I’m starting to think everything we know about Bob Woodward, arguably America’s most famous living journalist, is wrong. I mean, nothing will ever erase what the Washington Post-reporter-turned-author accomplished in the 1970s, when his willingness to buck the D.C. conventional wisdom and dogged reporting with Carl Bernstein kept Watergate in the public eye until Richard Nixon was brought down. But in the half-century since, Woodward more often defines the Beltway “CW” than opposing it, and now I wonder if he’s America’s most naive journalist.
Think about it. His new tome, Rage, is not his first but his second book on President Trump, and much of it is based on not one, not two, but 19 recent conversations with POTUS 45 in which his sloppy, unfocused and weirdly starstruck subject could only see his summit with Kim Jong-Un in terms of how many TV cameras were there, as he blabbed like a 6-year-old about a no-longer top secret super weapon. And yet somehow it took the “savvy” Woodward all of this to finally reach his bombshell finding that “Trump is the wrong man for the job.”
Really, Bob? Really? That thought never crossed your mind back in 2015 and 2016 when candidate Trump was rebranding Mexican migrants as rapists, proposed to bar entry to the United States based on one’s religion, cheered on his fans when they beat up protesters, and was credibly accused by nearly 20 women of sexual misconduct, even assault? Look, I respect Woodward’s persistence and dogged questioning, but he also symbolizes a kind of denialism within elite establishment media who somehow see their own prestige and life choices threatened by such an undemocratic president and the fanaticism of the millions propping him up.
For the last two weeks, as America careens like a freight train with a slashed brake line toward a Nov. 3 meltdown, it’s been impossible to turn on the TV without watching what after four long years is now a massive “Trump outrage machine” clacking loudly on every cylinder — first over The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg’s seemingly well-sourced report that the president of the United States has called our dead soldiers “losers” and “suckers,” and then over Woodward’s revelation that Trump knew the coronavirus was deadly even as he told the public the exact opposite.
Look, I get why CNN and MSNBC would get on the Outragephone to summon the worn-out Outragemobile — none of the 43 men (Cleveland twice) who came before Trump have ever made comments or taken actions so unworthy of the presidency — but not only was I not shocked by these two huge stories, I felt completely numb. Many of us knew from the June 2015 moment that Trump stole Neil Young’s music and came down that escalator that the threat of him winning the White House and then blowing it up in broad daylight was real, perhaps inevitable. Yet the childlike ability of the punditocracy to maintain a level of shock in September 2020 continues to drown out the more important conversations America should be having on Election Eve.
Here’s three things we should be outraged about — and I’m going to give short shrift to No. 1 and No. 2 (worthy of long columns in their own right) because they, along with Trump’s historic “wrong man” unfitness — all are made possible by No. 3.
First, we should be less shocked and awed by Trump’s words than by the deeds of the equally unfit characters that 45 has now scattered through the federal government — the Homeland Security higher-ups suppressing reports about Russian election interference or right-wing terrorism, the Trumpist conspiracy theorist blocking accurate CDC info about COVID-19, or the political pressure on career Justice Department prosecutors to rush out a ginned-up preelection report targeting the Obama administration and Joe Biden. Second, the wildfires ravaging America’s West Coast — the final proof that climate change is no longer a “threat” but a daily reality killing U.S. citizens as we speak — is much more likely what our great-great-grandchildren will study about the history of the early 21st century, if we’re lucky enough to have great-great-grandchildren.
In the grimmest week since I wrote the same thing two weeks ago, someone posted to Twitter a stunning photo taken from the stands of the ballpark formerly known as the Oakland Coliseum, showing MLB ballplayers casually preparing for a game while rows of the fake, cardboard fans of our quarantined Coronavirus Era stared out impassively at apocalyptic, smoke-filled orange skies just beyond the outfield. Normally, you’d expect the End Times to be a bad omen for a president seeking reelection (heck, a middling recession denied George H.W. Bush a second term), but not in these End Times — because millions of Americans have lost their collective mind.
Maybe Trump’s neo-fascist narcissism was the big story in the fall of 2016, but the bigger story in the fall of 2020 is the mass delusion of the millions who elected him once and who are within striking distance of doing it again. I’d argue that the most important journalism of the week was neither the Woodward book nor Goldberg’s Atlantic scoop but from Time’s Charlotte Alter: “How Conspiracy Theories Are Shaping the 2020 Election — and Shaking the Foundation of American Democracy.”
Alter spoke with voters in places like Ozaukee County, Wis., who almost surely weren’t watching the TV clucking about the Woodward book because more likely they were on Facebook or wherever they determined that “an evil cabal operates tunnels under the U.S. in order to rape and torture children and drink their blood.”
Voter Kelly Ferro told Time that Trump is revealing the truth and that Americans' “eyes are being opened to the darkness that was once hidden" — referring to the QAnon conspiracy theory in which an anonymous whistleblower named "Q" (who may be, some even think, a John F. Kennedy Jr. who didn’t die in a 1999 plane crash) says Trump has been sent not only to smash “the deep state” but also to break up a child-sex ring of top Democrats and Hollywood stars.
The growing belief in conspiracy theories like QAnon — and its bold move into the mainstream by hijacking legitimate concern but also deep misunderstanding about the actual issue of sex trafficking —helps explain why voters and opinion leaders on the right are less than concerned this weekend about the coronavirus death toll nearing 200,000 and more about a Netflix movie called Cuties, an acclaimed French coming-of-age film that has been conspiracy-mangled into Hollywood (and even Barack Obama, who has a deal with Netflix) promoting pedophilia.
QAnon and its tentacles are perhaps the most overt example of an electorate where suspicion, rage and resentment is far more likely to fuel public reaction to the 2020 election — and all the concurrent crises like COVID-19 or the West Coast wildfires — than the rational responses that political science majors (like me) were wrongly trained to expect.
We see it in the growing backlash against any sort of racial reckoning in America, where thousands of football fans in Kansas City loudly booed a simple moment of silent pregame solidarity among Black and white players on the Chiefs and the Texans. We see it in the growing paranoia in Oregon, where a mass tragedy such as the wildfire that calls for a communal response has instead seen militias setting up armed checkpoints because of wild rumors about antifa. And we saw it on Saturday night at a Nevada airport where thousands of Trumpists raced like lemmings, packed together and not wearing masks, in a state that’s had high rates of COVID infection, to hear their Dear Leader and pretend the virus had never existed.
It’s why Trump seems impervious to the fallout from national dysfunction that caused 20th-century incumbent presidents like Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Bush I to lose elections. Neither sky-high unemployment nor a deadly pandemic has kept the polls from showing Trump in striking distance here in Pennsylvania, the state which — given the daunting Electoral College math — could prevent Biden’s rescue mission. My Inquirer colleague Julia Terruso visited the Western Pennsylvania outpost of Norvelt — a town literally created by the it-takes-a-village communalism of FDR’s New Deal — and found an electorate instead wrapped in a reality created by Fox News. “We don’t want our houses burned down,” a rural pastor told Terruso.
Trump may have broken all the rules, but will he break the rule in modern America that presidents who’ve been elected once tend to win a second time? — which is what happened seven out of nine tries since World War II. Trump’s political success in 2016 and possibly again in 2020 — with more than 40% of people supporting him no matter how many devastating books are written — is not based on America’s headlines but its national psyche, which is severely damaged. That’s why I’m so numb to whatever latest gross thing Trump has said, yet in a state of utter panic over the American voters and how their misinformation may decide our election.
In the short term, I hate to sound so cynical but there’s next to nothing that can be said in the next 50 days that will change the Trump-fried brains of voters in Norvelt or thousands of other communities like it. That doesn’t mean Biden cannot be elected — there’s a good chance he can — but it will take uncommon unity among the 55% of Americans who don’t like Trump, a massive focus on getting those voters to the polls and making sure their votes are counted, and a well-planned response for a scenario in which the president loses but tries to claim victory anyway.
In the long run, it’s important to remember that even a Biden victory would be only the first step in a marathon that will be needed to roll back the paranoid style in American politics. I believe it starts with a massive reform of higher education so that all young adults have some access to both learning, for the civic good, but also to career training — because the two things that will reduce conspiracy thinking are a) a more equal America, but also b) knowledge and better faith in science and facts. That will take years, not weeks — but if we don’t get started then the future “Trumps” of 2024 or 2032 are going to be a lot more outrageous than the one we have now.