Bob Woodward is the most conventional of conventional reporters. He is very good at gaining access and gathering facts, but like most members of the Washington press corps, he nearly always avoids thinking through the ramifications of what he finds, even if the evidence, which he reliably piles high, demands that he think it through.
The legendary reporter was on “60 Minutes” Sunday to talk about his new book, Rage. It reveals for the first time that the president knew in February how deadly the new coronavirus was going to be—that it’s airborne and worse than the flu—but did everything in his power to prevent the public from understanding it fully. That would have been enough to warrant an interview with Scott Pelley. Then Woodward did something to my knowledge he’s never done, nor have too many in Washington.
He came to a moral conclusion.
Pelley: You’re known as the reporter who doesn’t put his thumb on the scale. And yet, at the end of this book, you do just that.
Woodward: It’s a conclusion based on evidence, overwhelming evidence, that he could not rise to the occasion with the virus and tell the truth. And one of the things that President Trump told me, ‘In the presidency, there’s always dynamite behind the door.’ The real dynamite is President Trump. He is the dynamite.
Remember that coming to a conclusion is taboo among orthodox journalists like Woodward. (And the older the reporter, generally the more orthodox they are.) Coming to a conclusion violates the news tradition of neutrality and letting readers decide. The reporter’s job is reporting facts. Moral conclusions are for editorial writers. That Woodward of all people is breaking this rule should be seen as a reckoning of sorts for a press corps complicit in the creation of a “post-truth” authoritarian presidency.
When Donald Trump speaks, every third word is a lie. Reporters keep giving him the benefit of the doubt, though. They report what he says unfiltered or weakly qualified. After more than 20,000 falsehoods (as of July), you’d think empirically minded people like members of the press corps would by now have come to the conclusion that Trump is a liar. Don’t believe him. Verify everything. They haven’t. They seem to have an almost religious belief that democracy will endure no matter how many lies poison it—that the status quo is strong and sustainable, and will outlive Trump. The press corps isn’t alone. Many Americans, even now, tend to take democracy for granted.
For granted? That flies in the face of conventional wisdom, doesn’t it? We’re told that Donald Trump’s election and that of authoritarians in Hungary, Brazil, Turkey and the Philippines are proof that people have lost faith amid a conspiracy of international crises—climate change and globalization being chief among them. Instead of reforming institutions or reviving political participation, they are turning to would-be strongmen to save them. People have too little faith in democracy, not too much.
The whole truth in this country is there are plenty of voters (most of them white, most of them affluent) who do not believe the president is dangerous to the republic. They believe it will carry on, so much so they can grind as many axes as they please. Sure, he says things no president should say, but he doesn’t believe half of them. He doesn’t believe, as he said in Nevada over the weekend, that after winning a second term, he’s going to “negotiate” a third, maybe even a fourth. He doesn’t believe these things, these voters believe, because he knows a president can’t do that, even if he wanted to. This is an “unthinking faith,” according to David Runciman, allowing people to believe democracy can withstand anything. “Far from making democracy invincible, this sort of blithe confidence makes it vulnerable,” the Cambridge scholar told The Economist in 2018. “It gives us license to indulge our grievances regardless of the consequences.”
You see where I’m going. There are plenty of voters in this country who don’t mind the president’s effort to ban Muslims, deport “illegals,” police Black people and otherwise punch down on the margins of society if they can get another tax break. They don’t mind his corruption, dereliction of duty and erosion of the rule of law. They think his critics are partisans only, or complaining for the sake of complaining. Importantly, they don’t or won’t believe their support is fueling democracy’s decline. These mostly white and mostly affluent Americans believe they are serious, respectable, reasonable and patriotic citizens. They know the president is lying but won’t act. They know he’s lying but don’t care. Either is the result of too much faith in democracy, not too little. Like the press corps, they suspend their disbelief and refuse to come to a moral conclusion.
Let’s hope Woodward’s taboo-shattering goes some way toward changing that.
John Stoehr is the editor and publisher of the Editorial Board, a newsletter about politics in plain English for normal people and the common good. He’s a visiting assistant professor of public policy at Wesleyan University, a fellow at the Yale Journalism Initiative, a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly, and a contributing editor for Religion Dispatches.