabinet members, Trump mutates into the carnivorous hound of the Baskervilles. Unleashed by his executive power, he snarls, incoherently froths and, in scenes witnessed by Woodward’s sources, runs around yelping “Holy shit!” or “I’m fucked!” A better title for Rage, perhaps, would be Rabid.
“I bring rage out,” Trump tells Woodward in one of their early encounters. Like every statement he makes, it was a boast. Much as he dotes on adulation, he is equally happy to be loathed, and he regales Woodward with video clips of his opponents glaring at him during his State of the Union address last winter: “See the hate!” he says, weirdly elated. Trump fancies that the rage he incites in the mobs at his rallies is a crusading zeal; actually it’s a provocation to armed riot, and it makes nonsense of his defensive claim that he “played down” the threat of the coronavirus so as to “show calmness”.
Trump’s repetitive bluster sucks up all the air in the room and reduces auditors to stifled silence
All the same, he tells Woodward that he’s uncertain whether his gift for enraging people is “an asset or a liability”. A veterinarian could settle that: Trump does seem to be suffering from an inflammation of the doggy brain. Having tracked his distempered antics all year, Woodward ends with a solemn reminder of the president’s constitutional duty “to warn, protect”. Trump failed to function as the nation’s guard dog: he was alerted to the imminence of a deadly pandemic in January, yet went on officially pooh-poohing Covid-19 as a hoax concocted by the Democrats. He remains a menace to public health, so shouldn’t the poor deranged creature be put down?
While still in spaniel mode, Trump allowed Woodward to record their interviews, so this is an oral history in which a self-obsessed but blithely unself-aware blabbermouth blows the whistle on himself. Woodward’s transcription of their talks confirms Trump’s mental murk, his verbal muddle, and a concentration span that Dr Anthony Fauci reckons to be “a minus number”. Listeners reach for outlandish metaphors to characterise Trump’s mazy unfinished sentences and zigzagging detours: Fauci is bemused by his habit of “hopscotching” between unrelated topics, General Jim Mattis likens his digressions to “Seattle freeway off-ramps to nowhere”, Andrew McCabe of the FBI pictures “spiral rants”, and Woodward imagines him “whipsawing from one statement to the opposite”.
But there is a method in this maundering logorrhoea. At its crudest, Trump’s repetitive bluster sucks up all the air in the room and reduces auditors to stifled silence. “I’m comfortable,” he says when questioned about his nonexistent policy for dealing with the virus. “I’m comfortable. I’m comfortable.” Later the contagion is wished away in an almost musical crescendo: “It’s gonna go. It’s gonna leave. It’s gonna be gone. It’s gonna be eradicated.” In this specimen of magical thinking, Covid-19 is given three chances to depart of its own free own will; when it fails to do so, a Latin word is deployed to eject it. The monologue is for Trump an autocratic form. “The ideas are mine, Bob,” he insists. “The ideas are mine. Want to know something? Everything’s mine. You know, everything is mine.” A self-contradicting rhetoric allows him to take equal credit for both success and failure. Recommending hydroxychloroquine, he shrugs: “It may not work, and it may work. OK? But that’s OK. We’ve ordered millions, we have millions, we’re stocked.” Notice how the millions – of exactly what? – automatically graduate from being on order to being already in stock. And always he attaches his mantra “but we’ll see what happens”, a get-out codicil that abandons any pretence of control.
For the most part, Woodward listens politely, correcting Trump’s assertions when he can get a word in. But in their last interview, the journalist turns into a historian, needing to pass judgment rather than simply keep up with the helter-skelter pace of events. He asks Trump how the presidency has changed him; incapable of introspection, Trump vanishes down an inconsequential off-ramp. Next Woodward entreats him to show sympathy for the grievances of under-privileged Americans. “I’m not feeling the love,” glowers Trump, angry that populism has not guaranteed popularity.
When a magazine article recently disclosed that he sneers at soldiers killed in action as “suckers” and “losers”, Trump in a flare-up of rage declared: “Only an animal would say things like that.” Yes indeed, an animal said them: the slurs were verified quotes from Trump at his beastliest. Although he considers the generals he appointed to be “a bunch of pussies”, this mad dog turns out to be taking orders from a grinning feline. In a smart but blackly nihilistic insight, Jared Kushner explains Trump’s conduct by paraphrasing the Cheshire Cat’s advice to Lewis Carroll’s Alice: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will get you there”, which to me sounds like a prescription for navigating in a demolition derby, not a guide to governance.
Having allowed Trump to defame and disqualify himself, Woodward concludes that he is the wrong man for the job of president; I’d add that someone so thoughtless, so unfeeling and so orange-tinted hardly qualifies for membership of the human race. And come to think of it, my opening premise is an insult to the brave, fond, ever-faithful canine species.
• Rage by Bob Woodward is published by Simon and Schuster (£25). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15